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Walking the line

The Imperfect Mom:
Candid Confessions of Mothers Living in the Real World

Therese J. Borchard, Editor
Broadway Books, 2006

Review by Jessica Smartt Gullion

A catchphrase that appears occasionally in mainstream parenting magazines is that of the "imperfect mother," a mother who is "good enough." Perhaps this is in response to backlash over media images of the idealized mother (as wonderfully deconstructed in Douglas and Michael's book, "The Mommy Myth"). The message seems to be, ok, maybe you don't have to be "perfect," a mother can have some "flaws" -- yet there is still an insidious undercurrent of where to draw the line.

When I first picked up The Imperfect Mom: Candid Confessions of Mothers Living in the Real World (2006), I thought I would find mothers who were talking back to that glorified perfect mother image. Instead, I found that while the line between "good" mother and "bad" mother may have moved a tiny bit, it's still there, and it is drawn with a thick hand. The goal of the book does not seem to be supporting the human/flawed mother, but to clearly delineate the amount of imperfection that will be or will not be tolerated. I found it interesting that many of the authors write for publications that offer "expert" advice on childrearing, publications that are often criticized for creating the supermom image in the first place.

One of my favorite essays in the book is by the editor, Therese J. Borchard. She writes about an accident that happened to another mother's child who was in her care. While she beat herself up for it, the other mother graciously forgave her. I had hoped that the other essays were in the same vein, especially in regard to coping with the guilt that seems to come with the failure to be "momnipotent." Unfortunately, while the book is about imperfection, most of the contributors concentrate on the distinction between an imperfect mother and a bad one. Nearly all authors are quick to point out that they may do A, B, and C but they do not do D, because D crosses the line, and by the way, "did I mention that my kid got a perfect score on the SAT," so their imperfection was not so imperfect after all.

For example, in "My Home, the Danger Zone", author Shana Aborn writes about all the ways in which she does not childproof her home. She subsequently offers a litany of the precautions she does take (which frankly surpass the childproofing I myself consider adequate). So while she may not have padding around the coffee table, by golly no kid can get into her junk drawer and her bathrooms have special doorknobs to keep little ones out.

This is unfortunate, since there are a few gems in the book that are worth reading, particularly the section on single mothers. The cracks in the maternal veneer are occasionally quite humorous. The invasion of Katharine Weber's household by herds of My Little Ponies (described in her essay, "From My Little Pony to Pre-Slut: The Regrettable Years) is hysterical.

Many of the writings on the internet about a mothers' movement involve the concept of judging other mothers. When it is ok to judge another mother -- is it ever ok? -- this judging, or perception of being judged molds our ideas of what a mother "should" be. It is a form of surveillance, and of social control, that dictates what behaviors should or should not be acceptable. When I read this book, I feel that social pressure. When first I picked up the book, my interests were more in-line with publications such as Brain Child, whose essays are usually humanizing without being judgmental. This book offered more judgment of maternal practice than I am personally comfortable with.

mmo : august 2006

Jessica Smartt Gullion tries hard not to judge other mothers, but she does have choice words for people who drive on the freeway with their toddlers standing in the backseat, words which are likely heard and repeated by her own kids (although they are secured in their carseats). She has plastic covers in all of her electrical outlets, which are probably a choking hazard when taken out. 

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