Naughty Mommies

A mother tells her child that Häagen Dazs is a special medicine for mommies because she doesn't want to share. Another purposely ruins her daughter's favorite T-shirt with red nail polish. One joins Weight Watchers so she has a place to go by herself once a week. Another mom admits, "I can't wait to wean my daughter so I can get stoned again."

These are some of the "mommy misdemeanors" revealed in the book True Mom Confessions, published this month. In the introduction, author Romi Lassally explains that she launched in 2007 as a forum for women to share their transgressions. "Online, under the veil of anonymity and with 24/7 accessibility, I believed that the conversation about the REAL and not the IDEAL of motherhood could flourish," she writes. The book is a compendium of Lassally's favorite admissions, which pour in daily from all over the country.

Welcome to bad-mom culture, in which women don't just own up to their maternal shortcomings -- they flaunt them. Moms have been publicly admitting to their mixed feelings about motherhood at least since 1976, when Adrienne Rich compared herself to a monster in the feminist classic Of Woman Born. Erma Bombeck and Roseanne Barr made high-profile careers out of their domestic naughtiness -- Bombeck as a columnist in the 1970s and 1980s, Barr with her TV sitcom in the 1990s. The "momoir" genre took off in 1994 after Anne Lamott published Operating Instructions, a diary of her parenting mistakes and triumphs during her son's first year. But with the advent of confessional culture and the ascension of blogs and virtual message boards, bad-mom culture and its gleeful impropriety have flourished.

This is evident even from the names of the Web's many mommybloggers. With their almost macho grandstanding, each one is more rebellious-sounding than the next. A Suburban Mom: Notes from an Asylum and Psycho Supermom make much of their own craziness. Other mothers tout their questionable habits, as with Adventures of Leelo and his Potty-Mouthed Mom and Martini Mom (tagline: "Like a soccer mom ...with vodka"). A recent post on Bad Mom -- not to be confused with Bad Mummy or Bad Mutha Blogger -- states, "It seems like my house will never, ever be completely clean & orderly," requests, "Call me in for dinner when you're done, please?," and features a photo of a coffee mug next to a beer.

In some ways, these maternal rebels are simply reacting to the very real anxiety that women have always felt about being perceived as bad mothers. Though there is a smattering of bad-dad Web sites, the idea is practically redundant: Most any sitcom father makes clear that paternal figures are supposed to be a little bit bad, an antidote to the steadfast mom. A bad mother? Now that's a scandal. And the media loves to provide wall-to-wall coverage of the most extreme examples. In 1995, newspapers and television shows covered the case of Susan Smith, the mentally ill woman who drove her car into a lake with her two sons in the back seat; this year, they covered Leatrice Brewer, a mother who claimed that she drowned her three children because she believed they were victims of a voodoo attack. At CNN, Nancy Grace obsesses over "tot moms" (mothers of toddlers) who kill or let their children get kidnapped. And mothers -- especially mothers of celebrities or celebrity mothers -- are likely to be vilified for lesser crimes. Lindsay Lohan's mother, Dina, was disparaged for partying with her daughter as if she were a peer, not a parent. Kathy Hilton was blamed for her lax parenting when her daughter Paris' sex tape was leaked. And perhaps the ultimate example is Britney Spears, deemed such a bad mother that her sons were taken away from her and given to her ex-husband Kevin Federline -- his regular presence on the Vegas strip-club circuit not as questionable as her shaved head or incoherent ramblings.

It's clear that Leatrice Brewer and Susan Smith were bad moms -- so mentally unhinged they were a threat to their children -- but most of the time, the parameters are fuzzy. Our society is constantly seeking ways to rate mothers: The Internet provides an endless number of articles, blog posts, and quizzes asking: "Are you a bad mom?" "Is Britney a bad mom?" "Does Facebook make you a bad mom?" That these are questions is telling. And in a culture in which you can be branded a bad mother for spending too much time on Facebook, it makes sense that women are reacting by defiantly blogging under names like White Trash Mom (tagline: "Perfect moms don't exist, real motherhood is messy"). It's not just a reclamation but a preemptive strike: Better to call yourself a bad mom and beat the naysayers to the punch. And best if you can follow it up with a flippant "so what?"

It's an adolescent retort, but that's part of the point. Bad-mom culture allows women who have become the ultimate good girls -- responsible, nurturing, caregiving -- to claim the bad-girl traits of individuality, sexuality, and youth that motherhood threatens to take away. Sometimes, pathos peeks out from behind the bravura. The mommyblogger at Fear and Parenting in Las Vegas, who has just purchased a new car that's grown-woman practical, not teenage-girl flashy, worries if she is bad enough: "I can still be one tarty Honda-driving Ballet Mom. Right?" she asks.

There is a feminist impulse in these mothers' desire to tell the truth about their life -- a belief that simple honesty can perhaps change the outdated and impossible ideals of motherhood. These moms aren't just bad; they're mad -- about how society treats them, about the ideal they are forced to live up to, about the parenting experiences that they still feel they aren't allowed to talk about openly. To the women telling these gross-out tales of babies' bodily functions and domestic incompetence, all while dropping copious references to their need for a drink, participating in bad-mom culture is a political act.

"In telling these stories, and in recognizing these stories as legitimate and important," writes Canadian blogger Her Bad Mother, "we are sharing -- we are making public, we are lifting the veil on -- the experience of motherhood and demanding that it be taken seriously as something that contributes to--that is, arguably, the backbone of--civil society ... We are telling each other that there is community in parenthood, and that such community should be sought out and embraced."

That sense of community is what a lot of mommybloggers are striving for. They are trying to create a place that provides catharsis and a respite from guilt. When one woman blogs about being mad at her husband for not spending enough time with the kids or about lying to her son about the time so she can put him to bed early, five women write in the comments section that they have done the same thing or something equally bad or that it's not that bad at all. (Saying "I'm a bad mom" to the mommyblogger community is a little like telling your best friend "I'm fat.") At last count, there were over 50 responses to Her Bad Mother's self-described "rant." "YES! Yes to everything you just said!!! Amazingly written, it's like you took the words right out of my mouth and then made them so much better," wrote a commenter named Amy.

That's the kind of support you'd expect to hear in what is essentially a virtual consciousness-raising group. But just as the "personal is political" feminists of the 1960s and 1970s were criticized for their focus on white, middle-class issues, the same could be said of the online communities where bad-mom culture flourishes today. For women of color and working-class women, the stereotype of being a bad mother may connote not a tongue-in-cheek drink during a play date but long-held stereotypes about so-called "welfare queens" and absentee parenting. It's hard to deny the vast gulf between the stay-at-home mom who feels mild guilt when she serves the occasional microwave dinner to her kids and the single mother with two jobs whose kids come home to an empty house and frozen dinners most nights. But those working-class moms aren't blogging several times a day--or at all. And so the self-christened "bad mommies" remain largely unconcerned with the class divide.

When mommybloggers do try to step outside of their comfort zone, blogging not about getting away from the kids for a weekend in Vegas but about more serious issues, they are often vilified for it. One mother recently told me that after writing a single sentence about putting her daughter on medication for attention- deficit/hyperactivity disorder, she could not believe the vicious comments she received arguing that she was "poisoning" the child rather than dealing with her behavioral issues. Certainly, message boards -- where posts are truly anonymous -- make clear the limits of just how bad a mom is allowed to be. A recent post on from a mother who claims she wishes she had an abortion did not go over well. A group of commenters discussing the woman who recently gave birth to octuplets devolved into accusations and name-calling, with one commenter posting: "Go back to school and learn to read before you comment because you seriously look stupid."

On a superficial level, bad mommies decry the maternal ideal, but they, too, have their own hierarchy of mommy goodness. And when one of them steps over the line on any number of topics -- by writing about giving her child medication or not breastfeeding or wishing she had had an abortion -- bloggers who claim to flout the distinctions between "good moms" and "bad moms" often retaliate, censoring other women and reinforcing this ranking system instead. That's when a community that sees its purpose as making space for mothers to tell the truth about their lives can feel as stultifying as the world they are trying to replace.