As a young-ish woman who is very vocal about not wanting to have kids, I have a lot of experience dealing with strangers who believe my reproductive decisions are stupid, wrong, and something I will regret as soon as I stop being a moron (date TBA). I have so much experience with this, in fact, that I've gotten pretty good at spotting the subtext in seemingly "innocent" comments about my perma-barren state. For instance, "You'll probably change your mind later" usually includes the unspoken follow-up "...once you get a little older and realize that DEATH IS IMMINENT-ISH!" Similarly, the classic "But you're so smart, it's a shame you're not passing on those genes!" often comes with a subtextual side dish of "...and I'm afraid of the population growth figures regarding various groups of people that I believe have less worthwhile genes than you, a middle class white lady."
But recently, I've been thinking about one comment that is set up to be a compliment, not a criticism, of women who are thinking of skipping kids: "But you'd be such a good mom!" When this comment has been flung in my personal direction, I've always shrugged it off, because I know it to be a blatant lie. I would not make a good mother — and anyone who has spent even 20 minutes around me when my blood sugar is low knows this. Plus, I would assume that wanting to actually have children would be the first qualifying activity in the Good Mom Olympics, so I'm out of the running from the start.
I don't feel any guilt or shame about not being inclined towards parenthood — it's just who I am. Because of this, I've never spent much time mentally unpacking what the phrase actually means. But recently, when I told a close relative that I wasn't having kids, and he told me that he thought I'd be a good mom, a lightbulb went off. He wasn't actually talking about potential parental qualities I possessed, like my attention span (short), fuse (even shorter), or tolerance for viewing cartoons where adorable baby animals learn an important lesson (non-existent). He was telling me that he thought I was a good person.
On the one hand, I was a little touched; it's obviously nice to be called a good person, even by a family member who is kind of societally obligated to say it. But at the same time, I realized that the equation that he and so many other people make — between being a good person and being a good mother — sets a dangerous precedent. Here's why.
1. It Makes The Actual Work Of Motherhood Invisible
Sometimes, when we say someone would "make a good mother," we're genuinely applauding skills they possess — like, say, being able to weather a sleepless night with good humor and zero desire to fall down weeping on public transit the next morning — that might be useful for a parent to have.
However, more often, when we tell women they'd "make a good mother," we're praising their overall character. Think of advice and articles that essentially equate just having a good personality with being a good mother. If you're an Old Person like myself, think of that line in Alanis Morrissette's "You Oughta Know," where she remarks dismissively of an ex's classy new girlfriend, "Does she speak eloquently/And would she have your baby?/I'm sure she'd make a really excellent mother."
Of course, not being a jerk is a valuable asset for any parent-to-be. But encoded in these comments is the thought, "All you need to be a great parent is a good heart. And the only reason I could imagine someone taking a pass on being a parent is because they don't have a good heart." This hurts the childfree among us because it furthers the notion that we don't have kids because there's something "wrong" with us emotionally — because in equating being a good person with being a good parent, there's not much room to make sense of the actions of a non-parent.
But it hurts mothers, too, by implying that parenting is not hard work that requires focus, drive, determination, and any other skills you have to cultivate. Imagining that being a good mom is as simple as being a good, kind person erases all the hard work that actually goes in to being a good mom — and makes it easier for our culture to deny mothers flextime at work, additional help around the house, or any other "extras" that would imply that raising kids is anything more than the natural undertaking of a decent person.
2 ... And It Makes The Choice To Become A Mother Invisible, Too
You have probably noticed that American culture views motherhood through a series of impossible contradictions: Everyone can and should have kids (and then be brutally criticized about every decision they make in child-rearing)! Raising children is simple, you don't need to overthink it (but if you don't basically dedicate your entire life to watching your every parental move, your child will almost definitely grow up into a weirdo whose only friend is a soiled wig they found in a dumpster)! The idea that child-rearing is somehow intuitive (and thus, any problems you run into over the course of doing it are due to your own flawed character) is built into the "you'd make a good mom" comment: you'll be a good mom because you're good, not because of any specific choices you made.
And that includes the actual choice to be a mom. Rarely is "you'd be a great mom" followed by "...you know, if you want to, and either choice is equally valid!" Motherhood isn't framed as an option there; it's set up as the baseline of normalcy. That not only sets up women who don't have kids as "abnormal" — it also erases the fact that many women who did become mothers actively chose it, and that maybe part of the reason they're such good mothers is because it was a pursuit they felt passionate about and drawn to. A baby doesn't just randomly land on your shoulder because you're pure of heart, like a bluebird in an old cartoon. Broad cultural discussions of motherhood often erase this fact — when in reality, for many, parenthood is a calling the same as religious service or a career in the arts: something that will make life a bit difficult but that you know is right for you.
3. Wanting To Have Kids Is Not Inherently Morally Good Or Bad
I know, I know, we have all known people whose personal reasons for having kids might seem less than solid to us (pleasing their parents, feeling less lonely, winning a very high-stakes bet with your roommate, etc). But the act of having children, or not having children, does not carry any inherent moral weight — it just is. You're not a good or bad person for having them or not having them.
But our culture paints being a mom as a moral good. This not only sets her up to be contrasted with the "bad" childless woman — it also helps people get out of respecting motherhood as the hard job that it is. By this logic, if having kids is inherently "good," then parents shouldn't ask for time off, flex time, or on-site childcare from their jobs — because parenthood is simply a form of "morally good" self-sacrifice.
4. Our Achievements Should Be Appreciated On Their Own, Not Because The'd Make Us "Good Moms"
It's not just that other people's definitions of "good motherhood" are generally irrelevant to us personally — it's also that playing the "good mom" card is often a way to minimize women's actual achievements. If you want to compliment a coworker's empathy? Just compliment their empathy! You don't need to couch it in terms of their future reproductive potential. If you want to tell me I'm a good person, just tell me I'm a good person. If you want to compliment a woman who works with children on her professional abilities, you can just tell her, "Wow, you're so great with these kids!" She won't be offended by your lack of commentary on how she might eventually do with her own kids; why, she might even be flattered that you're complimenting her on a professional skill that she worked hard to develop! Who knows! Crazier things have happened!
5. What The Hell Is A "Good Mom" Anyway?
On this topic, I defer to the experts — actual people with kids, aka the only people who should actually be thinking about whether or not they'd make good moms. As Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., author of The Mother Dance , said in a Parents article on the worries of moms-to-be, "All women wonder whether they'll be a good mother, but this is a culturally induced fear...Society polarizes mothers as either 'good' or 'bad,' but if you observe most of them over time, you see that they're both good and bad."
The idea of a "good mother" is more culturally loaded than most people realize when they're making off-hand comments about, say, your deft way with a food processor. It's not a compliment; it's a cultural fantasy of motherhood and womanhood — and, like most of those kinds of fantasies, it only serves to hurt actual women.
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