Am I a good mother?
Updated: Apr 13, 2021
So often in our society we ask for our babies to be "good"... and if a baby fits into this narrow category, we use this as evidence that the mother must therefore be "good" too. But what do we mean by a "good" baby... and how is this linked to mothering?
It seems that for babies to be classed as "good", they must mainly be compliant... to be quiet, to sleep well, to not make a fuss. What does it mean for us as mothers when we have a baby who doesn’t behave like that? A baby who doesn’t sleep quietly through the night, but instead needs support from us; who won’t go to other people; doesn't breastfeed happily; won't settle; a baby who fusses and cries.
So many mothers I meet with a baby who doesn't fit in the "good baby" straitjacket assume it is something they’re doing wrong as mothers. That their baby's behaviour has been caused by them. It's no wonder, because psychology has long blamed mothers for all sorts of ills and quite often this turns out either to be perfectly normal behaviour, or something that babies have been born with rather than learned (autism and 'refrigerator mothers' is a perfect example).
Our babies are born with individual and unique temperaments, much like we as adults are each completely unique. Some of us like spending time with people, while some of us find it tiring. Some of us find noisy places too much, some of us don't seem to be affected. It's the same with babies. A groundbreaking study by Jerome Kagan in 2004 found that 20% of 4 month old babies were highly reactive to new stimuli versus 40% who were low reactive. He also found that these traits persisted significantly into childhood and adulthood. What about you? Are you sensitive to environmental stimuli? It would seem that some babies are wired to be more sensitive to their environments than others.
So if a mother ends up with a baby who is of a highly reactive type, what is she to do? What if this baby experiences night times as particularly scary or lonely; what if teething feels particularly painful for them? What if they are startled by the smallest noise? Maybe these mothers who society paints as weak and possibly even causing their babies' "not good" behaviour are in fact doing everything they can to respond to those very real needs. Maybe we should be celebrating them.
For more on this topic do have a listen below:
This very wonderful Sophie Brock podcast: 54. The Expectations of the ‘Good Child’ and the ‘Good Mother’.
This fascinating Debbie Sorensen and Yael Schonbrun Psychologists off the Clock podcast: 112. Nature vs. Nurture: Why Temperament Matters.