It’s a tired cultural construct, but one that, nevertheless, persists: the bad mom. “Bad moms” hire babysitters to get wine-drunk on school nights; they give their kids McDonald’s instead of home-steamed broccoli; they bottle-feed instead of breastfeed; and they allow screen time and other evils, like unrefined sugar and nonorganic cotton. The titular mothers in the 2016 Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell movie Bad Moms (a legitimately hilarious film, do not @ me) drank whiskey and did whippets and likened their husbands’ penises to bendy balloon animals—while also loving and nurturing their children well. Which gets at the root of the problem with “bad mom” culture: It skews the standard, suggesting that only the most overzealous and Pinterest-y among us are doing it right. Most self-flagellating “bad moms” are, in fact, perfectly good: to proffer McNuggets and/or forget about the bake sale is hardly criminal.
But the bar for being a mythical “good mom” reached wild new heights this week when Felicity Huffman—who had pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing for her role in Operation Varsity Blues—claimed that she paid $15,000 to alleged mastermind William “Rick” Singer to have a proctor doctor her daughter’s SAT score in part because she didn’t want to be a “bad mother.”
“In my desperation to be a good mother I talked myself into believing that all I was doing was giving my daughter a fair shot,” Huffman wrote in a letter to the judge. “I see the irony in that statement now because what I have done is the opposite of fair. I have broken the law, deceived the educational community, betrayed my daughter, and failed my family.”
Huffman is contrite in the letter, but she also paints herself as a reluctant participant in the game of high-powered parenting. Other mothers at her daughter’s performing arts school, the Desperate Housewives actress explained, urged her to hire a professional college admissions consultant (and all “good moms” worth their salt must keep up with the proverbial Joneses). Later, Huffman says that Singer warned her that if her daughter, who has a learning disability, didn’t “dramatically” improve her math scores, “none of the colleges she was interested in would even consider her auditions.” She mulled over Singer’s suggestion for six weeks—and it eventually landed her in federal court as the college admissions scandal unfolded.
“As warped as this sounds now,” Huffman wrote, “I honestly began to feel that maybe I would be a bad mother if I didn’t do what Mr. Singer was suggesting.”
And with that, the “bad mom” defense is born. Huffman acknowledges that her beliefs and circumstances lifted the standard to preposterous heights. It’s one thing for competitive mothers to perform as a “bad mom” if they didn’t send Violet to space camp this year, and another entirely to suggest that the only way to be a good mom is to wade into the realm of illegal behavior. Still, it just might be the best strategy to make Huffman relatable (the actress seeks to avoid jail time as prosecutors are suggesting four months behind bars), especially as her letter is addressed to a female judge, Indira Talwani. Even if most self-proclaimed “bad moms” really aren’t “bad,” feeling bad about your mothering skills, or lack thereof, and spiraling with guilt, shame, or regret remain all too real and emotional for mothers. According to Huffman, she didn’t set out to be bad; in a crazy, cutthroat era, she was just being a mom.
Originally Appeared on Vogue