What makes a mom a good mom? What does it feel like to have a good mom?
May 3, 2012 1:15 AM   Subscribe

What makes a mom a good mom? What does it feel like to have a good mom?

Basically, I've been dealing with a "situation" with my bf's mom for the last couple years that has made me painfully familiar with the dynamics of manipulative and narcissistic mothers/parents. On top of that, I have a lot of painful memories of interactions with my own mom-- being told I wasn't good enough even when I was excelling, being laughed at when I wanted to try new things, losing my mom (emotionally) to an abusive remarriage when I hit puberty, &c. I've been reading excerpts from several books that I've seen recommended on AskMeFi and elsewhere, and they've illuminated things for me that I always thought were very private, individual wounds, things I couldn't really put into words.

The thing is, the more I read books like these (as well as those of earlier psychoanalysts, which are very relevant to my academic work), the more I feel twin feelings of skepticism and misogyny creeping up on me. I find it very difficult to imagine a healthy relationship between mother and daughter, or mother and son. I do have a few friends who seemed to have caring, nurturing parents-- of course, you never know, but their relationships were markedly different from the ones my boyfriend and I have with our mothers. Reading countless examples of the ways mothers fail their children (especially if their own mothers have failed them) is painful for me as a woman, because I feel that I'll always be an unfit mother, and that the burden of not fucking up a kid's psyche is primarily the mother's problem. The more I read, the more I have trouble trusting women (including myself).

So, I guess my question is-- how does a mom be a good mom? What are examples of good moms who, while they might occasionally fail, largely don't exhibit narcissistic behaviors? What does it feel like to have a mom who's not a controlling/smothering/critical narcissist? I'm open to personal stories as well as more clinical and academic discussion. I don't want to feel that to be a mother is to fail, or that to be a (female) human being with needs is to be a narcissist.

My only frame of reference for a healthy parental relationship is my dad, who has human flaws, but has supported me emotionally and materially for half my life and has never to my memory tried to control or manipulate me in a way that cut me the way my mother did. We have a great relationship to this day, and we talk once a week and I visit often. I feel an aura of warmth about my relationship with him that is buried under layers of resentment, self-hatred, and mind games when it comes to my relationship with my mom.

I have a hard time calling my mom a conventional narcissist because she has also been the victim of repeated domestic abuse (from her own father and her new husband), and I know some of her manipulative/passive-aggressive behavior comes from a place of deep self-loathing. It's not important to me to put a psychological label on her, but it is important to me to reckon with the feeling that I've been the "parent" in our relationship from an inappropriately young age.

I typed out a lot of info about the details of my relationship to my mom and dad, but I realized that it would probably be best to bring that to therapy some day. I've been hoping to try therapy for a year or so, but can't afford the co-pays (and also just lost my insurance), and I'll be moving to a very small backwater soon where I'm not sure I'll be able to easily find a good fit. Hopefully this will be an element of my life soon, as I would really love to have someone to talk these things over with as I contemplate them.

Long story short, what is it like to feel unconditionally loved and supported by your mother? If you are a mother, how do you try to provide that support? How can a woman break this kind of cycle if she wants to become a mother herself?

(I saw a similar AskMe during my initial search that got my hopes up, but it turned out to be negative examples of bad mothering, rather than positive examples of nurturing and/or kick-ass moms. The latter would be most helpful, though I can see how discussing the former would aid in making one's point.)
posted by stoneandstar to Human Relations (46 answers total) 76 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Re-reading my question, I'm afraid my question comes off as "How can a woman be perfect," which is not quite what I'm getting at. Rather, it's the emphasis on the mother in most of these books and how I feel sort of trapped, and wonder what it's like to have a deeply positive mother-daughter bond.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:18 AM on May 3, 2012

I wrote a tiny bit about my mom and sisters in this older question asking "What does a normal, healthy family look like?" — it has a bunch of thoughtful answers about imperfect but supportive families that might be interesting/helpful to read.
posted by dreamyshade at 1:25 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Until I was a teenager and stayed over at a friend's house repeatedly, I was convinced that all happy families were just really good at faking it. I assumed every family had some dark horror at the core. I found out recently that one of my siblings thought the same thing too!

You can break the cycle, lots of people do. A big part is recognising that you actively do not want to parent the way you were parented and seeking out guides to good parenting. There are a ton, but they mostly boil down to: be consistant, loving and understanding.

It cracks me up when people are all "all families are crazy!" because there are super-crazy families out there. It is really helpful to recognise the difference between "My mom used to insist we cleaned our plates" and "My mom used to hold me in a chokehold and suffocate me until I opened my mouth and then forcefeed me anything I hadn't finished on my plate" - or why I do not like trying new foods, and yet encourage my kids to take three bits of anything new.

There are lots of stories out there about good mother-daughter relationships. Chicken Soup for the Soul is a very non-subtle starting point. You might be reading with a confirmation bias, so you filter out those positive stories, or you might be discounting anything positive because you believe that it's a front, a false cheerfulness to cover up the dark.

Thanks for asking this question - I think it's impossible in some fundamental way for people who were parented well to understand what it's like to never have had that firm ground to stand on, to always be waiting for the next blow to fall. It's a sort of innocence that is blinding and beautiful.
posted by viggorlijah at 1:55 AM on May 3, 2012 [12 favorites]

Best answer: If you took the basic traits of my mom as a person you wouldn't think she'd be that great at being my mom, but we have one of the healthiest mother daughter relationships I know of.

She's very rational, and organized, and introverted. She repeatedly says that she just doesn't like children, or really other people. She likes to say "I like animals more than people." She's not very passionate and she's not physically demonstrative - hugging my own mother feels really awkward, even in private during emotional talks. She has pretty low self esteem about her body, and I look VERY much like her, so seeing my own mother hate things about herself that I also have was really quite hard during childhood and puberty. She's snarky and sarcastic and judgmental about other people. She's a pretty big perfectionist. That being said:

I've fought with depression and suicidal thoughts since I was about ten. Mom has unflinchingly been supportive of me in not judging me, and reacting with a great deal of calm when I told her about things like my self-harm or my thoughts of wanting to die. She has been incredibly honest with me about her own feelings about my problems and our family's experiences with mental health problems - of which we've got loads, in almost every type you can think of - and never once gave me the impression that I was causing her more trouble by letting it out than keeping it inside. She respected my wishes when it came to not taking medication, even though I wasn't even in high school, and she respected my need to talk about ANY subject with someone who would treat me like I was equally intelligent to them.

Mom also always made sure that I had a healthy relationship with food, despite she herself being a picky eater. I was never pressured to finish my plate but I always had to try everything, and I was never told that I'd get fat if I ate too much, either. She taught me to cook a little bit at a time, and when I went away to college she had compiled a binder full of all the recipes she knew I liked (or important holiday things). She doesn't like many fruits or vegetables but she'd always let me pick one thing at the grocery store that I was curious to try, and tried to share my enthusiasm about the new thing, even sometimes researching it for me (before the internet!) When I was younger it'd be an added reward for good behavior sometimes - I'd get to pick TWO new things that week. Now that she's diabetic and has had to force herself to like veggies I'm the one sharing recipes with her.

She's never tried to be anything she's not for me. I think she's always acted like a regular human, and never tried to be a supermom. I've been acutely aware of her vulnerabilities for as long as I can remember. She couldn't help me with my math homework but she would talk about god and death and stuff for as long as I wanted. She has kind of opposite aesthetic taste to me, but I took art classes and majored in art and graphic design and instead of trying to find something nice to say about the things I'd bring home to show her, she'd say something like "you know I don't like it, but I can tell you do." And then we'd talk about that, instead. I never felt like I had to achieve something in particular to please her, apart from abiding by the law and being a good person to others. I've never had to believe something for her that I didn't want to.

I guess that the thing that defines my relationship with my mom as opposed to other people's maternal relationships that I personally know of is a heightened level of honesty. She will tell me anything I ask and I will tell her anything she asks, even the crappy shameful stuff. She'll say something hurtful to me by accident and I'll point it out and she'll acknowledge it and apologize and move on, no big deal. She really says stuff like "you know I just want you to be happy" and she actually means it. I don't recall my mother lying to me, not even once. I've certainly lied to her, but that was all growing up teenager stuff, you know? She's treated me like I'm capable of making my own decisions since an early age, because she knew that if I messed up, I'd tell her, because she knew I knew she wouldn't think less of me. All of this is in opposition to a lot of people who say things like "I just don't want my mom to know" or "if Mom found out she'd KILL me" or "I can't tell her because it would upset her!" I've never been able to wrap my head around statements like that.

Most recently I accidentally come out to Mom as bisexual over the phone a week before I was going to visit them. It was hilarious, actually. I thought my parents already knew! I'd been making comments about finding women attractive since I was a teenager. I was vocal about a crush on a (VERY gay) friend in college. I would call female celebrities "hot" in conversations with my dad. But the phone conversation went something like "So, [Mizu], when are you gonna go on some dates or something?" (in a joking sort of tone.) "Well, Mom, I have a girl who lives in Arkansas that I flirt with constantly online, so if you wanna pay to fly her out to Seattle we could go on some dates. Not that I'd want to waste my time with that when I've got a bed." And then there was a pause, and then: "So. You're being a lesbian now?" Man, it was awkward to change the subject back to when she should pick me up at the airport!

It turns out that Mom just never took me seriously when I'd talk about girls. It flew over her head. When I said stuff like "I'm so picky, why would I automatically ignore 50% of the population just because they're not boys?" when I was in high school, it seems she thought I was joking. I'd always correct their pronouns when my parents would say "when are you gonna meet a nice boy?" by finishing the sentence: "or girl!" Over a decade of being open about my bisexuality and not ONCE had it registered for her.

As soon as I settled in at my parents' house a week later, I sat down with Mom and talked to her about all of this; found all that out. She didn't have much to say, except "oh. Okay." And later she asked what she should tell her friends. I told her that it's not like I was any different, ie, perennially single, so why should she tell them anything?

Not once during this whole thing did I feel like she'd think less of me, I didn't worry that I was betraying her, the lessened probability of my having children didn't make me feel guilty... There was a mutual respect that if there was any actual problem there, we would tell each other, and reason it out.

But she's only ever said "I love you" to me once, that I can remember.
posted by Mizu at 2:38 AM on May 3, 2012 [25 favorites]

Rather than say what I think makes a good mother (because this is going to mean something different for everyone), I'll tell you what I like about my mother:

1. She's always been honest with me about everything she's done. She's never tried to hide the bad things or pretend that they didn't exist.

2. She's really good at standing up for herself and not getting run over.

3. She takes life and negativity with an amazing combination of humility and humor.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 3:18 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know there's the gender difference, but could you not focus on how you'll be as good a parent as your dad was?
posted by kjs4 at 3:33 AM on May 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You are free to invent yourself as a mother.

Can you say whether that sentence speaks to you? Because that's a way of framing your situation that can accommodate your worries, doubt, and experience and still be a positive jumping-off point for this complicated project.

Everything I say here should be taken with a grain of salt, because I'm pretty early on in motherhood myself, but I had a wonderful adviser--my mother-in-law--with whom I shared many, many conversations on this subject. It was freeing to me to start from a place that emphasized thoughtful choice about my decisions, rather than reactionary and emotional pronouncements about how I damn well wasn't going to do X or Y, because the real question was about what I was going to decide to do here and now, for the good of this child, and not the *remembered,* wounded child.

Next, mothering books and magazines went right out the window because they sabotaged my sense of self as a mother. Buying gear and having chipper attitudes were not substitutes for one-on-one intense engagement with my particular child. I did, however, follow Dr. Harvey Karp's advice about soothing babies and that attentiveness set the pattern (for me; ymmv). "Good mother" became so much less important than "Is my baby thriving? Content? Healthy?" That was victory;them, being happy in their small world.

I connected with a group of mothers, and found one in particular that I trusted, and bounced my mothering questions off of her. My best friend (not a mother) got the real dirt, and I thank her for listening to me bitch, moan and complain. Taking my doubt to another adult, instead of taking it out on my kids, has been better for all of us. When I screw up, I tell my kids I'm having a bad mommy day, and I apologize. I still suck as a social mommy, but that's a different issue.

I have tons of expectations for my kids, but they're mostly about doing rather than being. They *will* do manageable chores, and use their manners and not whine, but they are who they are at any given moment, and they feel what they feel, and it is my job to observe and figure it out and articulate it so *they* can develop an understanding of their emotional states. They know that I love them; we're navigating these feelings together, and figuring out how to process them appropriately together. They feel free to ask questions (oh my God, the endless questions) and they expect that answers will be given, even if that means a trip to Google. It makes me batshit trying to keep them out of the brooder full of baby poults, because my kids SOMETIMES HAVE A HARD TIME LISTENING, but we are engaged in an ongoing conversation about the abstract, and they feel safe developing as independent intellects. I hope.

Negotiating personal needs has been a lot harder. Now that my son is 8, I can say to him (at 9:30 at night!), "We have spent all day doing a,b,c,d,e,f, together, and now I'm going to recharge my batteries, by myself, so we can do other stuff tomorrow." And he gets it, because we often talk about the need for *people* to have their needs met. The 4-y.-o. is tougher, but "I love you *and* I have to go to sleep now" usually works. Slowly, slowly, I am adding in a hobby here or there, in a way that teaches the kids something new and gives me a little relief too.

But the key is, absolutely, constant, ongoing, respectful conversation with the kids, treating them as full (if underdeveloped) human beings. Not as means to my ends. Not as symbols that prove something about my mothering abilities. Not as my projects. Not as my validation. Being free to invent how that happens, every day, is scary and sometimes I screw it up. It helps to want to know them for themselves, and focus less on whether I'm ding motherhood the "right" way than on whether my kids are healthy and happy in themselves.

This is not to say that I have let go of my own past, or my current experience as a daughter, because it informs everything I do. Deciding to facilitate my kids' potential and self-knowledge--and being resigned to fucking it up sometimes--has helped me be more at peace with this strange new status of "Mama." I wish you the best with your mothering.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:28 AM on May 3, 2012 [16 favorites]

I have a good mom. I know she loves me. She is always there for me.
I also know that I take her for granted all the time. But she is still there for me.
posted by Flood at 5:01 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

My own mother is amazing and if I can be half the mother to my son that she was to me, I'll consider it a major accomplishment.

I'm 30 years old and we still talk at least once per day. She comes to my home once a week to help me out with my son (her first grandchild) and it's never an intrusion or a burden. She stayed with us for three weeks immediately after his birth to help us adjust and rather than feel strained or stressed out with an extra person around, my husband and I were so grateful to have her around and we have no idea how we would have survived that transition without her. I can talk to her about anything and trust that she will be thoughtful, respectful, and kind in her response - even if she doesn't necessarily agree.

We did have the traditional "rocky patch" when I was a teenager, but we past it. The rest of my family is bit... trickier.... as there were enough divorces/re-marriages that I ended up with five parents when all was said and done. Some of them less sane than the others. But my mom was always my rock, she was always the one I could turn to and feel accepted and loved.

My son is still a baby, but I very much learned a lot about mothering from my own mother and hope to mirror that. I hope to show him that I always care about him and that he can always talk to me, even if we disagree. I hope to have the strength to do things that are difficult for me in order to keep him safe and happy. One of the greatest things my mother did for me when I was a small child was to set consistent boundaries that were enforced lovingly. I couldn't get away with breaking the rules - but it was always obvious that my mother didn't *love* me any less if I did. I hope to be able to do that too.

It's somewhat heartbreaking for me to hear about other people's shitty relationships with their mothers, I wish I could spread my own mother around a bit and share the love. She never had a particular "agenda" or "style" of parenting like so many women try to do nowadays - she just loved the hell out of me and wanted to give me the tools to be a healthy adult. And she succeeded to the point where I've had many a friend declare her their favorite "somebody else's mom." I wish I could share her with you, too. Hopefully this comment helped a little, even if it didn't totally do her justice.
posted by sonika at 5:22 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

My mother and I don't have a perfect relationship, but she is fantastic, and taught me so much about being strong. She was willing to let me live in Europe as a teenager for a year, she pushed me to excel at everything, especially the things boys said I couldn't do, she taught me delicate things like needlework and sewing beeds on cross-stich, and perhaps very importantly, learned when I really just needed emergency Thai curry and a chance to read junk books.

She grew up and studied in a time when women didn't take advanced math classes and didn't go to graduate school. "Inspired" is kind of a weird word to use about your family, but it's true. She never pressured me to go to a certain college, or do certain things. We grew up as we wanted to, and looking back on it, I'm sorry I was sometimes a Stupid Angry Teenager during all of it. I want to make her (and my dad! who is also a lot of these things!) proud, because they gave me so much as a kid.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:22 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I always have known that my mom has my back. No matter what happens, no matter how much I fuck something up, my mom is there to listen to me cry, to give me a hug and help me find a solution to my problem, if one exists.

As a mother myself, I might quibble with some of her ideas about parenting, but none of it is serious, just nit-picky things. Our relationship isn't perfect, but I have always known that I am very loved, and I hope my children feel the same way about me.
posted by sutel at 5:39 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Yeah, yeah, I posted before reading the whole thread - it happens when I have something to say and a limited amount of time to type before Elmo's World is over!)

My mom has a lot in common with Mizu's mom in that one of the greatest gifts she's given me is compassionate honesty. She's never, ever lied to me but she's also never gone over my head. Everything we've talked about in my whole life has been at a level where I could understand what was going on. Not once has she ever brushed something off as to explain "when I'm older" or "someday" I'd understand.

I'm also bisexual and the gender of my partners has mattered to my mother not at all. When I went to a GLSEN conference in high school, my mom asked if I'd signed up as an official lesbian. Upon my response that there wasn't exactly a LIST, she merely said that she loved me and she was very grateful that I wasn't on the path to becoming a Republican. When I had a girlfriend in college and wanted to bring her home over a long weekend, my mom's first question was "What size shoe does she wear? I want to make her some slippers!"

My mom has been unfailingly supportive, but not in the go-go-ra-ra cheerleader way. She does everything she can to help me achieve what I want, but never pretends that it's easy or that I'll even necessarily be able to do it. Case in point: I wanted babies FOREVER. I've wanted to be a mom since I was practically still a kid. When my husband and I got to a point where we were ready to start trying for a baby, my mom was very supportive but also urged me to remember that it wasn't a done deal and reminded me to think about what else was important in my life in case we never got pregnant. She very much wanted me to be a mother, but most importantly, she wanted me to be happy and wanted to be sure that I'd find a way to do that even if life didn't work according to plan. (I got pregnant on the first try, so it was all moot, but I appreciate where she was coming from.)

I have epilepsy and I nearly died from meningitis as a kid. Not only did my mother literally save my life at one point by resuscitating me from a seizure when I'd stopped breathing - but she taught me how to take care of myself without being smothering or coddling me. I know now that my health struggles were much harder on her than they were on me and in a lot of ways it would have been easier for her to keep me at home and pamper me, but she wanted to be sure not only that I was taken care of but that I was able to take care of *myself.* She struck the balance admirably, which I know is a very difficult thing to do - especially for a mother whose first impulse is to make everything "all better."

Not once has my mother ever given me a moment's guilt trip about anything, though she will definitely put pressure on me to do the right thing even if I don't necessarily *want* to she does so without making it about HER or by making me feel guilty.

She's not perfect. Sometimes the "realist" side of her gets a bit too much and it feels more like she's being defeatist, which can be exhausting. (In the example I mentioned about potential pregnancy - I didn't believe I was pregnant at first partly because my mom talked so much about "WHAT IF IT NEVER HAPPENS?!" that my mindset was automatically to believe that it was going to be a struggle. From all of my conversations with her, it didn't cross my mind that it might just be easy.) Sometimes her idea of trying to help drives me a bit bonkers when she gets an idea that's less than helpful and just won't drop it. But we never fight because when this does happen, I'm able to tell her "Look, this is making me crazy right now" and we can work it out. I know she means well and she knows that I appreciate her even if I don't agree with her all the time.

I'm also incredibly grateful that as a woman, my mother never put any fuel onto whatever crappy body image issues I had going on. She taught me how to eat healthy food. She takes long walks and does yoga every day and taught me the value of exercise in staying healthy, not just as a weight loss tactic. I never once heard my mother shaming me, herself, or anyone else for being fat or valuing being skinny for its own sake. I had food and body image issues as a teenager, but the one place they did NOT come from was my relationship with my mother.
posted by sonika at 5:48 AM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

My mom is a narcissist, but she has her good points. My mother admits that due to a hormone imbalance that she was a freaking nightmare when I was a teenager. That made me a bit rebellious, which at my Parent's 50th Anniversary, my dad just couldn't leave alone. No matter though, because having a relationship with my family is important, I try to remember that Parents are People. People with their own issues, flaws and shortcomings. Kids don't come with instruction manuals.

A relationship with my Mother is a lot of work for me. I take her in small doses. We love each other, but as she ages, she's becoming more and more self-centered (if that was possible) and her filter, if she ever had one, is disappearing. It's not unusual for her to raise her voice and say stuff like, "Our waitress isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer." My Dad, who sounds a lot like your Dad, isn't much better with that crap. "Check out the fake rack!"

Again, my friends came from far and wide to celebrate with our family, so all in all, I guess that it's different when it's not happening to you.

As for being a parent, personally, I'm not interested. My childhood friends both had neglegent mothers and have compensated by being very regimented and involved mothers. Incidentally, they too remained close to their Moms as adults, the just chose a very different method of parenting.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:53 AM on May 3, 2012

A good mother realizes that she cannot be perfect, but does the best that she can for herself, her children, and her partner.

The notion of a "good" mother can be subjective, but, I would think that a good mother...
-Leaves a partner or situation that is causing harm to either herself or the family unit.
-Provides financially the best way that she can.
-Does not neglect her children's needs.
-Views herself as a role model for her kids.
-Supports her kids simply by being there, but also by using words as a form of encouragement.
-Does not shelter her children from important life experiences.
-Works on controlling her temper in front of others.
-Does not hit her children, ever!
-Learns how to respond rather than react-this will encourage her children to continue confiding in her as they get older.
-Works on changing the dynamics as the kids get older.
-Accepts that her children do not fit into one mold and fosters the child's growth even if it's different from what she desired for her own children.
-Shows her children that it's okay to laugh even during difficult times-humour and optimism can help someone persevere.
-Teaches her kids the importance of honesty.
-Lets her kids know that she will always be there for them even when they are older.
-Celebrates all holidays big and small (not in a materialistic way, but a seize the day kind of way).
-Educates her children and exposes her children to a variety of 'lifestyle' choices rather than just one lifestyle choice.

It's difficult to do all of these things, being a mother (or a father) is a very important role. But, it's also one of those most difficult roles. Many people screw up and that's okay too. I think the important thing is to realize that even if you've screwed up that you can work towards improving the relationship.
posted by livinglearning at 6:00 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

My mother is by no means perfect, but I have always been completely convinced of her unconditional love and that she's always got my back. I don't always agree with her ideas but I have never felt any doubt that they arise out of the best of intentions for me. For example, she is going to meet my boyfriend's family soon and wants to buy little gifts for all the family members. I think this is going overboard, but I know that that's just how my mom operates and that's she doing it out of the purest of intentions. I had a period of teenage rebelliousness but I'd say I have a pretty close relationship with her now, and we talk nearly every day.

As a child she was a great role model for me as a woman -- she had a challenging job, as did my dad -- yet they were both always there for me for important events in my life and I never felt the lack of parents in my life. She encouraged me to try new things, to do things that girls weren't supposed to be good at and pushed me to excel in many different areas. She and my dad modeled a wonderful relationship for me and I always an ideal l to compare the relationships in my life to. I think this is a large part of the reason why I never fall into unhealthy relationships for very long -- I know what a good one looks like and I know my mom would never want me to settle for less. I love that she's the very antithesis of the stereotypical Indian mom -- rather than pressuring me to marry when I was 24 she's been very patient during my interminable PhD and is really happy with the guy I'm dating -- even though he's not an Indian and seems on the surface to have very little in common with us -- but she can see that he's a great guy and seems likely to make me happy and that's all that really matters to her.

She instilled so many values in me that made me who I am today -- she's not very religious (though occasionally superstitious), very liberal, very feminist and we've had many discussions about controversial topics. She and I occasionally disagree -- such as about gay marriage -- but she's willing to be persuaded and we have very rational discussions. She's always been a go-getter, and taught me the value of just ASKing and not being afraid of authority. All in all, she's been a huge blessing in my life.
posted by peacheater at 6:11 AM on May 3, 2012

Love plus time. My wife has sacrificed nearly all of her interests and spends all her time outside of work with our son, playing with him and listening to him and reading with him and watching his stupid shows and everything. She goes out maybe once every two months. She's on one edge of the spectrum, to be sure, but it's no coincidence our kid is just about perfect.

My own mother demonstrated her love in the form of acceptance. Some other mother might have witnessed my capabilities and been disappointed I didn't become a lawyer or something else high-paying. If mine was, she never showed it. She sees how great what I've got is, sees me happy, and it seems to make her profoundly happy and satisfied.

As you seemed to acknowledge in your post-question comment, you don't need to be perfect. And there's a lot of room to make either of a pair of contradicting decisions. When I was finishing college, I ran up a $1,500 credit card bill and couldn't pay it. My dad refused to help me. My mom paid it off. I think they each did what they did out of love.
posted by troywestfield at 6:14 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Long story short, what is it like to feel unconditionally loved and supported by your mother?

This is, I think, a pernicious myth. I hear people say it all the time, and it always rings a little false. "Unconditional love" is pathological -- if nothing can affect it, then it really means nothing. Sure, some people (I hope most people) get that from their parents as very young children, but that's because they are too young to understand the conditions. As you get older, you get responsibilities, even toward your mom. The quest to regain this feeling is, I suppose, understandable, but it's ultimately infantile.

That being said, I have a pretty great mom. She raised four sons on a fairly tight budget, she encouraged us to do our own thing, she reminded us that actions have consequences ("well, what did you think would happen?") although she clearly empathized with our concerns and problems, she answered our questions as honestly as she could, she controlled our activities no more than was necessary to keep us from seriously injuring each other or ourselves, and she did everything in her power to expose us to art, history, literature, science, critical thinking, and the tools we needed to construct our own moral compasses. She gave us good advice, but did not give us a hard time when we didn't heed her and things went poorly (beyond asking us "well, what did you think would happen," if that seemed helpful). Heck, I still call my mom for work advice, since she also worked in academia, and, despite her longish retirement, her insights are still sharp.

Now, this makes my family sound very cerebral, and we were/are. My mom also let us know that she loved us and respected the people we were becoming. She also let us know when we disappointed her and that her love and respect, although considerable and freely given, could be lost through sufficient bad behavior (none of us crossed that line, as far as I know, but there were lines). At the heart of it, when we were old enough to reason, we knew that we had to respect her (not, mind you, in a particularly authoritarian way). When I was maybe 12, she went back to school, and that respect meant picking up more of the tasks around the house and respecting her needs for time and uninterrupted study.

Anyway, that's my great mom. I wouldn't trade her in, and I hope she feels the same way about me.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:21 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I disagree with troywestfield above. I don't disagree that love and time are important ingredients in making a good mother, but I don't think it's necessary or even healthy to sacrifice all one's interests once one has a child. My mom has always been her own person, with her own often consuming interests, and I've always respected and loved her more for it. She certainly didn't spend every free moment playing with me -- rather I think she treated me as a little person pretty early on. I loved nothing more than sitting in the middle of the living room, doing my homework, or reading a book, while the adults talked around me. Every once in a while I would have something to say about something they were discussing and they always treated my opinions with respect.
posted by peacheater at 6:22 AM on May 3, 2012 [10 favorites]

One important thing my mother did for my sister and I was to not obsess about her weight or appearance. Women get exposed to enough body-criticizing stuff out in the world without it starting at home. She always ate as much as she felt like of healthful food and made sure we did the same. I've spent short amounts of time with women my mother's age who are constantly discussing or mentioning how fat they are and how they are dieting, even though they aren't fat at all. I found it disturbing. I can't even imagine how harmful this would be to a child to constantly hear growing up. If you have an unhealthy personal relationship to food, my advice is to keep it to yourself and give your children a chance to grow up without that ingrained in them.
posted by starfishprime at 6:29 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I felt unconditionally loved by my mother when I was growing up. Now that I'm an adult we have a more difficult relationship and don't talk much and I can recognize things that she did that probably messed us up to some extent, but I still think of her as a "good mother." I know it's kind of a cliche, but I really do believe that she did her best, and it was good enough (my sister and I are basically happy, healthy adults). I think a lot of "bad mother" actions (in my case and in my friends' relationships) come down to the mother thinking of the daughter as an extension of herself and not as a person in her own right - worrying about how the daughter's behavior reflects on the mother, wanting the daughter to make the decisions the mother would make, sacrificing too much of her own life for the daughter, etc. etc.

I suspect there are a lot of ways of being a good mother, and I'm *sure* that there's a continuum of good mothering. Why would we expect mother-child relationships to be any less fraught than every other relationship in our lives? It's kind of like asking what makes a good friend or a good spouse.
posted by mskyle at 6:32 AM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't say my relationship with my mother is by all means perfect, but I do think she's been a great mom to me. Some key points:

--She parented me the way I needed to be parented. I'm a very logical person, a talky person. If she wanted me to do something, she would explain to me the reasons why she wanted me to do it, let me argue the point, and (most times) eventually convince me. The phrase "because I said so" was spoken very, very rarely in our house, even when I was quite young. And I think that was a very important basis for our good relationship. I always felt like she interacted with me as me, rather than just "a child."

--She pushed hard on the essential things, and gave me choice on almost everything else. Schoolwork was essential and that's about it. Which allowed me to feel that I had a lot of control over my home life (a critical thing when I felt like I didn't have any control at all over things that happened outside the house, like friend relationships and my interaction with society in general).

--She's always very positive about my life and tells me how much she loves me and is proud of me every single time we talk. I have never ever in my life doubted that she loves me. Even when we fought. Even when I was expressing doubt about myself ("Oh, god, grad school, how can I do this???") she only ever said that she believed in me. Only once can I remember any departure from that (she said something to an acquantance in my hearing, making a snarky joke about my English major degree), and the minute I said something about it she apologized and reassured me that she didn't for a second really mean it.

--She modeled good behavior for things like balancing a checkbook, being on time, being responsible. It sometimes shocks me to discover people who don't have a budget and don't know where their money's gone, since that was something that our family always just did.

--She sacrificed things for herself so that I could have a good education and a broadened mind. I got to travel overseas when I was young, even before she got to. I went to good schools. She paid for my college. And I am who I am in part because of those experiences, and I'm so gratfeul for them.
posted by marginaliana at 6:37 AM on May 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

In my case, we were loved, we were safe, we were respected, and all mistakes could be fixed and would not make my mom (or dad) love us any less. They supported our unique interests and goals, even when they did not share them. They shared their interior lives judiciously, so that they didn't burden us with adult problems when we were too young, but also so that we would learn about how adults deal with problems and that our parents were people too, as we got older.

I have kids now, and I think being a parent with an inner emotional life (because that's what we're talking about, right? Parents who may do fine with all the extracurricular activities and math homework and doctor's appointments (or may not), but interact in emotionally inappropriate ways with their kids?) is that it's a little bit like Santa Claus. You go a long way out of your way to create this mythical, magical experience for your child, and to let them in on the secret when they're old enough, and to keep Christmas joyful after the secret's out, and to teach your child about when other people get to learn about Santa Claus. So, your kids start out pretty clueless about your inner emotional life and you protect them from most of it, create a safe and fairly uncomplicated world where the primary message is that they are loved. Then as they get a little older you let them see a little bit more, and a little bit more, and a little bit more, of the complexity of adult emotions. One day they're in on the secret that you, too, are all messed up inside, but hopefully you've bridged the gap carefully enough that the magic of Christmas survives.

Because all the time you're a parent having emotions, you're also teaching your kids about emotions and how to appropriately manage, express, and think about them. And while I'm sure this come naturally to some parents, and I think a lot of people have to be pretty intentional about it. Kids can read you, they know you're upset, and so how do you talk about that? If you're frustrated at work, do you bang around the house scowling and refusing to talk about it and shouting at minor problems? Or do you say, "Boy, I am really frustrated at work because my project had a problem today, and it's put me in a terrible mood. I think I'm going to play a video game to try to take my mind off it so I can relax and stop being so grumpy"? Because the second one both tells your kids where your grumpiness is coming from (not them!) AND teaches them how to talk about and manage that feeling of frustration (not by shouting at unrelated things!).

I think, most of the time, when I read about parents and children in relationships that aren't emotionally healthy, the parent can't navigate this. Either they don't know HOW to manage and express their own emotions, or they repress them all, or they express them totally freely to their children in age-inappropriate ways.

Part of what might be making you nervous is that I think a lot of people read, say, a description of a narcissistic mother and say, "Oh, I recognize that, I've thought that sometimes." I mean, I, personally, would occasionally love to be a drama queen at the center of some giant dramatic THING. But I learned when I was a teenager that that was not a good way to be, and I certainly wouldn't act that way around my children. Occasionally when I am exhausted and grumpy, I'm tempted ... but not very tempted. Instead I say, "Mommy is grumpy. Let's watch a movie/go for a walk/build a block house."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:43 AM on May 3, 2012 [27 favorites]

Recently I read a study referring to the age at which girls hit puberty being much lower in families with absent fathers and there was a related study which wasn't described in death that referred to the puberty age being affected by the amount of childhood stress. That got me thinking.

I know that stress can be difficult to quantify, but you can see the sorts of things that would stress a kid: disorganization causing things to be last minute, general security from harm, food security (or at least the perception thereof). Since so much of one's young life is only at home, interacting only with family members, it's safe to say that providing organization, structure, and security would be the main elements of being a good parent. Any idiot can be loving, but being able to provide the safety and consistent order is a tough job. And that'll only get oyu as far as raising the average kid.
posted by Sunburnt at 6:44 AM on May 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is, I think, a pernicious myth. I hear people say it all the time, and it always rings a little false. "Unconditional love" is pathological -- if nothing can affect it, then it really means nothing.

Maybe a better term would be "selfless love" or "honestly-given love" or something. Love where a person genuinely holds the other person's happiness and well-being as something with intrinsic worth. Because, yeah, I agree, there's nothing about the parent-child relationship that implies that a parent should never correct a child, or that parents should endure any kind of treatment from their children, etc., but I think it's still useful to have a concept for "This person respects and values my happiness/safety/well-being for its own sake, and not because of what I can do to fulfill their wants."

So while I see your point that "unconditional love" is maybe not the best phrase, I think it's useful term for contrast, because sadly there are people who only extend "love" in order to fulfill their own immediate emotional needs, and will withdraw it if they don't need that fulfillment at a particular moment. This kind of person is never really fun to deal with, but the damage they do is particularly profound if you're unlucky enough to get one as a parent.
posted by kagredon at 7:00 AM on May 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

I like the concept of the good-enough mother. Easy for me to say, because I don't have kids and would have a hard time aiming, specifically, for a "good-enough" result. But I think of my mother as a good-enough mother. A lot of shit went down in our family-- starting with how young she was when she got pregnant-- but she was committed. And she had a lot of what I consider personality flaws; I would not want to be friends with who I remember her being when I was a little kid. She was who she was; we were who we were and she had to work with what she had.

Now, some of this is hindsight. I had a pretty good relationship with her as an adult, where we both admitted things were rocky in the past. Without that, I might sound more judgmental.
posted by BibiRose at 7:09 AM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, this thread makes me cry. My mother died in 2002, and she was the greatest mother a girl could have asked for. I love all the stories/examples folks have written upthread, but it makes me too weepy (conspicuous, here in my cubicle) to write as much detail. Let me tell you the thing I miss most about Mama, which is also an answer to your question, "What is it like to feel unconditionally loved and supported by your mother?" The thing I miss most is the feeling that someone really and truly knows me, everything about me, and loves the person I am even when I'm at my very worst. My mother loved me in a way that helped me believe everything was going to be all right in any given crisis. My father was truly awful...that's a whole other story...but I walk around feeling like I had a good childhood despite him because of how fantastic my mother was. I'm sorry that yours did such a number on you. I really am.
posted by little mouth at 7:10 AM on May 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

One common denominator I see in good parents and in people who want to be good parents (whether they are able to be or not in the end) is worrying about being a good parent.

Since you are worrying about being a good parent, you are off to a good start in determining how you will parent your future children.

That said, you don't necessarily need to look to your mother for guidance in how to be a parent. You can look to your father. What did you father do for you? You can look to other relatives who are parents, or the parents of good friends, etc. But also keep in mind that parents are people. And people have some failings.

I am doing my damnedest to be a good mother to my two kidaroos. But sometimes I yell too much. Sometimes I expect too much of them for their ages. Sometimes I need to get away from them in order to continue being a good mother. And if I haven't yet, I'm sure I will let them down at some point in some way --- hopefully in no terribly disastrous way.

Good parents know they are only human and still strive to do what is best, even if the kid may not always see it that way.
posted by zizzle at 7:20 AM on May 3, 2012

My kids are grown and they still like me, and I'm proud of that. I tried to be a better parent than my parents and I guess I succeeded, in spite of enormous obstacles. Just like me, my kids are better parents to their kids than their father and I were for them.

One big thing that's changed over the last several decades, at least in many western cultures, is the role of men in childrearing. My sons, who were all born in the 1970s, are every bit as fully involved in raising their children as the children's moms are.

So, if you do have kids, you will be a better parent than your mother was, and you'll be doing it with a partner who is as fully invested in being a great parent as you are. Don't worry.
posted by mareli at 7:39 AM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing my mom would say over and over again when I misbehaved was "I will always love you, but sometimes I may not like you very much." It sounds harsh but it taught me a very, very important thing. People you love can, sometimes, do things you don't like. That doesn't mean you stop loving them. It also gave me the assurance that if I screwed up and got bad grades or was disrespectful or whatever, that my mom would still love me.

It also taught me that it's okay to screw up. She was very forgiving when I would mess up and unlike my dad, she wouldn't bring up that time I mistook bleach for fabric softner every damn time I did the laundry.

She was also, and this is blindingly important, genuinely surprised every time I failed. If there was something I tried to do, no matter how easy or hard, she always (at least in the way she acted to me) assumed I would be successful. If something didn't work or I messed up, she really, honestly was surprised as if the idea that her daughter couldn't do something never occurred to her. There's something reassuring about someone always believing that you could do something. Even if it wasn't possible. And there's something amazingly awesome about someone saying to you in the darkest moments of failure, "You can do this baby, I know you can." And knowing they really, really mean it.
posted by teleri025 at 7:42 AM on May 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

The character Tammy in the excellent TV series Friday Night Lights is a great example of a good mother.
posted by Wordwoman at 8:43 AM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

When my first baby was born, I held him and knew that my mother loved me more totally and more fiercely than I had ever imagined.

My mother has always been loving. She has been an unfailing source of tenderness, insight, and fun. She has always given me a wise balance between safety and independence. And even though I knew all those things, and have always loved her, it wasn't until I had my own child that I truly realized just how much I was (and am) loved. I still carry that with me, because really understanding that you - with all your flaws - are worthy of love that monumental is an enormous source of strength.

That's what it feels like - like something that helps me move through the world with grace and self-compassion, every day, from my first breaths to this very morning, and for always.
posted by Ausamor at 9:05 AM on May 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: It's nearly Mother's Day, so I love this thread. I'm a good mom. My kids think I am a great mom. I know it may seem old-fashioned, but honestly, even though I have a full and separate life, I put them first whenever I can. I really really do. I try and think of things from their perspective -- not push my agenda -- as best I can. I watch, I listen, I move in or pull back based on their cues, not my own. I saw a Mother's Day Oprah one year, and some expert or other advised moms (and dads) to, from very early, let the child be the one who pulls out of a hug. That rang so true to me, and is so profound, and I'd already been doing that. I never let go first. I let them let go of me when they are ready.

And, I can't help but brag. My youngest graduates uni in 2 weeks, and both my daughters and I are decamping for 2 weeks in Belize, just we three. Their choice!! It's incredibly gratifying that they are choosing to spend this time with me, as young women with busy lives.
posted by thinkpiece at 9:20 AM on May 3, 2012 [10 favorites]

This is, I think, a pernicious myth. I hear people say it all the time, and it always rings a little false. "Unconditional love" is pathological -- if nothing can affect it, then it really means nothing.

I think this statement is confusing "love" with "approval"or "praise". If love means desiring the good of the other person-- what's genuinely good for them as an individual person, as opposed to what we'd want in their place, or what we want for them, or what would make us feel good to give them-- then unconditional love will constantly be changing in its manifestations, just as the loved person changes, grows and reacts. It's not a blank smiley-face, regardless of the child's behavior. It's perfectly compatible with disapproval, remonstrance, boundaries, etc., etc., because all those are legitimate and often necessary elements of a nurturing relationship. The point is that unconditional love views the other person's good as an end in itself, not a means to some other selfish end of one's own (getting approval or gratitude, or being loved back, or feeling proud of one's parenting, or basking in reflected glory, or whatever).

I can't believe I'm about to write this, but there's a great line in the movie "Super 8" that sums this up for me. There's a character whose mother has died, watching home movies of his mom with him as a baby. And he says, "Sometimes she would look at me, and I felt like she actually saw me, you know?" A good mom sees her child as an individual human being whose existence is good in its own right. And if she's got issues and needs of her own, she's mature enough to take those elsewhere, rather than trying to get those needs met, in whatever fashion, through her child.
posted by Bardolph at 9:35 AM on May 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm having a hard time coming up with something a good mother does that a good father doesn't, but here are some things my parents have gotten right. None of these things require perfection, none require perfect upbringings to perpetuate. Examples included, to make it seem more achievable to someone thinking about cycle-breaking.

- They've given a lot of thought to the good and bad parts of their own upbringing, and very consciously applied them to parenting me. They also gave some thoughts to some possibly-genetic tendencies in the family and how to mitigate the likelihood of my developing them long before I could have shown any signs. (Example: there was a lot of food weirdness and overeating-related issues in the family. I was never forced to clean my plate, and they made very few comments on my body shape, while also ensuring that there was lots of healthy food I liked in the house at all times.)
- Related to above, they quashed some hangups that they had for long enough to cheer me towards whatever terrifying-looking thing I was doing. They're less good at this now, for some reason, but I'm old and confident enough that I can lovingly tell them to stuff it. (Ex: I moved about 5 hours away to college and apparently they found this quite terrifying, but I didn't know until after I'd graduated.)
- I never felt concern over my physical needs, even when they were in flux due to layoffs, divorce etc.
- As an adult, I've never found that there were any aspects of being an adult that had been hidden from me (unlike friends who couldn't do laundry or pay bills or whatever). I also never felt like my responsibilities were more than what was fair as a member of the household. (Ex: A lot of doing laundry or cooking together, and mom didn't wait until I was in bed or at school to do the grownup stuff. I was in charge of making my own lunch with little assistance from 1st or 2nd grade.)
- I never thought their love was in question. They might be mad about something I did, but not because of anything I WAS. (Ex: I can't remember them ever using a negative adjective to describe me, only something I did, and then neverever "stupid" or "lazy" or whatever. Hearing that stuff always breaks my heart.)
- There are a number of instances of them having taken me really seriously at a very young age. (Two: My dad quit smoking when I was 5 or 6 because I asked him to. I refused to call my now-ex-stepdad "Daddy" at 4 and my mom backed me up on this despite some serious repercussions.) They paid enough attention to know when I meant something, and in those cases they respected my inherent worth and dignity. "Because I said so" was not a good enough reason for something to happen, although "I'll explain later" sometimes was.
- If one of these things didn't happen for some reason, they apologized, later.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:43 AM on May 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Another book you might find helpful is Parenting from the Inside Out, which offers a neuroscience approach to making different parenting choices than those you were raised with. It looks at why parents make the choices they do, and how you can make sense of your past and move forward with parenting in more conscious and self-aware ways. You'll get things wrong, too - everyone does - but you'll gain more of an understanding of why, and how, and what you can repair, both with your child and with your parents.
posted by judith at 10:09 AM on May 3, 2012

Best answer: "Unconditional love" is pathological -- if nothing can affect it, then it really means nothing. Sure, some people (I hope most people) get that from their parents as very young children, but that's because they are too young to understand the conditions. As you get older, you get responsibilities, even toward your mom.

This is only true if the "conditions" you're talking about are really basic-to-being-a-human things, like not suddenly going on a murder spree — and this has nothing to do with having responsibilities, to your parents or to the world, because you can fail at one of your responsibilities and still be worthy of love. This is the whole point of the "unconditional" thing: to make it clear that you can fuck up in all kinds of ways, fail to do things you should've done, disappoint or annoy or fight with your parents, and still receive their love. Good parents, in my experience, often make this very explicit — "I'd hate it if you did X, so please don't do that, but I'd still love you." The point is, the parent's total approval of, or happiness with, the child are conditional, but their basic, foundational love for them is not. This lays a foundation for the child's own self-esteem and gives them a baseline for understanding that all people are worth loving in this way.

The character Tammy in the excellent TV series Friday Night Lights is a great example of a good mother.

Wow, no, she's really not, and I apologize for the derail but it amazes me that people look to that show as a model of good parenting rather than creepy paternalism. She does the present-and-supportive thing okay, but it comes with a huge price in "mother knows best." She's a narcissistic moralist, a condescending scold, and a terribly bad listener. She insists on controlling her daughter's sexuality, seeming to imply that her virginity is more important than her happiness. She pries and snoops, disregarding her daughter's privacy. She often seems totally unable to regard her daughter as a separate person with her own needs and desires rather than an extension of Tammy, and she constantly talks to her teenage daughter as though she were five years old. The Friday Night Lights model of parenting is that of the narcissistic parent, because the show is written to make an adult audience feel validated — so the situations are constructed so that the adult is nearly always completely in the right (or when they aren't it's because the child has concealed the facts from them), and the child just has to be made to see the light, with a bunch of lectures, stern pep talks, and/or deserved punishment. Tammy is usually in the right not because she's acting in a way that would make for good parenting in the real world, but rather because the fictional world she lives in is constructed to make her look good. A real-world Julie would've long since learned to shut her mother out of her private life, to avoid all the worrying and all the lectures.

posted by RogerB at 10:15 AM on May 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

My mother is an amazing example of a great mother (and now grandmother). She always put her kids first, but not like a martyr. Pretty much every decision she made when we were growing up had a "how will it impact on my children" component. She didn't always do the thing that was easiest on us or what we wanted, but we knew if a decision had been made that impacted the family we had been considered and we'd be prepared for any negative impact. Be it anything from buying a new couch to moving house. She supported us in everything unconditionally, we wanted to try something new she'd be behind us 100% even if we lost interest and wanted to do something else 2 weeks later.
She sees us as we are and loves us as we are, with all our faults and foibles.

She listened to us and family always came first. Always. No matter what your family comes first. That is the thing my brother and I have taken from her that I am most proud of.

And now I'm crying because she's on the other side of the world and I miss her terribly.
posted by wwax at 11:24 AM on May 3, 2012

My mother-in-law was the best of my "other mothers." She was fabulous because nothing I said could rattle or disturb her. I had her full attention in conversation, and her follow-up questions were always designed to make me reflect rather than to feel any one specific emotion. She remembered little throwaway comments and asked after my friends (even when she couldn't remember their names) and genuinely cared about the state of my relationship with them. Not once in my all-too-brief time as her daughter-in-law did she violate a confidence, or use information against me; there was a real safety in her. Never did she trivialize my emotions or deny that I felt the way I said I did. She invited me into her kitchen, the heart of her house (although she never cooked), and created a space where I felt secure being myself and doffing my armor. Her advice was peerless--sophisticated, smart, compassionate--and flawless, and she had a very, very deep understanding of people's motivations and emotions. Even if she suggested advice that seemed hard to follow, I always knew it was spot-on and strove to rise to it because she made me feel like I *could.* Talking with her made me feel like I had worth just because I was me, loved even when imperfect. She lifted me. But then, she lifted everyone. The ache of being without all of that is so sharp, especially now that I need her advice on motherhood. She told me to invent it as I went along. I'm trying. God, I miss her.
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:43 AM on May 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Like you, my mom was abused as a child, as were her siblings. She and her sister were constantly abused emotionally as well as neglected - as the oldest child, my mom took on a lot of parenting duties (cooking, cleaning, laundry, helping with homework). Their brother was physically abused in addition to everything else. Divorce, re-marriage.

She herself has been a fantastic mother and has, with my dad, reared two children who are largely happy, have our own boyfriends/husbands, and have a strong relationship with her even though we're both in our 30s at this point. I would be surprised if she hadn't had a lot of the same worries about turning into her mom, but that's not how it turned out.

For that matter, my aunt has an incredibly strong relationship with her son. My uncle was in his 50s before he really settled down, but he's doing better these days as well.

Your past is not destined to be your future. You are not your parents.

As far as parenting... gosh. It's tough for me to try to break it down into principles or anything. As a child protection social worker, my mom felt very strongly that she never needed to hit, so she didn't. She's always had faith in my abilities, although she's never been afraid to let me know when she felt that I was falling short of them.

I remember once being a little kid, I'm not sure how old, and I was lying in bed at bedtime and worried about what would happen if there was a fire. I asked what they would do in the hyper-specific anxiety case of a fire spreading along the hallway that my room was on, and she was absolutely clear that she would run through that fire to get to me.

Regarding appearance, what she said to me once was "everyone is going to get old. If appearance is all you've got, you don't have anything." The ineluctable truth of that statement has stuck with me. My mom has been married to the same man for over 40 years now. No other woman or man in her family has had that, and yet somehow she's the only one that's never made snide comments about weight or hair or whatever.

Hell, my grandmother, before she died, would snipe at my sister about weight. My grandmother talked about the weight she lost because of the esophageal cancer that killed her. Insanity. My sister, in the meantime, has been married to her husband for... 12 years? I think? And a couple for 5 or 6 years before that? And now they have two children that are 8 and 5 and healthy.

It's tough trying to write an answer to this question because how do you reduce the relationship into 500 words, or 1,000, or 10,000? God, I'm making myself teary too.

The thing is, I'd make myself teary trying to answer the same question about fathers. My mom and dad are of course different people! They interacted with us differently. But mothers have no unique responsibility or ability to break or build their children. They really don't. What makes a good mom makes a good dad, too.

Caring, I think. The ways in which my parents treated my needs, fears, desires, and aspirations as important as their own had an impact that I don't think can be overstated. I feel like empathy is perhaps the most important skill a human can develop, and my parents modeled that for me from day one. And this is even though, like all little kids, we tried to abuse it and pout about our hurt feelings to get out of things.

Support and structure. One of the things my mom has said is that neglected and abused children frequently have little to no structure at home and this makes them feel unsafe because they are. When you care enough to shout "get away from the stove!" the child knows you don't want them to be hurt. Children chafe against rules, they test them, they look for loopholes, but deep down they know that the rules keep them safe. When my niece decides she's really mad about something and she wants to hit me, I always ask after her timeout: "would it ever be ok for me to hit you?" and she says "no." She knows, as does her brother, that there is no justification for anyone to hit them.

Family should be the ladder that we climb and the net that catches us when we fall. They don't have to be perfect, just sturdy.
posted by kavasa at 11:51 AM on May 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

My mom is a very good mother and a flawed human being. Thinking about this has been a good exercise for me, actually, because I've felt frustrated with her lately. Her nest is emptying and I (the oldest) have moved far away and gotten married, and it's been tough for her and she can be passive aggressive and... needy? I suppose, and we've been trying to talk it through over the phone, but I miss her pretty deeply every day.

She grew up in a very fraught environment - her own mother was an alcoholic, and her father spoiled her, and she might have been a very different person if they hadn't both died when she was 11 years old. She lived with her brother and his schizophrenic wife for a while, ran away, and was in foster care until she graduated! You'd never guess at this much trauma in her past, if you met her now.

Ways my mom has been a good mom:

She was proud of her accomplishments and positive character traits, and humble about things she felt she could improve.

She worked very hard and was committed, as a young, liberal mother who cloth-diapered, breast-fed, gave birth at home, and made homemade bread every week and, when we said things like "I hate you!", always replied "I'm sorry you feel that way." I don't think you have to do these things to be a good mother, but she followed through. She was consistent. She's a special ed teacher so she's used to dealing with difficult kids! She read about a million parenting books. We always knew that she didn't get everything right, but she cared.

She never lied to us - in fact, she had a story about the consequences of lying, involving a Girl Scout baking contest, that she always told.

She emphasized our own hard work.

She's not musically gifted, but she loved to sing to us, and make up silly songs.

She read to us all the time, from a very early age.

She was strict - limited TV, limited internet, curfews, etc. But when a grey area came up she was understanding, honest and open - the time I brought up birth control with her, when I was 15, comes to mind. She cried so much but in the end she came with me to get it.

She fostered cooperation and protectiveness and strong love between my sisters and I - we remain very close and I think it's due in large part to my mother's unwillingness to play favorites, which is much harder than you think it will be!

She takes feedback. Not always well, but she takes it. I know I can say, "Mom, I need you to just listen instead of offering a bunch of solutions," and she will.

She's been involved in the community in various ways over the years, and doesn't stay still for long. She's always motivated. Nowadays she watches more TV, but I think that's because she's lonely, oh man, this is making me cry.

There are good mothers out there, and they're never perfect, and their hearts all get broken, and I don't think I could ever do it, never mind all my superior the-world-is-overpopulated BS.
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 12:54 PM on May 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My mother was full-on her own person. She had been married to my father for twelve years before they had kids, even, and she was still her own separate person.

I couldn't have possibly found a better mom if I'd tried. She was the breadwinner of the family, so our dad took care of us when my brother and I were small kids. I think this always worried her a little bit, but it turned out pretty great. I was full-on 28 years old before I understood viscerally that some people in the world would treat me like a lesser human because I'm female. I grew up in such a supportive, curious, honest household that I hadn't really even noticed that there was a difference in the way the world treated women.

She was a terrible singer, but sang to us all the time as small children. I think this made me more unafraid.

She attended every single awful middle-school music concert, but had her own clubs and meetings to attend. I think this taught me that her life was deeper than just raising a family.

She took it as of the utmost importance that my brother and I treated everyone with gentleness, respect, and lightheartedness. I never once saw my mom be rude to a single person, and the two of us siblings are both unfailingly nice to and curious about anyone we come across.

She didn't take herself too seriously. She didn't take us too seriously, either. Both of us kids were roundly laughed at when we were acting ridiculous.

I'm having a hard time with this, because the bottom line seems to come down to this: my mother was a kind, thoughtful, wonderful person who knew her own flaws and her workarounds for them. So when first I and then my brother came into the world, we just got happily incorporated into hers.

There's a video of us playing as small children. We're outside, my brother in the sandbox and me just outside of it with a huge branch I'm swinging around. My mother sits in a lawnchair, reading some nerdy sci-fi paperback. "Mom, watch this!" I yell. "Mommmm! Look! I'm a monster!" I'm smashing the branch against the ground. "Neato!" she says. "Monsters don't come near Mommy..." Then she watches for a bit to be sure I'm not aiming for my brother, either, and goes back to her book. Acknowledged, appreciated. And back to her own life.

This is too many words. She died a few years ago, and that was horrible. I should also not neglect to mention that my father is equally wonderful. I definitely know how lucky I am to have had the two of them. They liked themselves, they liked each other for years before we came around, and then they liked us. They turned us both into curious adventurers.

I don't know if this is true, but my feeling is if you are asking yourself these questions, then narcissism is likely a problem that's pretty far down the list. I've heard the advice in creative work that one good method is to research as much as you can, and then lay it all down and start from scratch. I sincerely hope (and it sounds like to this particular stranger) your own life and reading have helped prepare you to be an awesome mother.
posted by lauranesson at 2:09 PM on May 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: When I was seven or so, I was riding somewhere in the car with my mom as the NPR news played on the radio. The story on the radio was talking about a girl who was thrown out of her parents' house. I had never heard of such a thing.

"Why would a mom and dad ever throw their kid out of a house?" I said.

"Don't you ever even worry about that," she said. "There is nothing you can do that would make us kick you out of the house, baby."

And I never did, not from that day forward. My mom was (and is) such a good mom that I can't really make a list, but without writing an article, I can only illustrate this one principle -- she made me feel safe with her.

(I might also add that she had a difficult relationship with her mother, and there was no one to teach her by example, but she had already "mothered" a much younger sister before I was born. My aunt is still "her first baby.")
posted by Countess Elena at 5:05 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is easy!

Do you remember what it was like to be young? Think back. Think back, hard.

Children are not stupid. I personally remember back to about age 1 1/2. My son is now 13v months old.

- Set firm boundaries, but DO explain them as you go!

My parent's answer to "why?" was always, "because I said so."

Fuck that noise. Children are not stupid. They are more likely to respect and appreciate your boundaries if you have cogent explanations. To me, even if they meant well, my parents often came off to me as selfish and negligent (which often, they were!)

If you can't explain it logically to your child, you are probably wrong. Be consistent, enforce win-win boundaries.

- Encourage critical thinking skills and a sense of independence. See above.

- Protect your child from danger. If you have a "gut" feeling - go with it and explain that!

We recently passed on a daycare that on paper would have been truly ideal - my BPD would have gone for it - we're so glad we said no in the end.

All About My BPD Mother, Here.




I could go on about this subject for hours.

Long story short... You do a lot of self-work and introspection. You are lucky enough to find an excellent partner free of trauma (because you've done a lot of self-work, so you can meet them half-way.) And then, you work it like you, your partner's, and your child's life and happiness depends upon it, because it does.

There is another question today about how healthy partners argue with each other, I'm about to go answer that with honesty, so hopefully my answer there will give you further insight. Go find it.

The long and short is that you CAN make a great parent despite a bad childhood. It takes some effort, the kind you are happy to expend because you love your partner and your child(ren) so so much!

posted by jbenben at 10:26 PM on May 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

As an aside....

Although my abusive mom and dad are still alive, I am no longer in contact with them, and I mourned them both like they had passed away to get over my relationships with them.

The door on them needed to close before I could achieve the family life I always aspired to, at least in my experience. Some people try to play both sides of the fence and keep crazy relatives at arms length, but still involved, this strategy did not work for me at all.

The more I appreciated my non-fucked up husband, and then my newborn son, the less I wanted my fucked up family to have access to us.

posted by jbenben at 10:36 PM on May 3, 2012

When my mom made a mistake with me, she owned up to it. When she knew I was keeping something from her, she acted as though I'd already told her and took the next step anyway, without the confrontation. When I screwed up, she told me why and how.

I know that isn't clear, but the effect is that I feel like she and I had all those important conversations, bonded in those Summer's-Eve-commerical mother/daughter ways, but we never really sat down and talked to each other. We didn't have to, and that was all her. Of course we talked; we talked all the time, but I can't point to a specific time when I had to work up the courage to go to her and have a difficult conversation or a confrontation. She somehow managed to help me skip that. Maybe that's not good, I don't know. It worked for me.

She loved to scratch my back and brush my hair and hold me, never shied away from physical affection. She never missed an opportunity to tell us she loved us.

Her affection for my dad wasn't a secret or shameful thing; they would kiss and hug in front of us even when we were very young and when we were the age to say "eeewwwww" at such a thing.

She wasn't shy with her body around me, never slamming a door or fleeing to avoid being seen half-dressed or undressed. I knew what my body would look like and how it would change years before I needed that information for practical reasons, so there wasn't any fear when it all started to happen. I don't know if she did that on purpose.

She worked hard in a field that wasn't friendly to women when she started in it (she was a computer programmer starting in the mid-'60s), and she worked hard, staying home only from the time I was born until my brother started school. She went back to work not because she had to—I think we would have been fine on just my dad's income—but because it was what she wanted to do. There was never any doubt that I would go to college, not just my brother. Never any sense that there were things a man could do that a woman couldn't.

When I asked for nontrivial things I wanted—a kitten when I was 12, a car when I was 17—I got reasoned discussion, in which I was expected to participate, instead of flat refusals or fast agreement.

And now she and my dad have a house with a beautiful swimming pool and I'm allowed to visit and use it whenever I want.
posted by kostia at 3:52 PM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

One more thing: the house was full of books, and not one of them was ever off-limits. If you were old enough to want to read something, you were old enough to be allowed to read it. My best friend has the same rule with her daughters (11 and 8) and it's working out great there too.
posted by kostia at 3:53 PM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

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