Mothers Blaming Themselves
A few weeks ago, my husband and I were lying in bed talking about our day. I told him that the kids were just awful that day — never ending tantrums, whining, etc. His response was sweet as he gave me a hug, but I was a bit taken aback: “Don’t worry, Caroline. You’re still a good mom.”
Hmmmm…. apparently I missed the memo that I’m expected to blame myself for my kids’ awfulness. Until he said that, it actually hadn’t occurred to me at all to blame myself. I just attributed their bad behavior to them choosing to be uncooperative that day. (Besides, they are 5 and 2 — aren’t kids just randomly awful at that age, no matter the parenting skills of the mom?)
But then it got me wondering… maybe I should be blaming myself. Is that what other women do when their kids behave badly? What’s going on in my head that it didn’t occur to me that it was my fault? And is there something interesting going on here in terms of gender, a situation in which society expects women (in particular) to be hard on themselves because of the actions of their children?
So I’ve spent the last few weeks contemplating a bit about the appropriate level of blame mothers (and parents more generally) should direct toward themselves over their kids’ behavior. I suppose there are occasions when parents are totally negligent and make no effort to teach their kids well. But I honestly don’t see that very often. I guess I just naturally lean toward seeing kids as individual agents who inevitably make bad choices occasionally. It’s not like I don’t try to constantly teach my kids to be kind, be cooperative, and be good sharers.
I also couldn’t help relating this to some feminist ethics I’ve been recently reading. Sarah Hoagland argues that it’s important for women to see themselves as both related and separate. To see oneself only in terms of interconnectedness with others (husbands, kids, friends, etc.) can lead to a dangerous lack of boundaries, as one lives vicariously through others and deeply (unhealthily) internalizes those others’ successes and failures. And to see oneself as only autonomous and separate denies the importance of our relationships and the truth that we are people who live within webs of relationships and contexts that do affect our options and choices in life. But to see ourselves as both related and separate is to find a middle ground between the two.
As I mentioned above, I clearly don’t struggle much with seeing myself as separate from my kids and their choices. But what is the ideal balance? How much should mothers (parents) blame themselves for their kids’ choices? Is there a level of self- blame in that regard that is productive rather than harmful? If you have kids, do you blame yourself for their behavior?