A few weeks ago, Amy Schumer’s hilarious video sparked a national discussion about how women can’t take a compliment. It’s true that, for many women, it’s become second nature to immediately reject compliments and use self-deprecation as the root of all humor.
Though, unlike the pregnant woman in Schumer’s video, I’ve never referred to my breasts as “shriveled up spaghetti squash,” as a new mom I’ll admit that I participate in this type of self-deprecation quite a bit. It’s easy to make light of my frustrations and struggles as a working parent, especially since so many crises, a few minutes after the fact, are so funny. For example, the other day I sent a one-line email to a few of my mom friends that went something like this: “Never-have-I-ever accidentally faux-tanned my infant son’s elbow because I picked him up before my Jergens 'Natural' Glow lotion dried. [Drink].”
That’s right—as a working parent, I simply don’t have time to let lotion fully absorb into my skin before moving on to the next task.
But what’s behind these “bad mommy” jokes? A few years ago, Ayelet Waldman's controversial memoir Bad Mother argued that jokes about our personal parenting failures conceal real feelings of guilt and inadequacy. This guilt, she argued, is in response to a culture that makes all women feel like they’re bad mothers who never do enough. To guard ourselves against this bad-mom-police culture, we “defy the world to come up with an accusation we have not already leveled against ourselves.”
There’s no doubt that I’ve become a cog in this wheel, but I find that my humor and its underlying feelings are complicated. When I refer to my daycare provider as “the baby whisperer” because she’s able to predict my son’s next milestone (rolling over, sprouting his first tooth) down to the minute, am I concealing my own fear that she’s a better caregiver than I am? When I announce on Twitter that I’m watching the premiere of Project Runway from my carpet while my son plays with a cardboard box beside me, am I unconsciously revealing my fear that I’m failing to create an engaging life for him?
Perhaps I feel the need to joke about parenthood because to do otherwise would make me seem out of control. In my professional life, I’m constantly focused on avoiding the “harried working mom” stereotype. I want to seem calm, collected, and fully present at all times. By making light of my experience as a career-loving parent, am I silently consenting to a culture that still requires mothers with careers to, at the very least, publicly display a little guilt?
Maybe. But I don’t think writing off sarcasm is the solution. After all, laughing about the brief but excruciating difficulties of parenting—the meltdowns (yours and your children’s), the exhaustion, the “but why?”s—allows us to commiserate, bond, and create a shared culture with other parents.
I hope that my son adopts the dry, sarcastic sense of humor of his parents (hopefully, though, with a little less profanity). That being said, I don’t want his wit to rely solely on self-deprecation. And I certainly don’t want my “bad mommy” quips to shape how he sees me. I want him to know that, of course, there are times when I feel insecure and overwhelmed as a mother, but that these moments don’t define me or our relationship as mother and son.
So, from now on, I’m re-examining casual “bad mommy” references. When a friend jokes about her parenting failure du jour, I won’t be afraid to offer genuine support if self-doubt seems to motivate her remark. I will balance each of my own sarcastic comments with a boast about my parenting prowess. (For example, I’ve committed most Dr. Seuss books to memory, allowing me to read them to my son without looking at the pages, so he can chew on the cover while I narrate, as he prefers.) And I’ll resist the urge to couch every workplace conversation about parenting in sarcasm for fear that—God forbid—I’ll reveal a bit of my identity as a mom.