The Wrong Kind Of Mom

Before I had children, I never spent much time with them. I have no siblings; none of my friends had kids; I never even babysat very much. And so when I brought Indy home from the hospital, I had to figure out – very quickly – what this whole “mothering” thing was about. I cobbled together a parent-persona that I’m pretty sure was based largely on Kirstie Alley’s character in Look Who’s Talking, and when I heard someone say “Mom” I often found myself looking around, wondering who they were talking to. I watched other moms for clues, wondering how they seemed so confident in their decisions: my child will eat only organic food, my child will breastfeed for a year, my child will never hear his parents raise their voices.

I made my own baby food for exactly one week. I declared I would breastfeed until my children were at least six months old, and then stopped at 13 weeks for the first, 11 for the second. Kendrick and I fight – sometimes loudly – and although I wish this weren’t the case, our kids have certainly seen it.

I think part of why Erin and I became such close friends is that we recognized this uncertainty in each other; this struggle to find a label that might help us navigate this strange new Mom World we found ourselves living in. But above it all, I think what we shared was a profound desire to have someone tell us that the kind of mom we should be was the one we already were.

So that’s what we told each other, over and over and over until finally we both started taking baby steps towards actually believing it.

 *     *     *  The Wrong Kind Of Mom  *     *     *

by Erin Williams

Picture this: the playground on a hot June day. Some mothers orbit around their toddlers like pale planets in aviators and capris. Some of them pull out tiny BPA-free tupperware containers full of seedless watermelon cubes small enough for a little hand to lift and eat but not too small to choke on. Some slather their kids in organic SPF 50 until they look like ghosts.

Others didn’t bring snacks. They sit on the sidelines and observe, drink Starbucks. Some aren’t moms but nannies or babysitters. Some kids are allowed to fall without a pair of lips rushing up to kiss the bruise. The little ones stare up at the older ones, who own this place and assert it often, pummeling each other down the slides and chasing each other unimaginably fast. 

Where do I fit in? I definitely didn’t bring a quarter cup of cold watermelon cubes, but I might have half a baggie of (organic) cheddar bunnies in my tote left over from the weekend. My girl is small but daring, so I hover, but casually. I may crack a joke about how exhausting it is to chase after such an active, brave child, the textbook definition of an obnoxious #humblebrag. I bring my daughter to the playground myself, but when other moms talk about the difficulties of getting their kids to sleep, eat, or chill, I complain about work.

“How’s the book coming?” they ask. “I didn’t lose myself completely when I gave birth,” I seem to respond.

Somewhere in there, I carefully crafted my new-mom identity, culling from friends, television, family, and strangers. I want to be the type of mother who: tries to remember everything but occasionally forgets things, doesn’t obsessively time naps, lets her toddler eat ice cream, understands the necessity of bribery, knows that pizza is a balanced (enough) meal, goes to fun, weird places, knows how to hang back. “I’M SO CASUAL!!!” I yell, and then go home and have a panic attack because I think my daughter swallowed a small stick. I play the role of the mom I envision myself to be.

At the very least I know what I’m not, which is someone who wants to breastfeed their 3-year-old or thinks screen time is a satanic ritual. (But then I look at other mothers, gentle ones, who effortlessly comfort babies who are clearly used to their touch. I listen to mothers whose toddlers’ vocabularies don’t include the words “Bubble Guppies” and who talk about how their kids can’t get enough of reading, and I feel the loss of my daily opportunity to be better, do more.)

I don’t know where I fit in. There are cliques of mothers. There are professionals, doctors and lawyers, who don’t have time, and hire other professionals. There are stay-at-homers who feed their babies farmers market vegetables and homemade purees, who avoid plastic toys and breastfeed for centuries. There are casual moms who let their kids run around the neighborhood after the street lights have started beaming, who buy Applejacks and Fruit Roll-Ups and Capri Suns. I am an occasionally organic, sort-of working, sort-of home, semi-professional who breastfed for two months and who loves TV. My daughter knows exactly what a Frosted Mini Wheat is, but has also tasted farro.

And I wonder why I don’t get invited on all the playdates.

Every mom identity is a problematic one, handily available for self-deprecation. Working can be a privilege or a burden, depending on your motivations and the size of your bank account. “You’re a saint for staying home with them; I could never do it,” we say, even to the mothers who have no choice. “It’s the hardest job in the world.”

To the mothers who work, it depends. Do you really need to work? What do you do? Do you ever see your kids? What kind of day care do you have? Nannies are synonymous with privilege. “He’s building up that immunity!” stay-at-home-moms say to mothers of constantly-sick day care babies.

As mothers, we are always woefully lucky. We’re lucky we can stay home and see our kids more than an hour a day, or lucky we can afford day care. We’re lucky we’ve had the time to be able to breastfeed for so long, or lucky we live in the era of readily-available good quality formula. We’re lucky we have three minutes to cut up the watermelon cubes, or lucky that we have so many important things on our mind that we couldn’t possibly remember to pack a healthy, portable snack. We are lucky. We have to be grateful.

We are also enslaved by all of this. Motherhood hijacks the context of whatever we thought we knew about ourselves before. Working is a thing I always did, until it became something I wanted to do because staying at home with a baby was too difficult for me. Had I looked for an excuse to stuff my daughter in daycare? Is my work valuable enough to justify the loss of hours with her? Is it my fault she’s had four ear infections since September? All of my qualities, the brightest and dimmest, have been rerouted through a new network of cables, all of them converging at my new motherboard, my uterus, before dividing again.

There is no right way to be a mom. You either work to provide for your kids and miss them, or stay home with them and neglect to show them how important it is to work. Being careful about the food you provide for them is privileged, fussy, but also admirable. I am very impressed that your 18-month-old can say “thank you” in German, but can’t you just let her play like a normal kid? You can be working two or three jobs to support your family, but if you never see them, you’re operating at a loss. If you have too much money, your child will suffer for having never known hardship, as if money and hardship are mutually exclusive. The baby you raised with attachment parenting is a little too attached. You stopped breastfeeding too soon, or too late. Your kid should feel more or less safe. It’s dizzying.

How do you choose what kind of mom you want to be when all of the choices are wrong?

We are not mothers, and then after 4, 10, or 50 hours of labor, we are. There are few other events in a woman’s life that are so utterly rearranging. We got a head start when we decided to give birth at home, in a hospital, vaginally, or through a long, deep, surgical slice. Then we are thrust into the noise, breasts leaking, eyes puffy, brain embedded in a thick fog, and all around us we hear a chorus of voices: “Tell us, who are you now?”

  • Bernadette Devine

    Jordan, this brought tears to my eyes. I love this piece. I love it because it scares the absolute shit out of me. I love it because it brings in so many points of view. I love the vulnerability. I love how every decision can feel like a double edged sword.

    • Erin

      Thank you <3

    • jordanreid

      so glad you loved it; erin got at something i’ve been trying to put a finger on myself for ages.

  • Margaret

    I don’t even have children (or expect to have them anytime soon). But this is EXACTLY how I feel about motherhood. Thank you for sharing this!

  • Sonia


  • Sandy

    What I like best about this piece is how you captured the various caricatures of motherhood. What I like less is how anxious I felt while reading it, which probably means it is an effective piece of writing. In my experience, early motherhood is a prime example of an “it gets better” situation. I felt a lot of insecurity about what “kind” of mom I was when my daughter was a baby and into early toddlerhood. Hanging out with other moms, even women I really liked before we had kids, gave me a stomachache because even the bare knowledge that other people I respected were making different choices than me made me unsure of my own. Reading pieces about working versus not, even feminist-minded think pieces, was torture because in the not too far back of my mind I was convinced that I was irreversibly fucking up my daughter by working full time. Now that I’m a bit over three years in, those insecurities are finally quieting down. I think my daughter being old enough to really communicate has something to do with that. When I am with her, I have to fully engage in a way that I didn’t the first two years or so, so I don’t have time or mental headspace to worry about what kind of mom I am. Being a few years into a work routine seems to help too. I can see that I am not going to be fired for leaving the office at 5 and I (to me surprise) feel like the hours I get with my family are, most of the time, enough. I’m sure that my insecurities will flare up again, if/when I have a second kid, when the first goes to school and I am forced to interact more with other parents, etc., but for now I am enjoying some peace of mind. I hope you find yours, too. In the meantime, I hope you keep writing about the tricky parts, because I enjoy it.

  • Rebeca

    WOW, so powerful and nailed it right on the head ladies. Couldnt have described the insecurities better myself

  • JM

    Very well written, and I relate A LOT to this. It was the woefully lucky paragraph that really hit home. I do think that I am lucky because even though I am American, I don’t live in the US, and that comes with its own set of disadvantages. But I also live in a country that subsidizes daycare so much that it doesn’t matter if you work, if you don’t work, how much you make, how much you don’t make, you can get full-time or part-time affordable childcare… and nobody judges you for having extra help (if you want it) and nobody judges if you don’t (because that money will serve someone else in the long run). Because everyone has access to care, I notice a big lack of comparison amongst parents here as a result. I really hope the US will head in that direction someday.

  • Brett Cortell

    I love this SO much. The relentless dichotomy of motherhood.

  • ellaquinlan

    This is GENIUS. Both your introduction and Erin’s piece. Honest, funny, insightful, and so engaging. Love you two as a team. 👯

  • sherlaura

    I’d love to see a post about your breastfeeding experience (or is there one already?)… As I scroll through blogs one handed on my phone while nursing my baby who is 2 months old today and mentally prepare myself for going back to work in a few weeks.

    • jordanreid

      hi there! i just hunted around on my site myself, and i actually couldn’t find anything either, but i feel pretty certain i’ve talked about this. …maybe in the comments under a post?

      in any case, what i recall writing was that i spent years – literally YEARS – avoiding the topic of “how long i breast fed” because i was scared that to tell the truth (i think it was about 13 weeks for my son, and about 11 for my daughter, but i’m not positive) would be to label myself as a bad mother, and i was scared of comments to that effect. it’s been a learning process, figuring out how to write about parenting and be okay with having my parenting be judged by strangers on a daily basis, and having people tell me i was a bad mother was too much for me. and the reason it felt like too much was, of course, because i was scared that they might be right. i’m not scared of that anymore.

      i stopped breastfeeding indy earlier than i had planned (i had expected to breastfeed for at least six months) because just a couple of weeks after he was born i started shooting a show with an unpredictable schedule, and it was making me crazy spending what felt like all my time at home either frantically pumping or breastfeeding, and spending my time on set worrying that indy might not have enough milk if i ended up being out for longer than i’d planned to. i was also desperately, desperately tired, and wanted caffeine. a lot of it. that’s not something that i’m necessarily proud of, but there you go.

      goldie i stopped breastfeeding earlier than i’d planned to because a couple of months after she was born i hosted an event in grand central and ended up standing in a bathroom stall manually squeezing milk out of my breasts and into a toilet because i’d forgotten to bring my pump and storage bags. it was embarrassing stressful and painful, and i decided to make my life easier in that one way. i was ashamed to admit to these choices for a long time, but i’m just not anymore. my parenting has strengths and weaknesses, just like everyone’s, and i think it’s important to make peace with that. take it easy on yourself, and do what feels right to you – because i promise, giving yourself permission to make choices that simplify your life (whether that’s breastfeeding for a long time or switching to formula; it’s different for everyone) is a positive thing both for yourself and for your baby.

      (i should also write a post about this 🙂 coming up.)

      p.s. speaking of returning to work, these posts may be of interest. good luck to you, and congratulations <3

      • Sara

        I’ve never commented before, but find myself in the exact same situation – I don’t stay home and I have a good job with a flexible schedule, but tend to feel alone in the middle and always second guessing myself. It has been easier as my girls have gotten older, but it’s a work in progress. Thank you so much for writing this – its such a well written post, one that I will keep to look back on when I’m having a moment.

    • Erin

      it’s SO HARD to figure out what to do, mostly because of all the guilt we bury ourselves under. I wrote about my experience here (it sucked): https://goosecamp.co/2015/05/02/please-get-your-werthers-original-off-my-boob/

  • Lauren

    I can totally relate. My kids are in elementary school now and I still feel like I’m just making it up as I go along.

  • Wow this is is powerful and so true and even now that mine are 6 and 8 I still feel like I’m trying to figure out what kind of mom I am. I sort of suspect that’s a feeling that never goes away.