I've Become The Mothering Girlfriend

Are you mothering a grown man? Or just being a good girlfriend?

Woman mothering partner Eren Li | Canva

The most wonderful date that Colin and I ever went on was just two months after we started seeing each other. We sat in a plush red booth at The Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan, listened to a jazz trio, talked, laughed, and sipped champagne. Afterward, we strolled down Madison Avenue arm in arm: he in a crisp jacket and tie, me in a little black dress and a pair of Gucci heels that I had gotten for free at a publicity event, but had never before had the occasion to wear.


Back at his apartment, I was impressed and delighted to see the dishes washed, the living room tidied up, and everything in its place. I had long ago vowed not to date a man I'd have to take care of, or — to use a word that should never exist in a romantic relationship, but often does — a man I'd have to mother. I remembered vividly how, in the neighborhood where I grew up, some of the wives had doted creepily on their husbands. They would clean up after them, worry over their toothaches and weight gain and appointments. On the rare occasions when these women went out on their own, they'd even praise their husbands for "babysitting" the kids.


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The whole dynamic terrified me. It seemed demeaning to both parties and looked like a slippery slope to boot: perhaps these women had gladly babied their men when they were just dating. But now that they had actual children to take care of, was a man-boy husband so appealing? Looking around Colin's apartment that night, I told myself this was what it was all about. Here was the most fully evolved man I'd met so far: funny, well-read, brilliant with words, willing to engage me in feminist debates, and pretty darn good at keeping house, too. At last, I'd found the perfect partner.



Like I said, we had only been together for two months. In the years that have passed since then, life has become a little less perfect and a little more real. We fell in love, and I moved into Colin's apartment, a fourth-floor walk-up that's a palace compared to my old place, which faced a busy fire station on one side and an airshaft on the other. These days, we see a lot more of the Scrabble board and the Heineken bottle than the Baby Grand and Veuve Clicquot. And most of the time, I like it that way. But what scares me is this: as we've grown more comfortable and also started to see the cracks in one another's surfaces, I've become the woman I hate. I've become the mothering girlfriend.


For some reason, I can't help trying to run Colin's life a little. Okay, a lot. Once I started spending more than the occasional night at his place, I began to realize that his cleanliness routine was just an act and that the odds of him keeping it up were pretty slim. At some point, I started complaining about how he needed to change his sheets more often, go to bed earlier, quit using my toothbrush, and eat some leafy, green vegetables once in a while. On occasion, I tried to cook him well-balanced meals and convince him that even if Cheetos are orange, they do not necessarily contain vitamin C.

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After I moved in, my motherly instincts only grew stronger. I realized that Colin hadn't run out of hand soap, as I'd once imagined; he never knew he needed to buy it in the first place. And those matching bath towels I thought he owned? Well, they turned out to be the same towel that he used over and over again, pressing the boundaries of sanitary. Needless to say, I remedied both of these situations immediately.

Most of my mothering follows a similar trajectory. I believe I'm improving the quality of Colin's life by de-germing the bathroom or making sure he still knows what broccoli looks like. But I'll admit that sometimes, my maternal tendencies can border on nagging. Case in point: our typical Sunday ritual. Colin lies on the couch simultaneously doing work, watching football, and yelling at Meet the Press. I stand somewhere in the general vicinity, delivering my weekly monologue on just how amazing it is that he could live in New York City, and is perfectly content to waste an entire day every weekend indoors.


I've occasionally heard him utter those two sarcastic, bitter words that no girlfriend wants directed at her: "Thanks, Mom." I know there's something creepy and entirely unattractive about playing a maternal role with the man you love. And unlike some men, Colin really, truly does not want me to mother him. The more I pressure him to do something, the less likely he is to do it. When I try to sell him on the wonders of Centrum, he grumbles back in his Southern drawl: "I'm not takin' your vitamins unless you wrap them in bacon first." My ongoing battle to get him to go to the doctor, which once seemed winnable, is now met with a simple "No." Each time I mention it, I can practically feel him refusing to budge, no matter what. Colin's actual mother has aptly dubbed this trait of his "digging in." She once took my hand and whispered, "He came out of the womb that stubborn. Good luck."

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When it comes to mothering Colin, I rarely get the results I want. This makes the fact that I do it anyway all the more perplexing. I have always thought that trying to change another person's behavior is a little bit sick, and entirely pointless. (As my dad once told me, "Some people change, but most people don't.") Yet I can't help genuinely agonizing over whether Colin keeps a doctor's appointment or stays up until 4 a.m. on a school night. I could stop nagging him about it, I suppose, but I know I'll never stop thinking about it.



When I worry about all this, I have to remind myself that Colin nurtures me, too — though he does it without any of the guilt or the nagging or the vain attempts at behavior modification that I employ. He makes sure I get out of bed in the morning and occasionally reads aloud to me at night. He proofreads every story I write and makes me stick to a deadline when I'd rather procrastinate by watching reruns of Will & Grace. In some ways, he could be accused of mothering me, I guess — although Colin would be a different sort of mom than I. I'd be kind with Brussels sprouts and bedtimes; he'd give Pixy Stix to all the kids in the neighborhood and allow his children to watch cable TV when they should be playing outside.


I've often wondered if the mothering instinct is just part of being a woman in love — or if it's an annoying urge that we must ignore if we want to keep romance alive and our dignity intact. But maybe trying to resist is just a waste of time. Maybe this is what happens when you share everything with another person—your hopes for the future, your worries, and your weaknesses. And sometimes, regrettably, your toothbrush.

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J. Courtney Sullivan is a New York Times bestselling author and her writing has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, New York magazine, Elle, and more.