May 10, 2023 at 10:08 a.m.

The other mother

Lessons from less-than-perfect mothers


By Diane Cameron | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

There was a scene in every card store this week. Men and women were silently facing rows of cards, picking them up — one by one — reading and sighing. Buying a Mother’s Day card is not easy.

Even those who had great moms often can’t find just the right card, and the rest of us who had complicated mothers and complicated relationships, find the process agonizing.

But even as children — of all ages — struggle to summarize their maternal relationship in a card, those of us on the receiving end have mixed feelings too. Most of us know we don’t come close to the platitudes in those greeting cards. What is a good mother?

On this day that celebrates patience, kindness and sacrifice many of us squirm remembering our less-than-ideal maternal moments.

Mothers who hurt their children are a painful topic. The reality of mothers’ hostile impulses against their children is old news in psychological circles, but we rarely allow parents to admit those feelings.

Thank goodness, most of us don’t act on our thoughts, but some mothers have struggled with the limits and lost. When we hear their stories many of us know — in the privacy of our hearts — that it was just the grace of God, a reliable babysitter, and money in the bank that kept us from taking their place.

So maybe we should, especially today, have some compassion for the mothers who lost it, the women who did the unthinkable: they hurt their own child. If some mothers weren’t so newsworthy for their sheer failure at mothering the rest of us would not know where to draw the line in self-judgment. We can count ourselves lucky and a little grateful that we may have slapped but didn’t shove, screamed but didn’t hit, or cursed but did not kill. When we react to a child-abuse horror story in the news with — “Can you imagine? — the truth is that most of us can.

We owe a debt to those mothers because they show us the outside limit from which to measure our parenting. The “bad” mothers relieve us of the shadowy fear we all carry.

We can’t talk about bad mothers without mentioning Medea; the mythological woman who killed her kids to punish their philandering father. But recall how Medea got to her breaking point: a world tour of abuse, abandonment and humiliation. After being dumped in a strange country with no way home, Medea lost it. That story is a myth but, as with all myths, it points to something very real in the human psyche.

When we hear about women who hurt their children a healthy mother has to stop and ask herself, “How did that woman get there?” Nobody starts out wanting to hurt a child. It’s baby steps all the way.

Every mother who lost it at least once, or who did something she swore she’d never do, can be grateful for everything that keeps her from crossing over to the territory of a terrible mother. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist, wrote: “If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and we could separate them from us and destroy them, but the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” That includes yours and mine.

So, for Mother’s Day let’s thank the good mothers but also show a moment of compassion for the “Medeas” who in their tragic solution to life’s problems show us where we ought not to go.

Diane Cameron works at Catholic Charities of the Albany Diocese and lives in Guilderland. You can reach her at [email protected]


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