May 27, 1985 12:00 PM

Lynn Caine’s message to the mothers of America is refreshingly blunt: “Stop blaming yourself.” Her book, What Did I Do Wrong? Mothers, Children, Guilt (Arbor House, $15.95) is an exploration of the complex guilt that besets most mothers as they raise children. The book is based on her own anguish as well as that of the women she interviewed across the country. In 1974 Caine wrote her first volume, a bestseller called Widow, in which she chronicled her experiences as a widow of 44 with two small children (Widow became a TV movie starring Michael Learned). The New York author, who has not remarried, talked with senior writer John Stark about her latest crusade: getting mothers to stop taking the rap for things over which they may have little or no control.

Why did you write this book?

I used to think I was the only mother who felt guilty. Who was impatient. Who yelled at her kids. Who was, at times, resentful of them. Sometimes even unloving. In the course of interviewing mothers for another book, I was struck by a common chord: What did I do wrong? “My kid doesn’t use the potty, what did I do wrong? My kid has an earache, what did I do wrong? My kid is gay, what did I do wrong? My kid uses drugs, what did I do wrong?” I knew then I had a story to tell.

Why do mothers feel so guilty?

Traditionally, child rearing has been the mother’s job, just as supporting the family has been the father’s. Consequently, when a child gets sick, or into trouble, who’s to blame? Mother. She is taught to believe that she is responsible for her child’s happiness. So, when the child is unhappy, she should be able to fix it. Today’s mothers have a double whammy: They also feel guilty if they stay home because they’re not being financially productive.

What is the nature of guilt? Is it ever appropriate for mothers to feel guilty?

Guilt is the emotion we feel when things go wrong. We assume we’re responsible. Sometimes it’s appropriate to feel guilty. If you beat the hell out of your crying baby—then, yes, guilt is appropriate. But if your kid does foolish, self-destructive things—and what kid doesn’t?—why assume that you’re responsible? How are kids going to learn anything if they don’t make mistakes? Guilt stems from a failure to understand that there are many factors that influence how a child turns out—genes, intelligence, position in the family, looks, economics and luck.

Do fathers feel guilty?

Men rarely castigate themselves. Pediatricians tell me that fathers never come to their offices and ask, “What did I do wrong that my kid got sick?” It’s mothers who have this guilt. A woman executive I know just moved to New York from Chicago. She told me she felt guilty about uprooting her kids. She pointed out that she’s never met a male executive who felt this guilt.

Why do you feel we live in a mother-blaming society?

Our society is saturated with mother-blaming. This began, I believe, in the 1940s. That’s when the popularizers of Freudian psychology discovered mothers were to blame for everything that went wrong in the American family. In 1942 Philip Wylie wrote Generation of Vipers, in which he proclaimed that Mom was a jerk. He coined the term “momism.” From then on it’s been open season on mothers. Mother-blaming—and in some cases mother-hating—abounds in our literature, movies and TV. Mothers are portrayed as being either , possessive, controlling and bitchy, or as being wimpy, ineffectual and ludicrous. Mike Nichols once told playwright Jean Kerr that the sure way to get a laugh in the theater is to tell a mother joke. The book Mommie Dearesrt is an extreme case, but it started a trend of books exposing famous mothers. Isn’t it funny that mothers are not exposing their famous offspring in print? And who’d be in a better position to dish the dirt?

Just as you championed widows, you’re now standing up for mothers?

Yes. Mother has become a dirty word and I think it’s time we got mad as hell. Offer a dinner guest a second helping and you’re called a Jewish mother, which has become a pejorative metaphor. If you’re close to your kids, then you’re being an overly protective mother.

How much control does a mother have over the outcome other children?

A lot less than we’ve been led to believe, particularly in today’s drug-oriented, video-arcaded, computerized world. We used to believe that raising a child was like baking a cake. Put in the right ingredients in the right proportions and you’re guaranteed perfect results. The ability to predict how children are going to turn out is practically zero. Some early losers turn out to be late bloomers. I asked psychologist Leah Schaefer how often parents get a child with a temperament similar to their own. She said when you do it’s a miracle, that you can put your hand in a herring barrel sometimes and make a better match. After my husband died everyone was concerned about my children. I knew even then that if they turned out rotten everyone would say it’s because they had an early tragedy. And if they turned out well, it’s because this early tragedy taught them to become strong, resourceful and independent.

In the book you’re very candid about troubles you had with your son and daughter.

Yes, I am. When I was away at work, which required a lot of travel, my daughter [now 19 and a model] was searching our apartment building looking for substitute mothers. My son [now 23 and studying geology at the State University at New Paltz] was flunking out of high school. But if you’re not honest, no reader will identify with you. Besides, children traditionally don’t read the books their parents write. I hope.

With all the difficulties mothers have, what do you think about consulting child-rearing experts?

There were times when I felt totally out of control as a mother. I felt I didn’t know how to fix my children. So I turned them over to educators and experimental schools. But I eventually learned no one knows a child the way his or her own mother does. It’s fine to consult experts if you measure their advice by your own feelings and judgments. After all, their opinions change like fashions in clothing. What I feel is the greatest value is self-help groups. I never thought I’d live to say that. As a young mother I used to sit in Central Park, isolating myself from the other mothers with a book or magazine. I didn’t want to participate in their sandbox seminars. I was intellectually above that, so I thought. But I later learned that they were exchanging experience and information that would have been very valuable to me.

Do you think then that mothers have a better future?

Yes, I do. With more women now entering the work force fathers are more actively participating in the role of child rearing. As sociologist Jessie Bernard said, “Motherhood is too important for women alone. We are all in this together.”

What’s the most valuable lesson you learned from writing this book?

Researching it was like taking a crash course in guilt. I learned to forgive myself and to understand that I did the best I was capable of doing at the time my children were growing up. I wish I had known earlier what Leah Schaefer told me—that a mother’s job is not to love her children but to teach them to live in this world. Love is a glorious by-product.

Despite the guilt that mothers experience, isn’t there usually a happy ending?

Of course. Most kids grow up and turn out okay, though not necessarily the way their parents planned. Despite my screwing up, I have two really terrific children. Not problem-free, but they’re bright, energetic, attractive, warm, decent, loving young people. Look, I did something right, and that’s what I want mothers of America to start saying about their kids.

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