It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Good Mommies, Strong Mommies

A Perfect Post – February 2007

Does anyone in this generation worry about being ladylike any more? Not that they should, mind you, I was just wondering. If the term is too old-fashioned for you, here’s how I remember it. (Not that I was ever restricted by it. Either I’m not that old, or my mother was too free-spirited. Maybe both.)

Anyway, at a certain time, girls were often encouraged to “Be a lady”, or to “be ladylike”. A “lady” is pretty and clean, modest and kind, prissy, precise, concerned with rules and appearances. How she ever managed to have children is beyond me. Laying there with your legs splayed for half the hospital to see? I mean, really… And let’s not even consider how you got pregnant in the first place…

Not everything about her is bad and wrong. Some of her traits – modesty, kindness – are wonderful. But the whole package as a way of life? She’s so limited!

I’d far rather be a woman, thanks. Women are not a neat and clean projection of non-threatening, sanifized femininity; they are whole people. A woman is comfortable in her person, her mind, her body, her sexuality, and quite willing to be unladylike when it suits. She can dress in heels to turn heads, she can lounge barefoot in grubby jeans. A lady avoids bodily fluids, and denies them when she can’t. Women have been known to take unseemly amounts of pleasure in certain types…

I see a similar duality between the images of motherhood. Many (most?) North American mothers seem to be striving to be good mommies. But you know what? Good Mommies are to motherhood what Ladies are to womanhood.

Let’s take a look at the Good Mommy, shall we?

The Good Mommy is kind and nurturing. The Good Mommy loves her children. The Good Mommy knows that her children have their little quirks – who doesn’t? – but they are at heart truly kind, sweet, loving, patient, smart little people. They are never rude, or selfish, they are only tired or hungry. They are never aggressive, they are only frustrated. They are never disrespectful, they are only confused. They are never enraged, only sad. Poor little mites!

Thus, she never gets exasperated with them. She’s never hurt by them. And she never, ever feels anger. Sometimes the children make Good Mommy sad, but she’s never outraged by them, she never feels a gut surge of “How dare you??”

Many Good Mommies might argue this. “What? Of course I know my child has his flaws! Look at those tantrums! Look at the way he hates to share! It keeps me up at night, worrying!”

Ah, but if I were to say that the child is being selfish? No, no, no, no, no. Good Mommies can’t label a behaviour in character terms. They say “She throws such awful tantrums.” And then follow up with, “It breaks my heart to see her so sad.”

Good Mommies make Mary very, very sad…

You see, Good Mommy is doing herself no favours. Perhaps more importantly, certainly more important from her perspective, she is doing her children no favours.

I recently read a blog in which a mother was expressing her remorse over her child’s tantrums. They happened so frequently, and it pained this Good Mommy so much to see her child in such distress. She was so sad, you see, but every time she offered comfort, the child responded with punches and kicks. This made Good Mommy even sadder. (I think, eventually, all Mommy’s “sadness” will give her an ulcer. Suppressed anger often does.)

Is it any surprise that, rather than having long since faded away now that the child is closing in on Junior Kindergarten, the tantrums are ongoing and getting worse? This child is learning that the tantrums are not her fault. The child is learning that mom is incapable of helping her control the rage – because she’s not angry, she’s only sad!

We need to ditch the Good Mommy, and proceed with a new mother image. How about the Strong Mommy?

The Strong Mommy is nurturing, but she also has a solid self-respect. Strong Mommy knows that her children, like every single member of the human race, are capable of kindness, tolerance, compassion, patience, and great good. They are also equally capable of unkindness, intolerance, selfishness, impatience, and great ill. Because they are human.

Children are human. They are not paragons. They are innocent, yes, but we all know innocence can be dangerous. Small children have to be watched very carefully around small pets – a four year old can, in total innocence, kill a hamster. Yes, she’d feel very badly after the fact – but the hamster probably feels worse… Innocence doesn’t prevent one from being selfish. In fact, I’d argue that it makes it more likely.

Strong Mommies see their children in all their varied humanity. They see the innocence, the wonder, the bright eyes, the humour, the dawning empathy… and they see selfishness and manipulativeness, the intolerance and aggression. They don’t feel the need to deny those traits, or to apologize for even admitting they’re there. She doesn’t blame herself for the negative traits, which are only human nature. Of course children are selfish from time to time! Who isn’t? They need to be taught to be unselfish (or kind, or patient, or whatever trait is at issue). They need to be taught to put other people’s needs first once in a while. (After they learn that other people have needs, that is.)

Strong Mommies can look at their petulant, sulking child and see it not as sadness to be forgiven and excused, but a normal expression of childish inflexibility and selfishness. If every negative behaviour is only ever explained away and excused, when and how will the child learn to control and overcome these tendencies? Strong Mommies, who see the traits with clear eyes are in a far better position to teach the child another, better way of responding.

Strong Mommies can, and do, let their self-esteem rise up and say, “Enough, you little so-and-so. Mommy is NOT your maid, nor your punching-bag, either.” She stands up for herself in full confidence that her needs matter, too. I love it when a mommy comes right out and unapologetically says, “He’s taking advantage and I’m not letting this continue one day longer.” “She’s capable of better, and I’m going to see she achieves it.”

And you know what? Your child will respect you, and be more secure because of it.

So, let’s ditch the Good Mommy, shall we, and embrace the Strong one itching to get out of those ladylike confines. Our children will be better off.

February 24, 2007 - Posted by | aggression, controversy, Developmental stuff, individuality, manners, parenting, power struggle, socializing, tantrums


  1. My mum comes from a generation that thought “being ladylike”
    was one of the most important traits a woman could have, and her favourite saying even today ( she is 79 yrs old ) is you can’t make a silk purse out of a sows ear

    A Memory remembered and shared is A Memory not lost and can be read by future generations

    Comment by The People History | February 24, 2007 | Reply

  2. This is such a great post. I belong to a group of Attachment Parenting moms and so many of them are “Good Mommys”. It drives me batty to see. But creating and enforcing limits is so important, and it’s not anti-AP IMO.

    Thanks for this reminder- it makes me feel better about being a Strong Mommy!

    Comment by Sheree | February 24, 2007 | Reply

  3. Well put!

    Comment by Ms. Huis Herself | February 24, 2007 | Reply

  4. I remember a loooong Eurostar train journey from Paris to London next to a family who’d just been to EuroDisney. They absolutely personified the parents you were writing about and their little boy was a spoilt brat. The girl was better, but only in comparison. My sister and I itched to tell him to be quiet and do what he was told.

    Comment by z | February 24, 2007 | Reply

  5. excellent post, mary! my mom was (is) definitely a strong mommy, and i’m so grateful for it now (though i’m sure i lamented it sometimes when it meant not getting my way). i credit her for my being able to be a strong nanny, because i think most of your descriptions of good vs. strong in mommyhood apply to nannyhood as well. i’m hoping, because of this, i’ll be able to be a strong mommy as well.

    Comment by lara | February 24, 2007 | Reply

  6. Thanks for this post. Wasn’t the way that ladies became mommies by laying back and “doing their wifely duty?” And don’t you think being ladylike has something to do with the lack of active births in our society? It’s easier to be ladylike and composed if you go along with the medical system and lay down like you’re told, no?
    I see a lot of women playing “good mommy” rather than “strong mommy” and I wonder if they aren’t thinking that the only way their children can express themselves and fully be individuals is by letting them do whatever they want and excusing it all the time.

    Comment by kate | February 24, 2007 | Reply

  7. As usual, great post. I was definitely raised by a strong mommy and I’m doing my best to follow in her footsteps. One of my greatest annoyances is adults who feel entitled. That seem to think that everything in their life is not their fault and is someone else’s doing. I want to raise my child to know that life isn’t always fair and they are not the only ones that matter. I matter too, so does dad and everyone else they encounter. If I can accomplish this, I think I can claim strong mommy status. I’m not sure if this entirely fits your post but it set off this storm of thoughts for me. Thanks!

    Comment by Dani | February 25, 2007 | Reply

  8. Hey awesome post. I like what you have to say about this issue. I may just have to refer some people to read it. In my experience teachers and daycare workers have such valuable insight into child rearing! More mothers should befriend them or read their blogs.

    Comment by CeCe | February 25, 2007 | Reply

  9. I love this post! I wrote about it today and linked back here.

    Comment by Lady M | February 25, 2007 | Reply

  10. oh great post, I’m too ill to write too much, but enjoyed that, been a strong mummy and child carer for years, taken some stick for it but mostly quiet admiration. So agree with the bit about adults who wont take responsibility for their lives, my sister is one of them, I think because my mum blamed my dad for her behaviour and was afraid of her behaviour. Had lots more to write but going to lie down and cough endlessly….x

    Comment by jenny uk | February 25, 2007 | Reply

  11. I see it all the time around here. Great post.

    Comment by ann adams | February 25, 2007 | Reply

  12. Brilliant! Those “Good Mommies” leave me in feeling awe and horror in equal quantities.

    Comment by laura | February 25, 2007 | Reply

  13. Fantastic, Mary. Simply a fantastic post.

    Comment by MiM | February 25, 2007 | Reply

  14. Thank you.

    Comment by Shelley | February 25, 2007 | Reply

  15. What a great post. I live with a ‘strong mummy’ and I can see why the ideals of being a lady and a good mummy just aren’t practical in today’s lifestyles.

    Great post.

    Comment by Chocolate Makes It Better | February 25, 2007 | Reply

  16. Great post.

    Comment by landismom | February 25, 2007 | Reply

  17. That was an awesome post. I’m trying so hard to be Strong Mommy, myself, and it’s a tough job. You have to be strong to do it.

    Comment by superblondgirl | February 25, 2007 | Reply

  18. Yeah! Wild applause.

    Comment by Ki | February 25, 2007 | Reply

  19. Absolutely brilliant post, MP! I got such a surge of empowerment by reading it that it’s helped me aspire to be even stronger! My mother and I are two completely different breeds of females. When it comes to children she is ‘ladylike’ and I, well, I will not offer up excuses for anybody (let alone those who stand a mere three feet!). So it’s quite a feat whenever she’s around to be with the kids. Plus there are several women in my life who fall into the same category as my mother.

    My hope is that those who come by for a read realize just which mother THEY (themselves) should be rather than sitting to judge other mothers.

    Again, brilliant post!

    Comment by Mama's Moon | February 26, 2007 | Reply

  20. Thank you for saying something I need to hear. My husband has been trying to help me be a Strong Mommy – I have a tendancy to coddle the girls and I allow them to treat me poorly. He has been telling me that if I allow it to continue, I’m not doing them any favors and you’ve just reinforced that lesson.

    Comment by Jessica | February 26, 2007 | Reply

  21. Couldn’t agree more!
    If only I could get my husband to come on-board with this…

    Comment by smashedpea | February 26, 2007 | Reply

  22. Oh, I love it. It’s so true, they can be absolute little rotters at times, and while keeping in mind that they can be sweet can help you get through it without going bonkers, it doesn’t mean not dealing with the little demon who’s busy pushing your buttons! We’ve been having some of that around lately, including the attempt at blaming things on her doggie. Ha! No, child, I’m not buying…They have to know that they are responsible and learn to respond properly before they hit the wall of the real world.

    Comment by kittenpie | February 26, 2007 | Reply

  23. I think I am Good Mommy but I REALLY wish I was STRONG Mommy. I am working on it but man, its hard. Great post.

    Comment by So Called Supermom | February 26, 2007 | Reply

  24. I’m not a mommy but I thought this was a great post, and I think there’s a lot of truth with what you say. Women need to be true to who they are and not worry about whether the world perceives them as “ladies” or as “good mommies.” They’ll be happier and I have no doubt that their children will benefit from that happiness.

    Comment by buttercup | February 26, 2007 | Reply

  25. Oh, Mary, how I’ve missed you. I lost your blog url on my bloglines for a while, but thank goodness MIM linked to this post today. Well said! Now I just need to start paging through your archives….

    Comment by stefanierj | February 26, 2007 | Reply

  26. I am a Stong Mommy, hear me roar.

    Amen, Mary. Amen.

    Comment by candace | February 26, 2007 | Reply

  27. Amen. Well, well, said.

    Comment by Cecelia | February 26, 2007 | Reply

  28. Great post! As to being ladylike, I’m only guilty of a few things – such as crossing my legs when wearing a skirt – but they’re limited to being polite to others which I think now is just courtesy and ettiquette – but I grew up with it being called ladylike. And I just realized through your post that I’m a Strong Mommy! Thank you because I’ve always felt a lot of guilt for not being a “Good Mommy.”

    Comment by Michele | February 26, 2007 | Reply

  29. delurking here….
    great post. it’s so hard to be lady like with the apron, dress, pearls and heels when you’re busy sitting on the floor playing with your two year old. think of all the people one would flash!

    Comment by nikki | February 26, 2007 | Reply

  30. Do I have to be a mommy at all? I’d rather be a Strong Mama. To me, the word ‘mommy’ automatically implies the sort of permissive, indulgent parenting you’ve just described. But you’ve definitely hit it on the head…

    Comment by merseydotes | February 26, 2007 | Reply

  31. TPH: And was your mother implying that sometimes a child can be that pig’s ear? My observation of mothers in their late seventies and eighties is that they tend to blame themselves less, and give their children more credit/blame for how their children turn out.

    Sheree: I’ve seen the same tendency in AP moms (and dads), and, like you, I don’t understand why they seem to believe that AP and setting limits are mutually exclusive. It’s a shame, because ill-behaved, self-centred children are not a credit to the approach!

    Ms Huis, CeCe, LadyM, MiM, landismom, Ki, Cecilia: Thank you!

    Z: I can empathize. I once took a similarly loooong train ride from Ottawa to Toronto with two young mothers and their joint brood of very loud and disobedient youngsters. I eventually just popped in the ear plugs and took refuge in sleep.

    Lara: I’m sure that with your mother’s good example and your nannying experience, you’ll do well when your time comes. It’s a truism that “it’s different when they’re your own”, and that’s true to a degree, but only to a degree. A limited degree, in my own experience. If your nannied kids were well-managed, happy, and a delight to be around, there’s no reason your own won’t be, too.

    Kate: I’d never made the connection between ‘ladylike’ and the lack of active births (and I taught Lamaze classes for ten years!), but I think you’re absolutely right. You could also be correct about the psychology of this type of parent: too bad all they’re really doing is ensuring their children don’t respect them.

    Dani: It has long been my contention that the process of maturing is at root simply the process of becoming less selfish. We are born utterly self-centred. This is not a moral thing, it’s simply biological necessity. But was we grow, we need to become aware of, and considerate of, those around us. It takes strong, loving parents to show their children the way.

    Jenny: Thank you! (Is it possible to catch a bug through the ether? Because it sounds like you have the same one I do!)

    Ann: Doesn’t it leave you itching to step in? I’m never so rude, but oooo…

    Laura: Awe? Mostly they just leave me shaking my head, because they suffer so much in the end for their inability to see their child in their fullness, warts and all. Denial is not a good way to live.

    Shelley: You’re welcome.

    Chocolate: Not practical and not in anyone’s best interest, either. Let’s all be full people, not just teeny projections of the sanitized bits.

    superblondgirl: It comes with practice! You can do it!

    Mama’s Moon: Thank you. I’m glad you liked it, since it was our conversation which inspired it. (Gah! Meant to give you that credit! Must remember to do that when I’m done with all these comments…)

    Jessica: Well, seems that this post has spoken to a few people. I hope it helps!

    smashedpea: It’s hard when both parents aren’t on the same page. I hope you come to an agreement on this – you’re right, it’s important.

    Kittenpie: Exactly. They are sweet as can be, but that doesn’t mean they don’t push buttons with devilish glee!

    Supermom: The key is respect. Expect respect – even from your child.

    buttercup: Living up to false images isn’t any good for anyone. It’s one thing to aspire to the best of yourself; it’s another to put yourself in a teeny box that denies good parts of yourself.

    stefanierj: Welcome back! Glad you found me again.

    Candace: Yes, you are. Congratulations.

    Michele: There’s nothing wrong with many aspects of ‘ladylike’, it’s just that the whole package is a bad fit for anyone. Glad you feel empowered in your strength. Well done!

    Nikki: It’s better to allow yourself all your character, just as it’s best to allow your child all apsects of his/her humanness.

    Merseydotes: I’m a “mummy”, myself. Well, these days, “mum”. But you can use whatever term you prefer – this is about not fitting a particular mold, after all! Thanks.

    Comment by MaryP | February 26, 2007 | Reply

  32. I never was a Good Mommy and I feel SO MUCH BETTER ABOUT THAT NOW (because the really insidious Good Mommies’ll try to suck you in with The Guilts… The Guilts are the true — perhaps only — weapon of the Good Mommy… and some days one feels like such a green meanie).

    Thanks for the support!

    Comment by Holley | February 26, 2007 | Reply

  33. although my own mother continually urged me to be more ladylike, especially when walking or dressing, she was a Strong Mommy. (I am a tall girl with an impressive stride, and I use every inch of it.) I, too, think I am a Strong Mommy, and I think something else Strong Mommies do (and something I am trying to teach my hubby so he can be a Strong Daddy): pick your battles!

    (delurking here! love the site.)

    Comment by albamaria | February 27, 2007 | Reply

  34. Very well said. Hurrah!

    Comment by VirtualSprite | February 27, 2007 | Reply

  35. “Innocence doesn’t prevent one from being selfish. In fact, I’d argue that it makes it more likely.”

    Essentially parenting point not covered elsewhere — brought to you by Mary P.

    You’re good. Damn good.

    ps… What is sad are kids raised without any acknowledgement of having a full range of emotions. Raised to be one dimensional darlings and not people, as you say.

    Comment by mo-wo | February 27, 2007 | Reply

  36. I linked over here from Morphing into Mama. Glad I did.
    Thank you for this. It’s hard sometimes to be “strong”, but ultimately, my daughter will learn how to respect others when I respect myself, and show her how to behave so she can respect herself.

    Comment by Rock the Cradle | February 27, 2007 | Reply

  37. Mary—I wanted to let you know that I submitted this fabulous post of yours to Suburban Turmoil’s Perfect Post!! Congrats—you are fantastic!!!! Send me your email address so I can send that Perfect Post button to you to proudly display on your blog!! 🙂

    Comment by So-Called Supermom | February 27, 2007 | Reply

  38. Amen hallelujah more people should know what you just said.

    My son’s best friend one year had a good mommy. zthe evil little kid could manipulate hos way out of anything by talking about his feelings with her. (Okay evil may be a little dramatic, ge was a sweet little boy.) I finally had to tell her that either she dealt with it when her son hit my children, (mine recieved swift and immediate consequences for such things and gad begun to notice that their friend didn’t, because he was sad, tired, hungry, etc.) or my kids just couldn’t play with hers anymore. It was a hard conversation, and she didn’t really even know what I was talking about at first, but I had to do it for my kid’s sake as well as hers.

    I think I’m a strong mommy, and far from perfect.

    Comment by carrien | March 3, 2007 | Reply

  39. This is exactly what I hope to achieve with my son who is now almost 9 months. My husband and I have always said if we can just teach him to respect himself and others we will have been successful parents. I have a friend who is a good Mommy and she gets played like a puppet – you can almost see the strings. It’s really sad. Thank you for putting such a great analogy together.

    Comment by ~Sheryl | March 7, 2007 | Reply

  40. Amen!

    Very well said.

    Comment by Lolly | March 8, 2007 | Reply

  41. Maybe it’s just me but a Good Mommy to me is also a Strong Mommy. i don’t see how they can be separate. That’s the way I grew up and that’s what i try to teach my kids. I guess it depends on where you live and how society treats women. I grew up in a gender equal country, believe it or now, and in my world you can’t be a Good mommy without also being strong.

    Comment by AdventureDad | March 9, 2007 | Reply

  42. Holley: Those guilts… Women have to watch out for them, because we seem to be particularly vulnerable – even when the other guy isn’t trying to make us feel any way at all, just doing their own thing. When people deliberately try to make me feel guilty, it generally has the opposite effect. I’m kind of a rebel that way…

    albamaria: Oh, I never meant to suggest you couldn’t be strong AND ladylike. Think of all the steel magnolias out there! No, the analogy was ladylike is to womanly as Good Mommy is to Strong One. Most of the time, I’m pretty ladylike, as it happens – but I don’t stick within the limits of the term.

    Virtual Sprite, Lolly: Thanks!

    Mowo: Glad you liked that line. I’m rather pleased with it, myself. It’s a common misperception, that innocence means a child is free of negative traits. No so. It only menas they’ll evidence them without second thought – because they don’t understand the implications/effects on others.

    Rock the Cradle: Well said. Respect yourself, see that you’re treated respectfully, and teach your children a vital life lesson.

    So-Called Supermom: Thank you!

    Carrien: If you were able to have a conversation like that with a friend (and even better, have it turn out well, as I now know yours did) you’re a strong woman all round, I’d say. So of course you’d be a strong mommy! Well done.

    Sheryl: If you and your husband are that conscious this early, you’ll do well by your child. So often parenting is done on the fly, with no overarching parenting principles directing your reactions. Far better to be conscious and aware of your principles. Makes things so much easier!

    AD: You’re quite right: a true good mother is by definition a strong one. Unfortunately, too many women see being strong as anti-mother (or perhaps anti-feminine, as you imply), and so have created this ineffectual “Good Mommy” image that does no one any good.

    Comment by MaryP | March 9, 2007 | Reply

  43. bravo – strong mommies here we come!

    Comment by Tamar | March 11, 2007 | Reply

  44. Fan-bloody-tastic! Somebody said it!

    I wish I could tactfully email your post to certain Good Parents (there are Good Daddies out there too) I know who’s children run amok in my house because their good mommies and daddies don’t want to make them to feel sad by insisting they behave.

    I will check in with it again from time to time myself when my own strong mommy is guilted into submission by good mommy.

    Comment by alison | March 12, 2007 | Reply

  45. I’ve known for a while now that I am not a “Good Mommy.” It’s so refreshing to read something that helps me to think that this is not necessarily the same as being a “Bad Mommy.” Thank you!

    Comment by Emily C | March 17, 2007 | Reply

  46. I followed a couple links to get here, and I have to say that I really admire what you wrote. While I am not personally against using the term “lady” and in fact use it myself quite a bit, I certainly understand your use of distinctions between the two terms; for a lot of people I think “lady” has come to mean a non-existant construction of womanhood rather than somebody who embodies any combination of virtues that really ought to be seen in both sexes, not just women. It makes a great parallel between the contrast between “Good Mummy” and “Strong Mummy,” and I enjoyed reading it.

    Incidentally, since I’m new here I am not positive whether your blog title refers to the Disney adaptation or to what I affectionately term the “actual” Mary Poppins, that is, the character as she appears in the books P.L. Travers wrote well before Disney got their hands on the story. Unlike the sugary Julie Andrews portrayal, Mary in the books is tough, sharp, sly and wonderful, and, IMHO, a woman worth reading about!

    Comment by Andi | March 19, 2007 | Reply

  47. I just found this via your recent link back to it, and I’m sending my applause and thanks for your saying this at all, let alone saying it so well. I think that if there is a real dichotomy between “strong” mothers and “good” mothers, I’ve been more often on the “strong” side, and I think that’s a “good” thing.

    Comment by Florinda | February 25, 2008 | Reply

  48. […] my own standards. You all know me well enough to know that I don’t encourage people to have unrealistic standards and goals. I think it’s good mothering to be a bit of a slacker, to indulge in a little benign neglect. […]

    Pingback by Why Wouldn’t I? « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | March 15, 2012 | Reply

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