Sanctimommy vs. Discombobumom

May 13 2011 | arielmstallings
Stare
Understand your darker sides. Photo by MiiSH, used by Creative Commons license

It feels like many of us deal with an odd schism in our motherhood identities. In myself and the mothers around me, I feel like I see two darker halves lurking behind the awesomeness. I want to believe that each of us are both of these two, poorly-integrated sides, even though some of us only choose to share or acknowledge one side.

First, the Inner Sanctimommy. This term has been bouncing around the web for a while — in fact, when I got pregnant, one of my most devoted trolls announced that they were counting down to my inevitable sanctimomiousness. The sanctimommy is the know-it-all who somehow, despite being totally new at this, has read libraries of books, downloaded terabites of blog data, and somehow is smarter than anyone else at this parenting thing. We sigh patiently as our friends babble about their parenting pratfalls, rolling our eyes at ourselves and thinking about how if they only did it the way WE did it, things could be so much easier for them. The sanctimommy is over-prepared, over-bearing, and never lets a crack show. She's as likely to be a "keeping up with the Jonses" soccer mom as she is to be the ultimate DIY cloth diaperer. It's so very well-intentioned, and so very problematic. Sactimommiousness can come from all dogmas, at all ends of any cultural spectrum you want to pick.

The Discombobumom has gained her voice online. She is the harried, confused, distracted disaster who has taken being scattered and disoriented to the level of performance art. OH MY! she shouts. I AM JUST A DISASTER! …Aren't you a disaster too? The discombumom finds comfort in others' failures and shortcomings, and (if she admits it to herself) feels bad about herself when other people appear to have their shit more together. Discombobumom wants to commiserate, and the worse the stories of others, the better she feels. Hands flapping in the air, she's always bumbling around — she's the Lucy Arnez of parenting! WAKKA WAKKA I SUCK SO BAD AT EVERYTHING HARDY HAR HAR! This circus of incompetence comes from a place of deep insecurity, because if people knew how hard you were trying to keep it together, the bumbles would just be sad. Every screw-ball confession of the latest disaster comes with this post-script: "I'm not alone, am I? You're confused too, aren't you? If you're a bigger mess than me, then I feel better!"

Sanctimommy vs. Discombobumom is like a parenting version of the ol' Madonna vs. Whore thing. The debate of "WHICH ARE YOU?!" is beyond tired, because of course we all have the capacity to be all these things (and so much more). We all have the capacity to be multi-faceted, and the two characters are just guests at a much larger, more complex persona party. My question isn't "Which one are you?," but rather, "What brings out these characteristics in you?" What triggers pull you into acting intolerably sanctimonious or intentionally incompetent?

For myself, I see the discombobumom moments as time when frittering about my insecurities would be better spent trying to figure out how to stop feeling shitty about myself. If forgetting to recognize several of the cultural holidays that my son might want to participate in (Easter/non-denominational Spring Bunny Day totally passed me by this year!) feels like something that I want to change, I should probably just get on that, rather than trying to see if I'm the only one and ha ha! What terrible mommies we are tee hee! If something in my parenting matters enough to me that I feel a little shitty about it, maybe I should spend some time working on that.

Alternately, my sanctimom moments are usually born from impatience and pride. I COULD FIX THAT PROBLEM YOU'RE HAVING IF ONLY YOU WOULD LISTEN TO MY SUPERIOR ADVICE. Oh please, behold me, paragon of awesome, keeper of the amazing. Bow down and worship at my all-knowing-it-all-ness, because yes: I wrote a silly book about weddings so BOW DOWN at my SUPERIOR PARENTING KNOWLEDGE. Hubris is some ugly shit, and being hubristic about parenting feels like tempting fate in ways I don't want to touch. My career bites me in the ass for being too confident? Meh: I'll try again. But if something goes wrong with my kid because I was too busy knowing-it-all to take the time to be open to all my options? Lame.

I guess for me, these two halves of myself represent the shadow-sides of my own identity as a mother. Neither of them are me at my best, and both of them offer significant lessons in self-development. The first step is recognizing when I'm stepping into one of these darker moments. The next steps?

Well, I've got a long way to go.

  1. Love this essay!

    With all of the intense parenting information and education available these days, it's easy to get seduced by "I have all the answers now." I always try to remember that every single mother and father is different (especially when you think of how differently all of us were raised and what different life experiences we've gone through) and every single kid is different. Kids are not blank slates that wait for the parent to fully mold them – they have their own tendencies and characteristics from day 1. There is no such thing as "the perfect formula" for "X" (sleeping, discipline, affection, crying, comfort, encouragement, etc.) because something may work great with one kid's personality and not mesh at all with another kid's.

    I love the madonna/whore comparison – what is it with always trying to reduce women (whether others labeling or applying it to ourselves) to one "type"?

  2. Very well put. To be honest, when I sit down to write a post for this very site, I feel like I am in a tug of war between these two perspectives while ALSO trying to sneak away from them. To complicate it even more, I have had plenty of times where I have been genuinely helped by someone's suggestion and times where I have been genuinely comforted by knowing I'm not the only person who feels like a shitty parent sometimes. And then there are the times where I'm annoyed by those perspectives, or just ignore them altogether. Sometimes I feel like hashing out parenting ideas is VITAL VITAL VITAL and sometimes I feel like I can't take it for another second.

  3. I was just thinking about this too recently. Mom's in our playgroup always overtly SEEK out my advice and it got me thinking, is it because of my actual credentials or is it because I'm a boastful bragging supermom half the time? Or is it because I'm openly honest when I've screwed up… I can say, that My Discombomom moments are not from wanting others to have screwed up too, but because I want someone to reassure me that it's okay to mess up every once in a while. Usually only my husband and close friends see this side of me. IDK. This kind of reverts back to the whole mompetition thing. I've come to accept 2 philosophies (that ironically my mom ALWAYS said to me growing up) A> No one knows what they are doing, they just do. B> It takes all kinds.

    • " A> No one knows what they are doing, they just do. B> It takes all kinds. "

      well said! … it sounds like people ask you for advice because they can tell you aren't gonna judge them or preach at the or look down on them.

  4. Yes, yes, yes! I feel like these two sides are SO MUCH a part of every mother I know (especially me!) and yet, it feels like most moms feel like they need to pick one or the other. (The whole "bad mom" phenomenon struck me as awesome until I realized there wasn't any way those authors were also going to acknowledge how awesome they were sometimes. It's just another example of pigeonholing. Sigh.)

    For me, I fell hardcore into sanctomom mode in the beginning. And pretty much, anytime I really feel like I have NO IDEA what the heck I am doing, I kick into gear on something else and get all experty on it. (I can't get my kid to sleep? OK, I'll be the world's best baby wearing expert! I can't get these stupid cloth diapers to stop needing to be stripped every three months? Let me tell you why you need to stop xyz…)

    And the discombobomom comes out when I'm exhausted (see the not sleeping thing… he's five and it's getting way better but neurological sleep issues can BITE ME!). And also when I'm needing more "me time" (and frankly, when I start internet zombie-ing too much…)

    I think the next step is acceptance. As in, accept that we all have dark sides. We are human. We're gonna have bad moments and good and we have to love ourselves anyway. Which doesn't mean condoning bad behavior, but means accepting you are ok.

    I'm still working on that one, myself, so I'll tell you when I figure out the next step ­čśë

  5. Im torn for different reasons. My mommy peers often tell me that they see me as someone who is really on top of things and make attachment-ish parenting look easy. I get asked advice frequently, and Im always flattered, but my dirty little secret is that Im not as good a mom as my peers may think I am. Especially now that Im pregnant again and tired as fuck, Ive been letting Lyra watch more tv than I would care to admit, go out to play at the park precious little, and Ive been feeding her whatever she wants because preparing food makes me want to hork. I feel like such an asshole, but I also feel like I cant tell anyone or they will be disappointed in me and stop being my friends.

  6. Wow, this is timely for me, too…just today I was thinking about the conflicting personas that moms seem to be expected to take on at different times.

    Discombobumom definitely gets to me the most. I do see a positive function for this, mostly in combating the Sanctimommy phenomenon…I think it can be a positive aspect of women's cultural expression to acknowledge our own shortcomings or challenges so as to help others feel more comfortable and connected. It makes more sense to me, though, when it's about the inherent challenges of parenting (crazy kids, long days, everything happening at once, etc), rather than putting oneself down specifically.

    What I find the most challenging about it, though, personally, is navigating acceptable discombobumom disclosures as an alternamom. I feel like there is a very fine, unspoken line between what is generally considered an acceptable "crazy" disclosure and a little too much crazy… for example, "I feel like strangling my kid sometimes" (acceptable for some reason, ha ha) vs. "I actually struggle with anger management problems and parenting". Or, maybe, "Ha Ha, I served my kid cereal for dinner because my life is so hectic" vs. "I let my kid eat whatever he wants whenever he wants because I believe in doing that for a lot of reasons". My point isn't so much about those specific examples but that I feel like, while Discombobumom can serve a useful humorous and pressure-relieving purpose, I also sometimes think it's a substitute for actual discourse, especially when it comes to the hardest parts of parenting. Hmmmm. I think I need to think about this some more.

  7. Very good, thought-provoking essay! I'm hoping my following comment will come across as a supplemental perspective to this essay rather than an attempted counter-point, because I don't disagree with anything I read here. I just want to add that there's a flip-side to both of these mothering identities, a more positive side that maybe these moms (all of us) should actually get some credit for rather than just criticism. I totally understand and share the annoyance with the sanctimommious tendencies. But sometimes the moms exhibiting them DO know a lot. Sometimes they have worked hard to figure out what works (at least for them). And maybe good for them for feeling good about their choices. And then the discombobumoms. To be honest, before reading this piece, this type of mom never really bugged me, but I can see the basis for the criticism. But still, maybe another perspective is that they really are having a hard time, they're being honest (if a little dramatic at times) about their shortcomings, and they're reaching out to others who share their experience. Is that so bad? Can't we all relate to both of these moms? I know the essay does say as much, but I'm wondering if we could relate in a way that's appreciative rather than self-critical.
    I wonder where it was along the line that mothers in our culture came to be so harshly critical of each other and of ourselves. I'm not usually one to criticize people for being judgmental. I'm actually pretty judgmental (about some things) myself, and I think that's okay. But it does worry me that our culture of motherhood has us all pitted against each other, finding fault in even diametrically opposed qualities.
    Okay, re-reading what I've written so far, I feel like I should bust into Kumbaya about now and tell everyone to hold hands. And that is so not me. Maybe I'm not articulating this very well. I just mean… maybe we should go easy on ourselves and each other. Enough pain and struggling usually goes into reaching the point where you can be either of these types of moms. Then getting blamed for whichever end of the spectrum you land on – that's like getting punished twice for the same crime.
    Now, in the spirit of this conversation, I'm off to go ponder my own momminess. But I'm going to try and be gentle.

  8. Love this! I bet a lot (if not most) of moms have some of both in them. But some women may just avoid conversations and posts that make them feel this way-I know I do.

  9. I must confess to being discombobmom at times of intense frustration at my inability to cope with something that life with a baby has thrown my way. It probably comes from my expectations of what I would be like as a Mum (able to smile at everything and be calm all the time – how naive that pre-motherhood thought was) being smacked in the face with the reality of motherhood, especially early motherhood.
    However, reading other people's posts about their experiences helps, not because they make me feel more competent, but because they make me realise that motherhood isn't about being some perfect person able to instinctively know what is wrong with their child and how to make it better; that motherhood is a journey that enables you to discover parts of yourself (including the darker parts we don't often talk about) you may never have done otherwise.

  10. I must admit to being sanctimom and reading things like this make me feel bad about it until I remember that I read to learn, otherwise I have no idea what I'm doing and I hate to just muddle along. Also, I love to share what I learn not to feel superior but to help others, if one other mum benefits from advice I give them either from something I've read or something I've tried then I feel it was well worth my time. And I do ask others for advice too… So give those that do research the benefit of the doubt, it may not be about being better than other mums, it might be a genuine desire to find solutions and become a better mum than they are. Gee that sounded so defensive, but oh well, it's my 2c.

  11. You sound like a mom. Clearly a very articulate, self aware mom. but isn't this what we all do every day? feel better about others blunders while feeling guilty about our shortcomings? maybe that is just how we (and by we i mean me) sort it out. Maybe judging is part of how we decide what kind of parent we will be. maybe every mama is just trying to work it out, between sancto and disco, just trying to work it out.

  12. Im more of a sanctiy mom, even before I became pregnant with my first. I was always making comments to my husband about parents we saw in the stores. Ive since noticed how much I do that and have tried curttailing it, at least verbally. I try to remind myself to stop being a busybody and that the kid isn't going to die just because its in walmart without any shoes.

    I was more of a disco my first trimester but have since mellowed out. Im sure itll pick up again once the child is out of me. I used to work for daycares so that has helped me feel more confident. Knowing that I was able to take care of multiple toddlers at once for hours, who weren't even mine makes me think I can handle at least one.

    Also Im a history buff and keep reminding myself how lucky I am to be pregnant nowadays. Even talking to my grandmother and hearing how she had to have xrays done to measure the baby's growth because they didn't have ultrasounds. I mean Ill be giving birth in a clean hospital by doctors who bath and wash their hands. There have been so many women whove given birth in alot worse conditions. On the back of canvas covered wagons, in a one room shack, in stone cold castles with the plague right outside the door. If all those women could do it, so can I.

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