Outlaw, Not “Bad”

On letting go of the mother guilt

Written by NPN Guest on October 14th, 2013

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Activism, Featured, Feminism

I remember one summer, living in a friend’s house in Vermont. My husband was working abroad for several weeks, and my three sons — nine, seven, and five years old — and I dwelt for most of that time by ourselves. Without a male adult in the house, without any reason for schedules, naps, regular mealtimes, or early bedtimes so the two parents could talk, we fell into what I felt to be a delicious and sinful rhythm. It was a spell of unusually hot, clear weather, and we ate nearly all our meals outdoors, hand-to-mouth; we lived half-naked, stayed up to watch bats and stars and fireflies, read and told stories, slept late. I watched their slender little-boys’ bodies grow brown, we washed in water warm from the garden hose lying in the sun, we lived like castaways on some island of mothers and children. At night they fell asleep without murmur and I stayed up reading and writing as I had when a student, till the early morning hours. I remember thinking: This is what living with children could be — without school hours, fixed routines, naps, the conflict of being both mother and wife with no room for being simply, myself. Driving home once, after midnight, from a late drive-in movie, through the foxfire and stillness of a winding Vermont road, with three sleeping children in the back of the car, I felt wide awake, elated; we had broken together all the rules of bedtime, the night rules, rules I myself thought I had to observe in the city or become a “bad mother.” We were conspirators, outlaws from the institution of motherhood; I felt enormously in charge of my life.

— Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born (boldface mine)

One morning last year, my older son seemed tired and listless when he awoke — not his usual self. We decided to keep him home from school, even though we knew that shortly after we decided to keep him home from school, he would likely perk up and return to his usual self — which he did. Eh, whatever: I didn’t have anything all that pressing to do, and with our younger son just a few weeks old, the three-year-old probably (OK, definitely) needed more time with Mommy.

So we got ourselves dressed and went out to a local café to meet a friend and her littler little one. I promised my older son that we could share a mug of hot chocolate there, which we did.

And then came the (inevitable?) moment when I looked across the table at my son’s hot-chocolate mustache, and I thought, My goodness, what a bad mother I must be to let my little boy have chocolate before noon! Or something along those lines.

And then I thought: No — of course I’m not a “bad” mother. I’m an outlaw mother.

I must say, that small change in terminology does wonders to make the mother guilt go away! How quickly it banishes all those internalized voices that say things that trouble me even though I don’t even believe or care about any of them. You know, things like, Are you really going to let your child splash in those puddles? Or, Do you really need your child to be in preschool for so many hours each week if you work from home? And what are you doing working so much, anyway? Maybe you should give up your writing…. And so on and on and blah blah blah.

Thank you, Adrienne Rich, for giving me (us) that lovely word, outlaw!

Natural Parents Network: Outlaw, Not "Bad"

Outlaw from What?

Rejecting the “bad” mother label doesn’t mean that I embrace all that I do. I certainly don’t embrace those times when I lose my cool and yell at the children, for example. Nor does rejecting the label mean that all of my decisions — such as the decision to send our son to the neighborhood school — are final, never to be the subject of further consideration. It just means that when it comes to mothering, such external measures as society’s expectations and other people’s opinions simply don’t matter. Not even when they speak to me through internalized voices. And certainly not even when they describe our family’s path as “extreme” on the cover of a national magazine.

I need not be institutionalized in whatever version of motherhood society thinks is best. Yes, even as a mother, I can be in charge of my life.

After all, our society’s vision of “good” motherhood is incoherent at best. Am I supposed to have children and then go on with my life — keeping up with my social life, staying sexy for my husband, working hard to earn my portion of our bread, etc. — as though nothing has changed? Or am I supposed to abandon myself entirely to my children’s needs? Heck, despite the evidence, society can’t even make up its mind about breastfeeding. Is it good or bad? Perhaps the virtuous mother breastfeeds her child, but not for too long — whatever “too long” might be — and certainly not in public? Or maybe it’s tolerable in public so long as the child is an infant and the mother is “discreet”?

Whatever the answers to these questions may be…well, actually I’m not asking these questions.

In fact, the questions I want to be asking about my mothering don’t have anything to do with good and bad. I ask myself: How well are the members of our family connecting with each other? How well are we taking care of each other, ourselves, our home? Are the little ones thriving? Is my husband thriving? Am I thriving?

Letting Go of “Bad” Means Letting Go of “Good”

My older son goes through periods of exploring what it means to be a “bad guy.” I don’t really know what conclusions he’s drawn, but occasionally he’ll announce, fiercely, “I’m a bad guy.”

At dinner one night, he made such an announcement, but he seemed kinda upset about it (I don’t remember why). That’s when I looked into his eyes and said something that surprised even me.

I didn’t say the usual, “No matter what, you’re always good,” or anything like that.

Instead, I said, “Don’t worry so much about bad and good.”

I could have (should have) added, “Just worry about taking care of whatever needs your care.”

Advice I should follow myself…


Rachael is the work-at-home mother of a vivacious two-year-old boy. As a freelancer, she edits and writes educational materials for K–12 students and teaches online creative writing classes through The Writers Studio. She is also a poet who was foolish enough to have married an artist. Though Rachael never planned to do anything other than attachment parenting, her pre-motherhood self probably would be surprised to see her happily nursing a toddler — and in a family bed! She is grateful to have found an online community of others doing much the same. Rachael writes about making her way toward work-life balance in a family of artists at The Variegated Life.

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This article has been edited from a previous version published at The Variegated Life.

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