Frequently, I find myself walking past the lit up display of movie posters on the side of the theater downtown. While I haven’t been to see a movie since my son was born (a year ago), I didn’t really go to see movies before that, and even when I did it was generally at the theater that favors independent film and documentary. Blockbusters have rarely had any appeal to me.
But one day a few weeks ago I was walking down this familiar stretch of sidewalk, one of the lit-up posters was for “Bad Moms.” The poster shows Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell & Kathryn Hahn with their hands in the air in a gesture of alcohol-induced abandon, at the center of what appears to be a house party in someone’s straight middle class home (white walls, crisp beige curtains, etc.). The image is full of half-drunk beers & open liquor bottles, and one of them even holds a can of whipped cream.
I laughed out loud. That looks like a movie I need to see.
For months I had walked past these billboards without seeing a single film I could even basically relate to, but this image of three moms getting wasted in the name of independence and freedom hooked me immediately. Bad Moms, that’s me.
A few days ago, I got a babysitter for Joseph and my friend took me out on his motorcycle for the evening. Even though I know that I am a steady and responsible mother who works an office job at a church (the least bad job I can think of) and spends her evenings scrubbing crusted over pureed peaches off the high chair, it’s impossible not to feel like a rampant badass on a motorcycle.
Riding down the road next to the river, the sun setting behind the city on the horizon, the wind just warm enough on your skin, the engine rumbling – it’s every bit as exhilarating and romantic as my fifteen-year-old-girl self fantasized. We stopped in the middle of downtown and I had to try really hard not to look around to make sure someone saw how cool I looked getting off the back of this vintage motorcycle, taking the helmet off and shaking out my hair, walking across the street like we own the place. We bought some beers and drank them in a park after dark, an act which has a delicious resonance of non-legality, but which really lacks any quality of meaningful disobedience.
Recently I’ve been wondering what this is, this desire to be bad. What is this glorification of badness about?
Raised in a white middle-class home, I was afforded every comfort, convenience, and opportunity. For as long as I can remember, it was taken as fact that I would finish High School, go on to college, choose a career, and produce for myself a stable and comfortable lifestyle like my parents had.
This is, I think, the standard of excellence that our culture offers us. The American Dream, as they call it. A good single-family home and a good job and a good husband and two cars and two kids and a labrador retriever, and if you can manage to be a good citizen and volunteer a few hours for some uncontroversial local charity on the weekends then you get a gold star.
The only alternative presented to us is to be bad. Being bad means primarily, as far as I can discern through my (albeit somewhat limited) observation of mainstream media: staying out late partying, indulging in as many vices as you can lay your hands on, practicing recklessness and abandon. It means shucking off security and stability, not giving a shit, generally doing whatever you want whenever you want, and making sure to never grow up.
I have heard people call this freedom. We don’t want to get tied down to a job/house/partner/kid, because what if we want to travel/move/sleep with someone else someday?
To be clear, I don’t have anything against practicing a bit of recklessness and doing what you want. There’s a lot of good to be had from those things when they’re done well. I think good vs. bad is a false choice. If we don’t want to accept outright the values and expectations of our culture, we don’t need to be bad, we just need to invent a new definition of good.
To me, one of the most radical things we can do in our world is fight to create a happy life for ourselves, one where we feel safe and secure and stable and loved, to take care of ourselves, to be good. To me, this is freedom.
This lesson took me about 15 years to learn. From the first moments I was able to look critically at the world we live in, I knew my path would run counter to the mainstream and my nature is such that I have taken this to the limits of my imagination.
I have been as bad as I could manage, in as many different ways as I could invent. I have stayed out until the bar closed only to ride my bike home, sleep for three hours, get up and go to work. I have chosen to sleep in a tent or a barn, to spend winter with no heat, to eat only what I could scavenge. I have not taken care of myself. I have cultivated a lack of stability in my material life and my emotional life, I have chosen partners who cannot or will not commit to me or love me, I have systematically sabotaged my ability to excel at my work and my creative pursuits.
I have made meaningful choices as well. I have organized and protested, I have grown food and commuted on a bicycle, I have painted murals and worked to build community. But somehow I have always chosen to leave out the part where I also take care of myself. The part where it’s okay to be happy.
There’s something else at play here, and it turns up most often and most profoundly in my choice of partnerships. I choose people who treat me badly, who cannot commit to me, who are unstable and needy and struggling. There is more than one reason that I do this, but one of them is that I have internalized badness. I believe that I am bad, and when a person believes that they are bad there is a certain kind of pleasure when that idea is reinforced.
When a child in a school system is labeled as a “bad kid” they almost always internalize this message, even if it is never explicitly stated. When everyone always anticipates you behaving badly, it’s hard to imagine anything else. So you keep behaving badly, and the self-image continues to be reinforced and your understanding of reality is maintained. Likewise, I tend to believe that I am bad, so when I find someone who treats me that way I get a certain satisfaction, a certain level of comfort when my negative self-image is reflected back at me. In my life, this has presented itself in a string of partnerships that run the gamut from just-not-knowing-how-to-love-somebody all the way to domestic abuse.
What I’m describing is that old adage You get the love you think you deserve. And while I resist the way this statement puts the responsibility for abuse on the shoulders of those being abused and the responsibility for mistreatment on the shoulders of those being mistreated, I’ve seen the truth of it in my own experience. I’d even extrapolate to say that in some cases (like those in which folks who were raised in privilege choose to instead create instability and suffering): We get the life we think we deserve.
There’s a certain kind of safety in not trying too hard at happiness. If you set out to fail then it’s not so bad when you fail. If you set out to be good and you fail at it, then you’re faced with your inadequacy.
So let’s create a new definition of good.
Being good is different for me than it is for you, but at the heart being good means self-care. Too much of the time we dilute this idea of self-care to mean splurging on a $4 bottle of kombucha every now and then or maybe taking a hot bath when we’re worn down. Those are fine and good things to do, but what I’m talking about is a radical restructuring of our priorities in the way we create our lives.
It is not a new idea that if what we want is a more just and loving world, we have to learn first how to be just and loving to ourselves, and that means rejecting our culture’s versions of good and bad both and instead forging a path straight through the middle – following what’s in our heart to live a life that makes us happy.