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What It Means To Be a "Good Mother" with Kate Baer
An interview with bestselling author Kate Baer on the unspoken realities of parenting
In this week’s Parenting Translator newsletter, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Kate Baer. Kate Baer is a poet with three New York Times bestselling books. She is also a mother to four children and her insights into parenting, marriage, and the ups and downs of life are truly mind-blowing. Listen to the interview through the podcast link below or read the full transcript of the interview below:
Dr. Cara Goodwin: Hi everyone. Welcome to the Parenting Translator newsletter and podcast. I’m Dr. Cara Goodwin. I’m so excited because today I am here with poet Kate Baer. Kate is a three times New York Times bestselling author who has written three incredible books of poetry, including What Kind of Woman, I Hope This Finds You Well, and And Yet. I am obsessed with her poetry. It really helps mothers specifically and parents more generally feel less alone in this very difficult job we have. So, Kate, thank you so much for being here. Your poetry is such a gift for mothers, and I think often as mothers we feel so isolated and like our problems are really only our problems. But your poetry makes us feel like we’re not alone. It also verbalizes a lot of the things that we’ve been scared to say out loud because it’s taboo or this isn’t what a good mother would say. Could you tell us a little bit about your own personal motherhood journey and what led you to write this type of poetry?
Kate Baer: I became a mom almost twelve years ago. I’d been writing since I was in second grade, but as soon as I got pregnant, I started to write about that. I’ve always been writing from real life. I’d always been a writer, but as soon as I became a mother, that started to slowly creep into my writing. I had my own blog and was writing parenting pieces for Huffington Post.
For a while I took a break from writing about parenting because I was really sick of being called a “mommy writer.” I felt like I was being put into this niche category and I felt like for some reason people felt like writing about motherhood was inherently unliterary, which is so silly. I had the worst response to that, which was to internalize the misogyny and stop writing about it altogether. I thought that must be the answer to kicking the mommy writer title. I took a break for four years. I worked on a novel instead and then started to cheat on that novel with poetry. So much of that poetry was about motherhood. Because I am a mom and I write from real life and it really connected with people. In the last few years, I’ve really had to look at why I took that break from writing about motherhood. I realized that motherhood is such a universal experience. We all come from a mother, for better or for worse, and I looked at why I felt that way and why others feel that way and I embraced it instead.
Dr. Cara Goodwin: That is amazing. I’m so glad you came back to writing about motherhood. We should be respecting voices that are speaking about motherhood. It’s amazing that you are bringing attention and awareness to what it’s like being a mother. One of my favorite poems of yours is “Young Mother.” It perfectly captures the isolation, confusion and extreme vulnerability of this time. I feel like before you become a mother, you hear all this crazy, conflicting information. Some people say it’s going to be terrible, and then other people say it’s going to be magical— but it’s actually kind of both. And I feel like your poem helps capture that. What was early motherhood like for you and what did you learn from those years that you now would like to express to other new mothers?
Kate Baer: I entered motherhood very similarly to how I enter everything, which is with no knowledge and a very steep learning curve. I really like to learn things the hard way, so I had to do that with mothering as well. I had no sleep schedule. Not that it doesn’t matter, but there were so many things that I made harder for myself because I didn’t do things that maybe I should have. That’s the plight of the firstborn. I’m also a firstborn. I was so tired. My oldest was a really difficult baby and is still a child that really brings me a lot of grief. I don’t even know how to describe it. He cried so much. He went to bed with us at like 11:00 p.m. I still think about that, how so uninformed I was and how much I was winging it. Some people talk about a person being an old soul. No one says that to me! I’m such a new soul. I really have a hard time following directions. Sometimes people said, you really should put him on a sleep schedule or do this and that. I had to learn it myself. It was the best of times and the worst of times. I don’t know if I would change anything.
I don’t really give advice to new parents in general because I think advice in parenting is such a tricky thing. Unless someone’s explicitly asking for it. I really keep my mouth shut. I think you really have to learn your baby. I guess that would be my advice to parents– not take advice because what works for some doesn’t work for others. You really have to learn your child and learn yourself. You’re becoming a new person as well. Not only do you have a new person in your life that you’re responsible for, but you also have to take care of yourself, who is a new person. You’re birthing this mother figure and you’re trying to mother yourself and care for yourself and also be this new person. There’s just so much going on that to give advice on one topic feels so silly. You’re still trying to figure out how to be alive and keep somebody else alive.
Dr. Cara Goodwin: Yes, that is so true. I had a PhD in child psychology before I had my first and did tons of research and thought, I’m going to be the best mother in the world because I know everything. I was just as lost with my first. I mean, she was going to bed with us at 11 p.m. too. I had no idea what I was doing. I was like, I’ve read about the schedule, but how do I actually do the schedule? I read about when they should sleep, but I was like, how do you actually get a baby to fall asleep? You put them in the crib and they just freak out. I think we all just feel so lost regardless of our preparation or anything.
I read a New York Times article about you when I was preparing for this interview and I read that you wrote these New York Times bestselling books outside of Panera Bread. I just think that’s hilarious because it seems like a metaphor for motherhood. We’re doing these incredible things in the most unglamorous of ways. I know for me, I started Parenting Translator during a pandemic. I had no childcare and my husband agreed that I could go walk on the treadmill before he started his work for the day. That was my one time to myself. I’d be walking on the treadmill and creating posts on Instagram as I walked. I was sweaty and then the rest of the day would just be a total mess for a lack of a better word. I was just winging it in the middle of a pandemic! This is what motherhood is. We’re doing the best we can in these very unglamorous ways. I’m just so curious being a mother, especially with all the childcare limitations we’ve all faced in the past few years. How do you find time to be creative and pursue your passions? And what advice do you have for other mothers that are looking to find their voice and pursue their passions, whatever it may be, while still juggling all the demands that we have as mothers?
Kate Baer: I would not be able to write without childcare. When people ask if I write during nap time, I feel this kind of sickness come over me. That one break that we have as childcare providers is to be used for career time is so sad to me, even though I did do that for a long time. I had to write during nap time until that became very unsustainable. I would not be able to have written three books without childcare. So I think that’s where I always start with that question is childcare. There really isn’t another way forward for me without it. People say writers love to talk about the best environments for writing. There are whole articles about which way your desk should face or what kind of pen you should use or what program you should use for writing. You should use Word, Excel or Google Docs and is it better in the morning or better in the evening? I can’t even think about that without childcare. Those things are inconsequential to me. I wrote a book in a parking lot. That was because of the pandemic, but also in Panera. I’ve written in all sorts of places, but because I had childcare, the only thing I needed was childcare. That’s where I like to start.
As far as writing advice goes, I like to tell people the thing that really kicked me into gear is that no one cares if you’re a writer. Literally, no one cares. Your spouse doesn’t care. Your siblings don’t care. Your parents don’t care. Your friends don’t care. Nobody cares. Even if they act like they care, they really don’t. No one cares. You have to care. No one is going to drag you into an office or into a car in a parking lot or into a Starbucks or wherever you’re going to write and force you to write. No one’s going to stand over your shoulder and say, okay, come on, you need to do this. You have to be the one to want it, to make it happen in your life, whatever the odds may be. So that to me is really the only writing advice that matters once you have childcare, is that you really have to be the one who wants it.
Dr. Cara Goodwin: Yes, I love that point and I love the idea of taking the shame away from childcare. We can’t act like mothers can provide 24/7 care and also have a career. That’s just an unrealistic standard for any person. This episode is airing in May, which is Maternal Mental Health Month. I feel like your writing really helps to spread awareness of the mental health struggles that mothers face.
One of your poems that I really like is “Postpartum Questionnaire” and anybody who has a baby will relate to the terrible questionnaire you get and you’re like, what are these questions? You help show that with this poem show. There are very complex emotions during the postpartum period that are not captured in this questionnaire. I know with my third child, which was in the middle of a pandemic, the doctor walked in, took one look at me and one look at the baby and was like, “Beautiful mom, perfect baby,” he said, “You must be doing great.” Fortunately, I wasn’t suffering from postpartum depression. But if I had been, he didn’t even give me the space to express that. That seems to be how our society feels about maternal mental health. Even though the research shows us it is a real problem that up to two out of three mothers experience, particularly in the postpartum period. Why do you think maternal mental health is still so misunderstood? It’s even a taboo topic in our society. People seem to say, how dare you say you’re not happy when you have a perfect, healthy newborn? What can we do to help mothers to feel less alone if they are struggling with their mental health?
Kate Baer: Well, I think why this is happening is really complicated and complex. I mean, for sure there’s just a very built-in misogyny in the medical world. Doctors are not well versed in postpartum care. The CDC recently put out a statistic that I think 80% of maternal deaths are preventable. Most of that happens after the baby is born, which is just horrifying. It’s sickening and horrifying. How much of that is preventable? How much of that has to do with mental health? I can’t begin to solve this crisis with one sentence, but I do think a lot of it is support for women and what it looks like to raise a child in this country. It can be very singular. And I think when you make it more of a holistic experience where you’re involving community and you’re providing support for mothers financially. I think there’s so much more we can do.
I think if we just started with the basic needs for mothers, we could really improve in leaps and bounds. I know for me personally, the thing that saved me the most was other women. Not my husband, not mommy wine, not all these other things you kind of get thrown at us, like stay up and watch Netflix with your baby. You can finally have that glass of wine and sushi roll. We kind of bury the lead. If we just had someone else to sit with us for a few hours and say, I know how you’re feeling. This is normal. Those things really carry so much weight and get dismissed when that is so often what we need.
If our basic needs are met and that means financial security, food security for the mom and the baby, I think the next thing after that is just support from other women, whether that looks like follow-up visits from a nurse or some kind of social work. I don’t know what that would look like. For me, it was other mothers and moms that I knew, but not everybody has that. I would say that is my suggestion only because that’s what saved me.
Dr. Cara Goodwin:Yes, the research really supports that idea that social support is a very important aspect in helping to improve mental health during the postpartum period and even beyond. I was complaining about my kids once, and my husband said to me, why don’t you talk to your friends about this? I thought, what do you think we talk about? This is all we talk about. My kids are getting a little bit older now, but when I only had toddlers, we would get together and we just complained about our toddlers. It’s basically like a support group for people who are suffering from their toddlers. Having other women, especially other people that are in similar stages of motherhood, is so essential. I think with the pandemic, a lot of us have lost that village. So we might have to make real efforts to re-find that village, whether it’s online or in person. However, we can find that village of support again, I think is so important.
Another one of your poems that I really love is called, “For Advice Cards At Baby Showers.” I know I filled out these advice cards before at baby showers myself. You’re always like, even after having three kids, what do I say? What you wrote is: “Experience will teach you two things: you are the mother, and it’s okay to let them go up the slide. Nothing in this world can prepare you for this love’s suffering. For joy and loneliness.”
I think that is so beautiful. Your poems just really show how universal the experience of motherhood is. But still, sometimes we get so caught up in the details. When you’re a new mother, you worry about breastfeeding versus formula feeding and working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers. There’s a debate on social media, between gentle parenting versus old-school parenting, for lack of a better term. Your poems seem to rise above that fray. What do you feel like are some of the universal truths of parenting that you try to get across? What do you think really matters in terms of motherhood and raising children?
Kate Baer: When I was pregnant with my first, my husband’s aunt and I were at a baby shower for a cousin. We were talking about these advice cards, and she paused and said, “Really? I’ve only ever heard one piece of advice that has stuck with me.” I asked, “What is it?” And she said, “Children are not a problem to be solved.” I have carried that with me for twelve years and thought about that very often. Particularly what that means across all the different aspects of parenting with food or discipline or sleep or all the different things. There are things we can do to help our children and support them, but they aren’t all a problem to be solved. They were born as they are.
That’s not necessarily my advice to all parents. Like I said, I really try not to stay out of that. I try to stay out of everyone’s business. Virtue signaling and parenting is my number one pet peeve when we get together and talk about our personal manifestos in parenting. The second you say you’ve got something nailed, your kids will humble you. But I do think that mantra that children are not a problem to be solved has really been kind of a north star for me. Not that I’m doing it perfectly, but something that I try to really reflect on.
Dr. Cara Goodwin: I love that. That is such great advice. So another one of your poems that I love is, “What Children Say.” This poem details all the demands that children have on mothers. It ends with the line, and I love this, “ Will you leave me? Will you stay?” As a mother of three young children right now, I really relate to this poem because I feel like there are just constant demands, and it’s so frustrating. But this poem, the way it spoke to me was almost a re-frame for those demands of children who are just wondering, are you really there for them? They’re not really asking about getting them a fork, or whatever it is. What other perspective shifts have you found to be really helpful in motherhood? Is it just thinking about what is the bigger question? Is there anything else that you found has been helpful for you?
Kate Baer: Something that I think about a lot, especially as my youngest is about to turn five is what am I going to get this kid? We already have all the things. He’s got three older siblings. We’ve got all the toys for all the stages. I was thinking, what does he really want? I’ve thought about this many times over the years on holidays or birthdays. What do my kids really want? What they want is my undivided attention. What they want is no screens in any parents hands, eye contact, and sitting on the floor for ten minutes. I follow this woman. I’m sure you know who she is. Her name is Ralphie. She’s really changed my life in a lot of ways. One of the things I remember her saying is if you sit down with your kid for ten minutes and play with them, so many of the behaviors that you were just frustrated with, so much of the whining, so much of the “I’m bored” just goes away. They will run off and play probably for another hour. All they needed was ten minutes of your undivided attention. Yes, I’m going to get my kid a birthday present, but really all he wants from me, which is the hardest thing to give a child, it’s a huge sacrifice, is undivided attention. I really come back to that in that poem as well. It’s really what the child wants is the parent just to lay with them for ten minutes before bed. It’s so hard to do that. I’m not trying to say you could solve all your problems by giving your kids undivided attention. That’s the hardest thing to give them, but one of the most powerful things. We often just kind of get caught up in what can I give my kid so that they’re happy, so that they’re distracted, so that they leave me alone? I’m just as guilty of this. Here’s your iPad. But I always come back to what they really want, and that’s just us.
Dr. Cara Goodwin: That is so, so true. And I agree, it is hard. There’s a lot of research that really backs up this idea of ten minutes of undivided attention. It improves behavior, it improves the parent-child relationship. That’s really a huge one. Speaking of this idea of what makes a good mother, your poem, “Burnout,” touches on this information overload that a lot of us have experienced. It talks about the pressure to be a good mother when being just a mother is hard enough. How do you deal with this information overload, the mom guilt, and the idea of this good mother that we all have? How can we deal with that? How do we have this idea while still keeping our sanity?
Kate Baer:, I’ll speak for myself. I’m not sure what everyone’s personal answer would be. For myself, I’ve kind of treated those parenting conversations a lot like diet culture conversations. When it feels detrimental to me or it’s hurting my mental health to overhear or be part of a conversation about motherhood, or we’re kind of just tearing down other women. I just walk away. I’ve really tried to cut out parts of my virtual world. We all kind of have these two worlds, right? We have our virtual world that we curate. We choose what our algorithm feeds us, and we also choose a lot of our circumstances that we surround ourselves with in real life. Now, obviously in both places, surprises happen, but we can choose who we’re surrounded by and what we’re talking about. Just like I have with diet culture, I have just really taken steps away from any conversations that are tearing down other women or putting this pressure onto ourselves to be a certain kind of mother.
I found lots of tools to be helpful. I think a lot of times people read this poem and think, I don’t want to talk about being a mom anymore. That’s not true. But it does take a very specific circumstance for me to want to do that anymore because I’m kind of sick of it. I don’t really want to talk about the best way to be a mom anymore because there is no best way. There’s just so many factors that go into that conversation. There’s a class conversation here that often gets lost. There’s a race conversation. There’s a religious conversation. There’s all sorts of things that are going into how we parent and what that looks like, and a lot of nuance is left out, especially on the Internet. And so I think that’s where that poem came from. I’m so sick of the noise and these black and white answers when it comes to ourselves and our children, and I got a little bit burnout.
Dr. Cara Goodwin: I totally get that. I’m on social media a lot as well, and I see these debates over parenting. It’s like gentle parenting versus old-school parenting, and there’s all these mommy wars on social media about what it means to be a good mother. The research really finds that a lot of it doesn’t even matter. There are a few things you do as a parent that do matter, but a lot of the things that we worry about or our society uses to define “good mother” actually don’t really matter for your children’s outcomes. So I think that’s very good advice to really think about— How does what you’re experiencing on social media impact you and how you view yourself as a parent?
A lot of your books were written and published during the COVID pandemic, which I just think is amazing as a mother of four living through a pandemic, because we all know how difficult that time was. So how did what you faced during that time affect your perspective as a mother and your writing? I think a lot of us, when we go through something hard like a pandemic, we want a take-away. These were the lessons I learned that helped me. Were there any lessons that you felt like you learned that you’re carrying forward?
Kate Baer: I don’t think so. I think I learned nothing. When I think about the pandemic, I can’t even remember it. I don’t remember what I did. I remember we got those water beads and we did them outside, and then they were outside for so long, and I was like, how is this okay? Are these just being absorbed back into the earth? I’m still very unclear on water beads. I learned nothing from the pandemic. I learned a lot of things about our culture. I can’t wait to watch the documentary in 50 years that they make about the pandemic and the ways we behaved. I’m talking on both sides of any aisle. The way we behaved is a very interesting character study or study on humans. We really acted insane. It was wild. I don’t think I learned anything. I have no notes. I have no takeaway. I also think it’s really soon to start drawing conclusions.
We kind of experienced this thing, and then we had to quickly move on. Have we even processed that? I don’t think so. I see people processing the pandemic, and I’m kind of like, I think we need more time. I think we need more time to, one, see ourselves as to who we really were during that time and also to see the ripple effects of the choices that we made. We did the best we could in a lot of circumstances. I guess if I had to choose something it is what Daniel Tiger was saying. One of my favorite concepts is we can feel two feelings at the same time, and that’s okay. That, to me, really sums up the pandemic.
I had a best selling book come out on November 6, 2020. There’s a lot going on then. So that was really wonderful. Yet, there was also this turmoil in our country. When I look back at the pictures of our pandemic walks–we took a walk in the neighborhood every day, no matter what the weather. What a special family memory that we did that also. I was homeschooling and crying every day. I remember quitting virtual learning, like, two weeks before the school year ended. I just wrote to the teacher and said, I can’t do this anymore. My friends were like, you can’t do that. And I said yes. I just did. I withdrew my kids from school. I cannot take this a single other minute. My kids put their heads down on the desk, saying I can’t do this anymore. I’m like, you know what? Me neither. Let’s be done. So, yeah, best of times and the worst of times.
Dr. Cara Goodwin: I completely agree. I think the only lessons I took away is that I could never homeschool my kids. I’m just not capable. There are so many wonderful people that are capable of it, and I’m not one of those people. And that we all survived, and that’s something to be proud of in itself. It was the best of times and worst of times, just like you said.
Speaking of other recent events, your poem, “What To Write After Another School Shooting,” I just reread that, and it really struck me after recent events in the US. There continues to be increasing gun violence and I think it brings up anxiety in all people who are parents right now. This anxiety about our children and the unpredictability of life. How do we live with that fear and raise our children in this world that seems like getting increasingly unpredictable and dangerous?
Kate Baer: I have no idea. I would love for someone to tell me. I have no idea. I can’t imagine not having anxiety over school violence until something changes with gun laws. I don’t really think we should temper down our anxiety or fear when it is a real threat. I think we should use that fear to propel us to action, whether that’s marches or calling senators or changing the way we vote or changing our behavior towards voting, even doing it at all. I really don’t think the answer to that worry and that fear is to ignore it, but to lean into it and say, well, how can I change this? Because the constant anxiety of it is not sustainable. The underlying feeling of fear when you drop your kids off to school–I hope that we as mothers can lean into that and use that to take action.
Dr. Cara Goodwin: I really hope so as well. I think that’s a good point that sometimes anxiety is there for a reason to compel us to action. I think that’s so important. Something else to end on a slightly lighter note, I love how with some of your poems I’m laughing out loud, which isn’t often a response to poetry. So how do you continue to find humor in motherhood when it can be so tedious and dull and hard? How do you keep finding that humor every day?
Kate Baer: I think if you don’t laugh, if you can’t laugh at motherhood and parenting, it’s kind of a bummer. I think you can’t live without that laughter because kids are so funny. Parenting is so funny. It’s so funny to be the adult in a situation and try to be serious during potty jokes and try to act like this big adult. We’re all just kids inside. Why not laugh? Let’s just stop taking ourselves so seriously. I’m pretty much a silly goose. I think there’s a big misconception about poets that they have to be so serious in a certain kind of way. I just really like to goof off and I could not be with my kids without that inclination because it’s such a drag and it is so boring. If we can’t laugh with them and privately at them, then what are we doing? We have to have something.
Dr. Cara Goodwin: I completely agree. I think humor is such a good coping strategy as a parent. I rely on it so much and my husband and I, after our kids go to bed, we’ll joke around about what at the time was a very stressful situation. But in retrospect, it’s kind of funny that they were freaking out over something so ridiculous. It’s always something so ridiculous. So I think humor is so important. So finally, before we end, I know all of your friends would love to hear what’s next for you? What’s your next project? What’s on the horizon?
Kate Baer: I’m working on a book right now. I’m also really interested in screenwriting and exploring some other genres, so I could never have predicted ten years ago that I would write some bestselling books of poetry, so I could never predict what’s next. But, I kind of have my fingers dipped in everything, and I’m excited to see what it is as well.
Dr. Cara Goodwin: Well, I bet you would write a hilarious movie about motherhood. I would love to see that. Thank you so much, Kate Baer, if you could let my listeners know where they can find information about your books or more information about you.
Kate Baer: My website katebaer.com and all my social media is KateJBaer.
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Welcome to the Parenting Translator newsletter! I am Dr. Cara Goodwin, a licensed psychologist with a PhD in child psychology and mother to three children (currently an almost 3-year-old, 5-year-old, and 7-year-old). I specialize in taking all of the research that is out there related to parenting and child development and turning it into information that is accurate, relevant, and useful for parents! I recently turned these efforts into a non-profit organization since I believe that all parents deserve access to unbiased and free information. This means that I am only here to help YOU as a parent so please send along any feedback, topic suggestions, or questions that you have! You can also find me on Instagram @parentingtranslator, on TikTok @parentingtranslator, and my website (www.parentingtranslator.com).
DISCLAIMER: The information and advice in this newsletter is for educational purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical, mental health, legal, or other professions. Call your medical, mental health professional, or 911 for all emergencies. Dr. Cara Goodwin is not liable for any advice or information provided in this newsletter.