Why Do We Always Feel Like We’re Screwing Up As Moms?

“I’m such a bad mom.” Five words we tell ourselves, veiled in the feeling that we’re just not doing it right. The truth is, with the bar of motherhood set so impossibly high, there really is no doing it right, all the time, in every way. And now, in the throes of a global pandemic, the bar has shifted even higher. If you, too, are making meals out of old cereal, abandoning screen-time limits, and, you know, are occasionally terrified about what the future holds, you’re not alone. No Bad Moms is a series about not just lowering the bar, but ditching it completely. It’s about finding the good mom within all of us. And most of all, honoring that in each other, on Mother’s Day and EVERY day. So, please share your stories about what it’s like to be a mom right now with #nobadmoms, because we see you. And, no matter what, we think YOU are an inspiration.
Photo: Courtesy of Christene Barberich.
No matter how joyful, harrowing, or blissfully uneventful your path to parenthood might have been, nagging feelings of doubt have plagued us all. The expectation that we must always know what to do, how to feel, and what to plan for — even if, in most cases, it’s something we’ve never before encountered — is the root of so much wild anxiety… and judgment, both in ourselves and other parents on the path. 
If we’re being really honest, most of us occasionally feel like bad moms, especially these days when many parents have to show up every day (all day) as caregiver, educator, cook, entertainer, and friend. And, what if you also have a full-time job, or are dealing with financial insecurity, or have a sick relative or friend, or are even sick yourself?  
Whether we want to admit it or not, not knowing what we’re doing half the time — and rarely having the space or freedom to discuss it — can make us feel isolated in our own worlds. And ultimately, our own biggest critics. It’s okay to say it: Being a mom is so much harder than we thought it would be. And, it’s quite possible that being in quarantine has exacerbated those feelings of doubt and self-criticism, especially when it seems like so many other parents on social media are whipping up gourmet meals out of pantry scraps
Why do we always feel like we’re doing it wrong, and why do we always need someone else to tell us we’re doing a good (enough) job, so we’ll actually believe it? 
The perpetual feeling of being a bad mom is something we’ve talked about with you, our audience, and with each other. Because even if you’re not a mom yet, or have no plans of becoming one, this idea that we are never good enough no matter how hard we try is something most women wrestle with — no kid necessary. And, so we wanted to share a recent conversation between two of Refinery29’s editors, Carley Fortune and Christene Barberich, who believe the more we advocate that there simply are #nobadmoms, the sooner we can start believing that the job we’re doing, no matter what kind of day it is or the circumstances we’re dealing with, isn’t just good enough, but is truly great. 
Carley Fortune: My three-year-old is trying to bust into my room right now, but I locked the door so let’s start. I've got a bunch of questions for you about No Bad Moms, the series Refinery29 is launching about throwing out the impossibly high bar that’s set for mothers... [Toddler screams in the background.] This tantrum is…
Christene Barberich: Just life, right now.
Carley: Yes, this is life right now. Well, why don't we just dive in. Where did the idea for No Bad Moms come from?
Christene: It was at the end of last year, when I was in London having some wine with a few colleagues and a woman who worked at Dove, and I found out she’s a new mother of triplets. She was talking about what it’s like to take care of multiples — things that I'd never considered before about childcare, the quantity of food that she had to prepare, and the degree of pressure she was under at her job. I immediately felt like a bad mom because I have just one child, and I'm constantly trying to keep my head above water. I realized that it's my default to feel like I'm always doing the wrong thing, I'm thinking the wrong thing, I'm feeling the wrong way, I'm not appreciating something enough in the moment, I'm not using my time better. 
Carley: You mean, you feel that way as a mother?
Christene: Yes, there’s something about new motherhood, at least from my experience, that made me question myself so harshly (more harshly than usual, I think). I literally scrutinize every single action and every single thought. It seemed impossible to escape this idea that I wasn't doing a good job. And that I would not do a good job. It was kind of a finite thing, like, "You will inevitably be a bad mother." Then it occurred to me, at that table that night, what if we all think we’re just bad moms and really, it’s all bullshit and we’re all so much better than we can allow ourselves to see. I wanted to create an opportunity for people to acknowledge their self-doubt, to set it aside for a little while, and to know that nobody's perfect, and everyone's just doing the best they can… which in essence, is being a great mom, or great at anything, really.

We each have our own idea of what being a perfect mom looks like, and we’re inevitably going to fail to meet that standard.

Carley Fortune
Carley: We each have our own idea of what being a perfect mom looks like, and we’re inevitably going to fail to meet that standard. That feeling of failure can start really early — when you’re pregnant, or in the delivery room, or even before your baby has been conceived. I remember after I had given birth, I had a total breakdown when we were coming home from the hospital — I couldn’t figure out how to get the baby buckled into the car seat safely, and I burst into tears. It felt like I failed the first test of parenthood. Do you remember the first time you thought, I'm not good at this
Christene: When I was pregnant, I actually ate really well, but I remember always thinking I should be eating even better, you know? Or I wasn’t sleeping enough, I wasn’t reading the right books or enough books, I wouldn’t end up at the right hospital. There were a million things I'm sure I was unfairly judging myself for. However, looking back, I think I was kinder to myself when I was pregnant than when I brought Raffi home from the hospital.  
Carley: What do you think changed?
Christene: I mean, after so many miscarriages, it's hard to imagine you're ever going to get to that place. But I also think that when I brought her home, and I don't know how you felt, but this great life-altering realization sets in that you know NOTHING and nobody across the span of your life has taught you anything. It all feels that huge and existentially mind-fucking. In reality, you're not sleeping, you're in such a state of physical and emotional shock, and your perception of life and reality is warped. It's absolutely terrifying.
Carley: I felt like it was a game of survival. All of a sudden I was at home, with this creature I had to keep alive, which was frankly very difficult. I struggled with breastfeeding, my son went back into the hospital a week after he was born with an infection, I had third-degree tears and my stitches became infected. I truly felt like we were both fighting for our lives. I know a lot of moms feel that way, and it is such a shock.
Christene: The emotional crash is so intense, too. It was hard not to cry all day every single day. I was afraid all the time, and I felt so ashamed of myself that I couldn't wait for her to go to sleep. I was holding my breath all the time. And I just remember feeling deeply depressed. And I guess that's postpartum depression, which is another thing I was not prepared for at all. It's like you're shot out of a cannon, and you have no time to calibrate. You do feel better eventually, but it doesn't go away completely… that feeling of being slightly on notice. But I think that’s just parenthood. It's not something that you can un-sign up for. 
Carley: You can’t anticipate how becoming a parent shifts every single part of your life: Your body changes, your relationship with your partner changes, your finances change, your friendships change. I felt so unmoored, and I think part of it was not working anymore and not having someone to say I was doing a good job at something. I struggled a lot in early motherhood.
Christene: Were you worried you wouldn't enjoy it?
Carley: I didn’t enjoy a lot of it. Before he learned to crawl, my son, Max, was a very restless baby, so I had all these little activities we’d do in different parts of the house to keep him happy and occupied. We’d go through 10 activities by 10 a.m. — I found it both incredibly exhausting and totally boring. There are parts of motherhood I still don't really enjoy. I’m not big on going to the park — my husband is much better at playtime than I am.
Christene: I don't really think people talk about that. And I think if you do, it's one of those things that feels very “bad mom” to me. 
Carley: Not talking about the shame we feel as mothers can be very isolating. We started talking about No Bad Moms before we were all in a literal state of isolation because of COVID-19, but given how much time parents are now spending with their kids, it seems like this conversation is more important than ever. 

The constant ruminating over “quality time” just makes me feel guilty because I want to go hide in the bathroom and watch back-to-back episodes of Grace & Frankie by myself.

christene barberich
Christene: I don't know about you, but in a lot of my circles, everyone's like, "Oh, I'm loving all this time with my kid, aren’t you?" In many ways I do love the extra in-person time, having space to notice little changes, but on the other hand, it’s a pace of constant work and mental engagement that is physically and emotionally exhausting, a total marathon. It’s hard not to feel in some ways like I’m losing myself. The constant ruminating over “quality time” just makes me feel guilty because I want to go hide in the bathroom and watch back-to-back episodes of Grace & Frankie by myself...
Carley: It's a lot of time; I don't know if it's quality. My husband is looking after Max during the day while I work, and I’m thankful that’s our arrangement — I much prefer being at my makeshift bedroom desk than entertaining and watching Max all day. For the first couple weeks of quarantine, I felt guilty about that and tried to go into full-on “fun mom” mode after work was done. But now it’s been so many weeks of being on top of each other, I’m over the guilt — we have plenty of time together. I know I’m in a really fortunate position at the moment — to be working, and to have a partner to look after our son while I do — but right now I just want a day alone.
Christene: Yes, and I feel like I'm not taking full advantage of all this time I have at home with her. It's like you get these invitations to be a good mother, and then what if you decide not to take them? And then I feel like, Why don't I care more? Does it mean I should love her more than I do? I just get stuck in an undertow of disappointment in myself until I can somehow shake myself out of it. I am thankful to my husband for helping me to see the things I do that I don’t always see. I’m sure most moms need reminders, too, of all the “invisible labor” that goes into being a good parent. 
Carley: No Bad Moms is about examining why we tend to judge ourselves so harshly as mothers, but it’s also about fighting back against the judgment women constantly face as mothers. I don’t post much about my son on social media and part of that is because I don’t want to hear other people’s opinions of how I’m doing as a parent. Have you ever been mom-shamed? 
Christene: I remember when Raffi was first born, she was early, so she had to spend four weeks in the NICU. Her early birth came as a surprise, so I didn't have time to have a baby shower (which, if we're being honest here, I was relieved not to have) and collect all the "essentials" I had registered for… or was told to register for. I can distinctly remember a few friends making me feel a bit lousy that I didn't have certain things purchased and ready to go already — not intentionally, I don’t think, but it was hard for them to believe I was that unprepared. I mean, I was so LOST and disoriented. It took everything I had not to cry all day long or drink a bottle of wine every night because I was so traumatized by Raffi being in the hospital. And while we were lucky that she was healthy, there is nothing so gutting as leaving the hospital without your baby, thinking of her alone at night in her incubator. I was pumping around the clock, spending an hour commuting up to the hospital every morning to spend my days with her, only holding her for 15 minutes at a time. And here I’m feeling like I’m already behind before I’ve even started for not having the right onesies? Another woman, who I knew only through our industry, heard my daughter was in the NICU and reached out because she'd been through something similar. It was the first time I felt okay. Like despite my body oozing and aching and my daughter hooked up to a tangle of monitors, everything would be okay. After that, I try very hard not to assume anything about another mother's situation. As far as I'm concerned, it's all really fucking hard, no matter how "easy" you think someone else has it.  

It's all really fucking hard, no matter how "easy" you think someone else has it.  

christene barberich
Carley: Where do you think this kind of mom-shaming comes from?
Christene: I think, like any kind of shaming, it probably stems from our own insecurities and inadequacies as people and parents. We're all just stumbling around half the time trying to find our way through challenging circumstances, it's easy to feel like you dropped the ball, but what a relief if someone else really blew it...we just don’t want to be alone in our awful images of ourselves. Whenever I feel that judgy impulse in me, I try to think to myself, What part of me do I feel bad about? What skill do I feel like I'm lacking that this situation is triggering?
Carley: I’m at my judgiest with moms who seem like their entire lives revolve around their kids — I feel as though they have this false sense of martyrdom. That’s probably because I feel like I would be a better parent if I sacrificed more of myself for my son. We’ve talked about the impossible standard set for moms by society and ourselves — to be perfect, selfless caregivers, to make our children the centre of our world. I think the million-dollar question is: How do we lower that bar for ourselves without feeling like we’re slacking off? 
Christene: You just do it. You just call yourself out when you notice yourself self-flagellating. The other day, someone asked me what size diapers Raffi wears because her daughter had some she'd outgrown and she wanted to pass them on. I realized I have no idea what size she wears because my husband orders the diapers. I immediately felt like a total loser, like how in God's name did someone leave me in charge of this person??? I don't even know what size diapers she wears? It's true… we are our own worst enemies. And motherhood really brings out the best of it. 
Carley: I'm that way with shoes — I never know what size of shoes to buy Max. More than once it's gotten to the point where his grandparents get fed up and buy him new, well-fitting shoes. You’ve been working from your apartment with your toddler under foot during COVID-19. What’s that been like? 
Christene: It's been okay, honestly. Because I’m lucky that my husband is taking on the bulk of childcare while I'm responsible for meals and cleanup. That part is hard on top of working full-time and giving him breaks where I can, which means I have to discipline myself to take breaks when I can. Every job is hard if you're doing it all-day every-day with no end in sight, the way most of us with children are… or at least that’s the way it feels. 
Carley: I think about being child-free approximately 17 times a day. How often does that cross your mind? 
Christene: It doesn’t. I don’t dwell in that space given my journey to get here. I’m grateful and try to lead with that as much as I can. I just wish I had more head space to deal with it more elegantly, you know? 
Carley: If you could have one thing for Mother’s Day? 
Christene: Good health for everyone. Especially now, there is no greater gift we can wish for people.

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