Cheers! Why we're all happy to be bad mothers now

Many mums no longer feel the pressure to be perfect.
Many mums no longer feel the pressure to be perfect. Photo: Paul Bradbury

I offended a close friend the other day by calling her a good mum. She was telling me about her weekend plans, which involved National Trust properties and back-to-back kids clubs and parties. As a weekend of nothingness yawned ahead of me, I praised her efforts. I genuinely meant this, but I should have known better: because to commend someone on their mothering skills these days is a backhanded compliment. My friend cried "I AM NOT A GOOD MOTHER", and then reeled off a list of ways in which I was wrong.

You see, for my generation of late twenty- and thirthy-somethings, "imperfect mothering" is the trend du jour. Suddenly we are revelling in the freeing feeling that we don't have to do things "right".

Websites like my own, Selfish Mother, and blogs such as The Unmumsy Mum and Hurrah for Gin have given credence to warts-and-all motherhood, with an almost competitive amusement in how laissez-faire our parenting is.

The American film Bad Moms is another celebration of women letting loose and sticking it to the unrealistic expectations placed on mothers. With Sex and the City, we related to bad dates, best-friend bust-ups and caring too much about our clothes; the characters in Bad Moms bond over boozy brunches, falling off bar stools and "muddling through" motherhood.

This is the backlash against the high standards that were inflicted on the generation of mums slightly before us, when Nigella Lawson's Domestic Goddess book was on everyone's Christmas list; every new mother got a copy of Gina Ford's strict baby routine book; the National Childbirth Trust fixated on the "right" way to give birth. Perfectly slim, perfectly dressed, perfectly poised: motherhood was approaching fetishisation.

Mums of the new generation are more likely to say "Sod the birth plan". We realise that trying to do everything "right" leads to anxiety and stress. Because the truth is that, on the whole, parenting standards are better than ever. Skip back a few decades, when "latch-key kids" let themselves in after school, and children ate Marmite on toast for tea, with Angel Delight for pudding, and few people had even heard of "parenting".

A friend remembers how, when she and her brother were six and eight, her parents would pop into the pub for a drink and leave them in the car in the pub car park. My mum confesses that she didn't find having three kids under five too stressful because she wasn't expecting it to be perfect, so she wasn't stressed out when it wasn't a bed of roses.

The new interest in imperfect mothering suggests we're starting to take a leaf out of our parents' books, relaxing our standards a bit and revelling in honesty.

The reason I launched Selfish Mother in 2013 was because I felt at my wits' end trying to follow all the "rules" with a toddler and a new baby. I had an epiphany that to do things in my own haphazard way was far better for my mindset, and therefore better for us all.


Sarah Turner, aka The Unmumsy Mum, had a similar feeling: "I started the blog because most of the parenting literature I read online felt at odds with how I was finding it all. I decided I would start documenting parenthood exactly as I found it: the good, the bad and the sleep-deprived ugly. I think the success of the blog rests in its honesty. My pictures aren't very glossy, our experiences aren't sugar-coated. It's just real life. The majority of messages I receive are along the lines of 'Thank God, it's not just me!'?"

All of this honesty and solidarity in the face of kid-induced-life-chaos is brilliant at more than just surface level, because women now feel they can talk about anything. Things that were pushed under the carpet before - such as postnatal depression, anxiety or just how bloody hard it is - are now very much out there. This can only be healthy. One mum I spoke to, who has children in their teens, says that she'd wished all this "honest" talk had been around when she had her first baby, as she battled postnatal depression without any support system. Now you can simply share a Facebook or Instagram post on the subject and you'll get a ton of support.

However, some folk have wondered if we're now veering too much the other way - with mums almost competitively saying how "crap" they are, and failing to mention when they do things well. If they bake a cake for instance, they'll probably say something self-deprecating, because, just like my friend, nobody wants to be seen as being that "good" mum.

As an antidote, Telegraph journalist Lucy Denyer wrote a brilliant piece for Selfish Mother recently about how she loves that archetypal Fifties mum activity, housework. She says: "It's quite common, when I see my mum friends, to roll our eyes at the state of our homes and dismiss their untidiness as a badge of something like pride. But the truth is, I love it when my house is clean and tidy. Admitting to domesticity may not be the done thing these days, but it does feel great for me as a person."

And I guess that is the key. While we lower our parenting standards it's helpful to also pat ourselves on the back and admit when we do something that one of those imaginary "perfect" mums would do. Like the fact that last night I got my kids to bed at 6.30pm and read them an hour's worth of children's books, instead of letting them stay up late and watch the iPad like they sometimes do. My sons and I all benefited as a result. So it isn't actually bad to mix parenting styles. Probably the most healthy type of motherhood is "good" and "bad" all rolled into one.

This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in London's The Daily Telegraph.