There's a chance, a pretty good one, that we'll never decide what makes a good mom.
Roughly 150 years of women holding jobs outside the home (remember those Civil War nurses?), and we're still fighting the should-they or shouldn't-they battle over working moms. We devour books about tiger moms and French moms and measure our styles against these archetypes. We scold moms for not breast-feeding, and then scold them for (gasp!) breast-feeding. We paint them as overbearing helicopters, even as we swap stories of A Mom Who Wouldn't Put Down Her Cellphone Long Enough to Play With Her Kid.
At the same time, no other figure is revered in our culture like Mom, particularly on the holiest of all (Hallmark) holidays: Mother's Day. We can all conjure a mom — maybe our own, maybe someone else's — who fed us, loved us and shaped us like no other force in our lives.
So while there's no broadly accepted definition of good mothering, we're surrounded — indeed, sustained — by examples.
"I recently was found on Facebook by a friend from elementary school and as much as I remember her, I remember her mother even more clearly, who was the first French person I think I'd ever met," says Homa Sabet Tavangar, author of "Growing Up Global: Raising Children To Be at Home in the World" (Ballantine Books). "Unlike so many immigrants in the early 1970s, this mom wasn't trying to blend in or give in to the pressure of her children to be like everyone else.
"Bernadette," Tavangar recalls, "always looked fashionable, wore light makeup and heels in the middle of the day, made gorgeous French dinners and never, ever spoke English with her children."
The moms who stay with us — in spirit or body or both — come into our lives when we're starting to figure out who we want to be. We often hear the word "selfless" attached to mothering, but those moms who stay with us find a way of honoring both themselves and the ones they love.
"My grandmother had that selfless piece," says family psychotherapist Arden Greenspan-Goldberg, "but you always saw this other dimension where she would just get up and dance. She was always singing. She had a tremendous sense of self, and you could see her strength from within."
That grandmother — Tillie — shaped Greenspan-Goldberg in countless ways, from her decision to practice therapy to the way she raised her own two children.
"I think she taught me that a loving mother is someone who is really looking out for their kids," she says. "Someone who's in their corner and helping them find their way and find their passion and become the best version of the person they're meant to be."
Greenspan-Goldberg says that as a child, she felt a deeper kinship with her grandmother than her mother. But as her mother aged and developed more of her own interests and pursuits, their bond deepened.
"It's almost like as she got older and more confident in her own skin, she was more able to be there for me as well," she says. "I always told my children: Love yourself from the inside out and don't try to be someone you're not. And I think that's a message I got from my grandmother and, later, from my mother as well."
Tavangar, the mother of three, now advises governments, businesses and nonprofits around the world on cross-cultural issues — a pursuit that was, at least in part, set in place in childhood.
"I was influenced by how exotic and glamorous and interesting (Bernadette) was, at the same time that she was friendly and funny and totally down-to-earth," she says. "Her example might have planted a seed for my own interest in learning French, in traveling and in becoming 'that' mom (who) was not afraid to be herself, while also remaining really interested in her kids and her neighborhood."
It was not the mother's French-ness, but rather her poise and pride in who she was that made such an impression. "There were two immigrant mothers in the neighborhood at the time, and my mother also carried, and continues to do so, herself with grace and was a great cook — even on weeknights," she adds. "So it may have also validated my own mother's different-ness."
That part about "a great cook" brings us to the not-small matter of food.
"When I was a child all the kids wanted to come to my house to play because my mom was so cheerful and kind," says Fran Walfish, author of "The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond With Your Child" (Palgrave Macmillan). "She would always ask my friends, 'Are you hungry? Can I make you a steak?' Everything in our house was homemade."
"I often positioned myself," Tavangar recalls, of her French neighbors, "to play at their house before dinner so that I could see what they were having and possibly be invited to stay over."
And what are home-cooked meals, if not a perfect balance of selflessness and self-expression?
"The quality that makes a mom wonderful is balance," says Walfish. "She is comfortable with both nurturing her child and being clear, firm and following through. She is warm and sturdy, and at the same time she is tender and strong. She is in perfect harmony. She is balance."
God (and mom) are in the details
Any mother can benefit from a reminder to nourish her spirit, and step off the mommy-go-round once in a while.
But sometimes it's OK to break a sweat. Healthy, even, says family therapist Kim John Payne, author of "Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids" (Ballantine Books).
"Being a mom is all about the details and knowing that to our children the little things are not little, they matter," says Payne. "A child's heart is warmed every time a mom can slow her life down to hear a child's experience.
"The most wonderful mothers I have met show a child many, many times each day what it is to be able to see something from another perspective, a child's perspective and yet still stay the governor of their family's state," he says. "Few words are spoken or needed when moms model something so special by letting the small stuff matter."
When all else fails … laugh
There may be a way to be a mom without a sense of humor, but we sure wouldn't want to try it.
"My husband's grandmother, Jeanette Cassidy, was a talented bowler and always enjoyed life. Her seven children adored her," recalls Mary O'Donohue, author of "When You Say 'Thank You,' Mean It: And 11 Other Lessons for Instilling Lifelong Values in Your Children" (Adams Media). "She died (in) 1999, and at her wake there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Until each mourner approached the casket, that is. I'm sure she had a rosary in one hand ... (but) in her right hand she had a bowling ball.
"I now know it's possible to laugh and cry at the same time. Jeanette was so extraordinary, so giving and so full of joy, that she managed to give the gift of laughter with her final goodbye."
And that, O'Donohue says, is a mom for you — "always thinking of others. That's a quality shared by wonderful mothers the world over. My own mother is a perfect example. She is compassionate, thoughtful and giving. When I was a teenager, she told me something that summed up her philosophy of motherhood: 'I would give up my life for my children, but I won't give up myself.' I feel blessed to be given the privilege and responsibility of raising my children, and though I certainly get overwhelmed at times, I never see it as a burden. I now understand my mom's philosophy, and I feel the same way."