‘I’ll Show You a Bad Mother, Bitch!’: On Mother’s Groups

Mothers' groups attract strong feelings - they’re either loved or loathed by their members, as strongholds of sisterhood and support, or arenas of judgement and one-upmanship. Why are they so significant?

In this extract from her new book, Things I Didn’t Expect (When I Was Expecting), Monica Dux explains how these groups are the places where the brand new identity of Mother is tried on for size.

Image: Monica Dux (supplied)

The author (supplied)

It’s been said that when a woman gives birth to a child, she also gives birth to her new self. You become a Mother, and in our society, that is one of the most fundamental ways that a woman’s identity can be transformed, morphing from a regular human into a walking cliché; one that is heavily loaded with onerous assumptions and expectations. Just think how much more emotive a news headline is when it screams ‘Mother dies in car accident’ rather than ‘Woman dies in car accident’.

Motherhood has always been a defining feature of womanhood, but it’s arguable that in the past century it has been raised to new heights of hyper-identity. Once, being a mother was just a part of what a woman did as a unit in a functioning society. Now, when you have a baby, it completely defines your social role, or rather, re-defines it. In fact, once you get over the physical devastation of pregnancy and birth, this pressure to reinvent yourself according to a new set of rules becomes the paramount struggle for new mothers.

Image: Book cover

To Ben Killingsworth, mothers’ groups are places where women actively grapple with the demanding new social identity that procreation thrusts upon them. As an example he pointed to the alcohol-related banter that is so popular in these gatherings. Many of the groups he studied regularly regaled each other with stories of their past drinking exploits, as well as bragging about any current ones they managed to fit in. ‘They weren’t alcoholics,’ he told me, ‘It just seemed to be something they talked about to show they were still part of the “real world”.’

Alicia’s ‘crew’ fitted this model perfectly. When I asked them to tell me about their happiest mothers’ group memory, it was unanimous. As Alicia put it, ‘My absolute best moment was when we all went out for the first time after we’d stopped breastfeeding and Sharon was hospitalised for alcohol poisoning and I vomited all over my business suit on the way to work the next morning!’ Even the unfortunate Sharon, who had little recollection of the evening itself, counted it among the best of her life: ‘Being on a drip the whole next day wasn’t great, but hey, it sounded like a fantastic evening.’ Party on, Shaza!

In the cult television series Breaking Bad, the character Jesse finds himself held captive by a couple of deranged drug addicts. They have a young son who is severely neglected, unwashed, hungry and lonely, struggling to survive in a household where the parents never even notice him. Jesse and the two junkies are locked in a sordid life-and-death battle over drugs and money, yet it is only after Jesse rebukes the mother for her treatment of her son that she gets really furious, waving a gun in his face while screaming, ‘I’ll show you a bad mother, bitch!’

This scene says it all. The woman is a murderer, a thief, a drug addict and a dealer; she has imprisoned Jesse and probably intends to kill him. She appears to accept all this about herself, but to be accused of being a bad mother is simply too much. It is, quite literally, the very worst thing a woman can be.

In an era where women are told they can be mothers and yet also have careers and independence, the danger of becoming a bad mother seems even more menacing. What if we become so distracted by all our so-called ‘options’ as to ignore our true maternal calling?

In order to relieve the tension caused by living with this monumental hazard, mothers have started joking about their badness, sharing anecdotes about maternal indiscretions. And this kind of humour - the black comedy of someone else’s failings - can be cathartic. You laugh because you see yourself there or because you know how close you have come to being that person. Yet the ‘crimes’ that typify the bad-mummy genre aren’t so much black as slightly off-white: the mum who fed her kids Coco Pops for dinner (oh, how could you!), had a couple of glasses of wine when they were still breastfeeding (ohhh, you naughty girl, you!) or popped down to the 7-Eleven for a carton of milk while the baby was sleeping (enough, enough, I’m going to wet myself!).

In this context being a ‘bad’ mum is a badge of honour, not a reprimand. What we’re really saying when we indulge in bad-mother banter is that for brief moments, in very small ways, we put our own needs ahead of those of our children. Which actually makes us normal, good mothers. After all, feeding your children Coco Pops for dinner can only seem funny to a woman who almost always gives her offspring fresh, nutritious food.

The truly capital ‘B’ Bad Mothers - like the one in Breaking Bad - are sacrilegious, an affront not just to motherhood but all humanity. That’s Bad Mothering all right, but you won’t find any mention of it at the #badmother hash tag on twitter.

For Ben Killingsworth, things like mothers’ group booze-ups and bad-mother humour are attempts by new mothers to cling to aspects of their former lives, when the simple act of going out and sinking a few beers did not involve baby-sitting fees, a breast pump, and a splitting headache when you get up at 5 a.m. to feed the little bugger. But even as women fight to hold onto part of their old, pre-maternal selves, they are also struggling to create a new maternal identity that they can feel comfortable with. To Killingsworth, this usually meant attempting to embrace what he labelled the ‘selfless mother’ pose.

In the popular consciousness, it’s selfishness that most epitomises the really Bad Mother. It’s this that must be avoided at all costs. Yet it’s not easy to live up to such an onerous ideal, and women struggle to become the kind of woman who nobly sacrifices everything for her children, always putting them first and doing the right thing by them. For most contemporary women it involves a radical realignment of priorities, and the protocols of mothers’ group - sharing with other women who are going through a similar experience of reinvention - enables women to practise and come to terms with their new identity.

Portrait of Monica Dux

Monica Dux is a columnist with the Age, and the author of Things I Didn’t Expect (when I was expecting) (2013), co-author of The Great Feminist Denial (2008), and editor of the forthcoming anthology Mothermorphosis (April 2015). She can be heard regularly on ABC radio and 3RRR, and has published widely, especially on women’s issues. Monica is a founding board member of the Stella Prize.

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