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Why are we so quick to cry 'bad mother'?

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Thu May 22, 2014
New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio celebrates his victory on Tuesday, November 5, with supporters and his children Dante, left, and Chiara, second left, and his wife, Chirlane McCray, right. New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio celebrates his victory on Tuesday, November 5, with supporters and his children Dante, left, and Chiara, second left, and his wife, Chirlane McCray, right.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The NYC first lady speaks candidly about motherhood in magazine profile
  • One NYC tabloid showcases the first lady with the headline "I Was a Bad Mom!"
  • Moms say the media and society in general are quick to label mothers, good vs. bad
  • "Motherhood is not all sunshine and rainbows," says one mom

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- If I were to admit what went on in my house this morning -- how I raised my voice more than once and slammed the kitchen cabinets after my 8-year-old daughter kept talking back to me -- how many people would think I'm a "bad mother"?

Probably more than a few.

I bring up the issue after something that took place very publicly involving the new first lady of New York City, Chirlane McCray, wife of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

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In an in-depth profile in New York magazine on her upbringing, professional experience and relationship with her husband, McCray talks oh-so-briefly (one paragraph in a six-page piece) about how she struggled with the weight of the responsibilities and the loss of some of her independence when her first child, Chiara, was born in 1994.

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"I was 40 years old. I had a life. Especially with Chiara -- will we feel guilty forever more? Of course, yes. But the truth is, I could not spend every day with her. I didn't want to do that. I looked for all kinds of reasons not to do it," said McCray.

"I love her. I have thousands of photos of her -- every 1-month birthday, 2-month birthday. But I've been working since I was 14, and that part of me is me. It took a long time for me to get into 'I'm taking care of kids,' and what that means."

She never said she was a bad mother, mind you, but that didn't stop one New York City tabloid from using the label.

On the front page of the New York Post, along with a picture of McCray, was this nearly full-page headline: "I Was a Bad Mom!"

The New York Daily News had a slightly more restrained take with a smaller photograph on its front page, along with the headline, "Didn't want to be a mom."

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The coverage prompted an unusual move by the mayor, calling a press conference just to denounce the tabloids and demand an apology to his wife. A features editor at the Daily News, who is a new mom herself and just back from maternity leave, defended the coverage in a post, saying the papers didn't make the story up. It is what McCray said.

"Chirlane, you're probably a good mother. Maybe even a great one. But that doesn't mean you get to fret about your performance — then complain at how people discuss it," said Raakhee Mirchandani, the Daily News features editor.

But is that what happened? Here was a woman speaking candidly and expressing something that a lot of women can probably relate to and then the media jumped in, using the words "bad mom" and suggesting she didn't want to be a mom, when that's not the case.

Would the media or anyone else, for that matter, do the same if a man admitted he struggled with balancing parenthood and his professional life, or if he realized he didn't want to spend every waking moment with his kids?

You know the answer.

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"Society has this just general obsession with the dichotomy of motherhood, good versus bad, and we have this failure to see women as whole beings with motherhood only making up one aspect," said Avital Norman Nathman, editor of "The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality."

"Instead, motherhood always gets pushed front and center and then it becomes judged, whether you are excelling or not."

Rebecca Levey, a mom of twins and co-founder of a video sharing site for tweens called KidzVuz, said the whole brouhaha reminds her way too much of a former first lady.

"This sounds so much like when Hillary Clinton said I'm sorry I didn't stay home and make chocolate chip cookies ... and then she had to go freakin' make chocolate chip cookies and put out chocolate chip cookie recipes," said Levey, who hosted a parent blogger roundtable earlier this year at City Hall with the mayor and his wife.

CNN\'s Kelly Wallace asks why the media and society in general are so quick to label mothers.
CNN's Kelly Wallace asks why the media and society in general are so quick to label mothers.

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What these stories do, women say, is make other moms feel less confident to speak out about how motherhood, for them, might not be "this cookie cutter, sugar coated version," said Norman Nathman, who also hosts a blog called The Mamafesto.

"How many people complain about their jobs and nobody questions their ability to do X, Y and Z?" she said. "But yet when it comes to motherhood, where we've placed all this pressure on parents and specifically, obviously women to turn out amazing kids, any kind of negative comment and we're blasted."

There has been a trend, Levey said, of female bloggers and authors writing sarcastically about what a bad mother they are, almost making it "cool" to be the "griping mom." But get serious and the response is not quite the same, she said.

"If you actually admit that maybe on a real level, you think, 'Oh my God, maybe I really messed up (as a mom),' that's not OK," said Levey. "So you can be snarky and sarcastic but you can't be honest."

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Katharine Zaleski, mom to a 5-month-old, said as a new mom she totally gets what McCray was saying. "You work like crazy to get to where you are and then the most wonderful event in your life, the birth of your child, completely rips you from the world you strived to rise in."

READ: OMG! Your teen actually talks to you?

"Frankly, I feel sorry for women who can't express what McCray did," said Zaleski, who is co-founder and president of Power to Fly, a new company connecting women and moms with job opportunities. "To me, that says they don't feel comfortable talking about the lives they built before motherhood and their goals post-baby. Furthermore, when has it been good for children to have mothers who pretend they don't have a life beyond them?"

Jennifer Bosse, a mom of two, ages 1½ and 3, went back to work when her firstborn was 7 weeks old. She questioned her desire to work, and her desire to be home, and ultimately decided to stay home full-time and become a freelance writer, creating a blog called Defining My Happy.

"Motherhood is not all sunshine and rainbows," said Bosse on Facebook. "It's tough. It's heartbreaking. Sometimes I need time away to re-group. Does that make me a bad mother, too? Absolutely not. We're human."

What do you think it will take to stop labeling women as "bad mothers"? Chime in in the comments or tell Kelly Wallace on Twitter or CNN Living on Facebook.

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