Opinion | What Does ‘Good Mom’ Even Mean?

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She is empathic but not overbearing, affectionate but not treacly, wise but not smug, concerned but not anxious. She is the mother who knows danger but never checks in on a child for the wrong reason.

The Better Mother is, by definition, a better mother than I am.

She can be a total stranger spotted at the museum or a familiar face at a birthday party. Either way, she is a natural star in the play for which you haven’t quite memorized your lines.

Most mothers — and fathers — probably have a personal vision of their own competition, depending on one’s skill set or lack thereof. For me, it depends on the context, my mood, the child in question and the spectrum of parental figures in the vicinity, even sometimes on which TV show I last watched or what book I’m reading.

For a period, I decided that a better mother than I was Mary-Kay Wilmers, a former editor of The London Review of Books, a woman I’ve never met but read about in “Love, Nina: Dispatches From Family Life,” a memoir by Nina Stibbe, who served as a nanny to Wilmers’s two precocious sons. Wilmers surrounded her children with clever British eminences like the playwright and novelist Alan Bennett and the biographer Claire Tomalin, as well as the critic John Lahr. Raised among brilliance, her boys became sharp wits themselves, biting and slightly wicked in their humor.

As I didn’t have any storied literary figures lighting up my dinner table, I simply let loose all my own most caustic comments, the kinds of uncharitable thoughts you usually reserve for like-minded adults. Alas, without elegant British companions, I was merely encouraging a rude sarcasm. My error was highlighted in the presence of another Better Mother, my friend Robin, whose children looked strangers in the eye upon meeting, shook hands firmly and managed civilized niceties.

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