How to Maim a Mother

family Oct 17, 2021

 Wow! I like your hair! It looks really good -- now.” 

“Uh, thanks?”

Sometimes compliments just come out wrong.

We aim to affirm and cause confusion. Our cheers are heard as jeers. We intend to inspire and increase esteem yet intensify anxiety and multiply misgivings.

It doesn’t just happen between friends or family members. It occurs in groups. As a culture, we have an embedded falsehood which maims mothers. It’s well-intentioned. It’s reverent. It’s beautiful. Wall art, desk décor, and t-shirts proclaim its message. But it’s wrong. Here’s the truth:

Mothering isn’t innate.

How un-American! What’s next? Banning baseball, dissing apple pie, and burning the flag? Mothers are powerful! They shape lives! They impact generations!

Yes, absolutely true. But when does having power equate with possessing ability? When does eagerness automatically pair with expertise? When does position equip with proficiency?

Mothers hear all sorts of things spoken with a cheerful veneration as if one is quoting divinely-inscribed stone tablets.

“You’ll know why your baby is crying.”

“Just follow your intuition.”

“You know your child better than anyone.”

“You just keep doing what you believe is right, and it’ll work out in the end.”

And to close the deal (or more appropriately, the coffin), there’s this one: “God gave you this child and you know better how to raise him/her than anyone else.”


No one says to a child regarding their education, “You don’t need guidance. You have an innate desire to learn, so just follow your heart, and you’ll learn all you need to know.” (“Awesome! Pass the Pop-Tarts® and the remote, please.”)

No one says to an employee starting a new job: “We don’t train our staff. We follow the philosophy that if you’re meant to be here and are serious about doing well, you’ll do great.” (“Thanks! I’ll check back in three weeks. I’m headed off on a vacation!”)

No one – who’s been married longer than six months -- says to a newlywed couple, “Don’t bother with any marriage counseling or courses or seminars or books or retreats. As long as you really love each other, everything will work out.” (Cue: “All You Need Is Love”)

Even fathers don’t get the same credit as mothers. They still hear the message they need to learn how to parent – mostly by taking lessons from women -- if they’re thought necessary or relevant at all.

Yet mothers repeatedly hear how they are gifted with an instinct which has infused them with amazing abilities. While we may consider this affirming, it’s actually harmful in two ways.

  1. Mothers develop expectations against which they continually compare themselves and interpret their lack of knowledge, ability, or confidence as a sign of personal defectiveness.
  2. Mothers develop an over-confidence in their judgment and skills and fail to seek, obtain, and apply the knowledge required to bring up a child with a whole soul, healthy body, and strong spirit.

When a mother measures herself against faulty expectations of what is “innate,” she has little hope for improvement. Obviously, she didn’t “get it.” She’s personally flawed. Somehow, she’s lacking what every other mom possesses. A low-grade anxiety, spiking during especially difficult seasons or situations, settles in and becomes the norm.

On the other side, when a mother calculates success according to her own “innate” standards, she has little awareness of ignorance, misperceptions, or failings. A faulty certainty embeds a low-grade arrogance, providing immunity against wisdom which suggests better techniques, priorities, and perspectives.

I’ve camped on both sides. Sigh. (Sorry, kids.)

In education, the "everyone's a winner" system of building self-esteem has proven to be a dismal failure.

Confidence comes from accomplishments, not accolades.

If we want mothers to exchange pseudo-poise for authentic authority , we must stop basing our praise on false narratives about the quantity and quality of inherent know-how.

Communities have been the norm in vibrant societies throughout history. If there were not multi-generational families living together or nearby, there were substitutes. Neighbors, shopkeepers, educators. Members of houses of worship, guilds, clubs, or associations – formal and informal. Women worked and gathered together, and in these interactions an extraordinary amount of knowledge was passed on. Mrs. Penniweather dealt with Junior’s begging for candy with no formality or pronouncement “Pay attention, young ladies, there’s a parenting lesson here.” She responded, and the remaining company used words, silence, expressions, or glances to signal their agreement or disapproval. How welcome Junior was in other homes and places evidenced whether Mrs. Penniweather’s methods were effective or not.

Community, however, no longer grows by default. It must be cultivated with diligence and determination. And our American idea of independence long ago morphed from the dream of freedom into the idealism of individualism.

And the more individualistic a society becomes, the more isolated individuals become.

People left to fend for themselves seldom turn out well. Mothers haven’t just increasingly been left alone to raise children; they’ve been left on their own to know how. Yet we label this disgrace as appreciation, leaving mothers and children to pay for our error.

Mothers do possess a transcendent passion to protect and nurture their child, whether arriving by birth or adoption.

Yet desire, like sincerity, is wholly insufficient for success in any aspect of life.

Unless joined by opportunity, knowledge, and skill, only frustration or an ongoing sense of “Success is just around the corner!” will prevail. Following one’s heart ignores the reality our minds are just as susceptible to flawed beliefs as accurate ones. A mother can’t just “want” her way to success. She must learn her way to it.

Yet all knowledge does not lead to learning. Can anyone say, “Internet?” After all, one can find “experts” to advocate for every imaginable – and unimaginable – parenting method. One can cite “evidence” to prove any child development framework is correct – no matter how basic or bizarre. One can join forums extolling the virtues (and by inference or proclamation, the rightness) on everything from feeding to fabrics; organics to oils; time-outs and colic bouts; public school, home school, private school, and no school. For any idea, one can locate "authorities" and "friends."

It’s not that “Granny” was always right. No generation has a monopoly on wisdom. Online sources and communities can have value. After all, this blog is published online! But presence on the Internet doesn’t provide credibility any more than a glitzy restaurant promises to deliver fantastic food.

All wisdom begins with humility: a trait as naturally appealing as turnips.

We can assist women to cultivate this characteristic while weeding out shame by affirming every successful mother learns how to mother; she doesn’t flourish by default. Acknowledging and respecting this doesn’t denigrate a mother’s significance or diminish her honor. It discards the burden of unreasonable expectations and the baggage of automatic-by-gender qualifications. This frees, empowers, and affirms more than all the pseudo-compliments we can give.



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