By Heather Van Deest
You’re late for your son’s school conference, you forgot to pick up your daughter’s prescription at the pharmacy, and you still haven’t figured out what’s for dinner tonight. You start hearing the voices in your head that say you’re a bad mom, and you promise yourself you’ll do better, that you’ll become the perfect parent and never mess up again.
What mother hasn’t experienced “perfect mom” syndrome countless times since becoming a parent? Repeatedly, we fool ourselves into believing that we don’t measure up as mothers and that perfection is the solution.
If we do everything perfectly all of the time, then we’ll earn redemption for our mistakes and gain back our “right” to be mothers. Once we are perfect, we’ll be worthy enough of parenting our children, of giving and receiving love. In our quest for perfection, we insist on hand-sewing our children’s Halloween costumes, baking the best brownies for the class party, or being the go-to subject master for every homework assignment. And we swear we’ll never miss another meeting again.
According to Lynn Kamara, a Houston-based licensed clinical social worker and mother of three, “Professionally and personally, I have not encountered a mother who has not at some point… struggled with her self-concept as it relates to mothering.”
The Trap of Perfection
Unfortunately, buying into “perfect mom” syndrome is not only unhealthy, but also potentially harmful. In a study conducted at Ohio State University, new mothers who were worried what others thought about their parenting skills showed less confidence in their ability to parent. Studies also show that people who strive for perfection suffer from anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression, as well as eating disorders. The chronic stress that perfectionists can experience is thought to play a role in these health concerns.
How do we fall into the trap of perfection? Kamara explains that a mother’s temperament and life experiences, as well as factors including her religious, spiritual, social, and cultural norms, influence her approach to being a mother. In addition, she says, “Motherhood is a time fraught with heightened degrees of vulnerability and insecurity on many levels.” This can lead to rigid thinking about our role as mothers and how we think we must parent. “From this very black-and-white place, a mother’s best sensibilities and, often, her innate nurturing abilities, dangerously come under attack,” says Kamara.
Societal pressures and our tendency to compare ourselves to others also contribute to the reality of “perfect mom” syndrome. In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brenè Brown discusses the “culture of scarcity” present in today’s society, one that encourages us to think we’re not good enough, smart enough, or successful enough—that we’re not perfect enough. “Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack,” Brown says. “We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want, and don’t have, and how much everyone else has, needs, and wants.”
Kamara agrees our culture is full of societal pressures. She cites as a cause for concern the heated discussions happening in our homes, workplaces, online, and elsewhere about how mothers “should” parent. “I have always found it unfortunate how bifurcating and splitting so many thoughts have become regarding the basic care of children,” she says. “The thinking and dialogue has become so polarized and absolutist that it fails to recognize we are living in the grey of life and that our children would benefit most by mothers opting out of the craziness.”
Should mothers stay at home with their children or work outside the home? Should they breastfeed or offer formula? What about maintaining a schedule for the kids versus no schedule at all? The battle over these concerns and countless others makes it challenging for mothers to cope. “In light of these contradictory issues,” says Kamara, “it can be very difficult for a mother to find herself and her own voice.”
How We Struggle
Combine our beliefs that we don’t measure up with the unrealistic quest for perfection, and it’s no wonder so many of us suffer from “perfect mom” syndrome.
Heather P., a Houston mother of four girls, agrees that she struggles at times. “I don’t want to be a perfect mom, but I do have really high standards for myself,” she says. She second-guesses herself, for example, when helping her high-school-aged daughters with their homework. “I find I have to ride them to get their work done, but then later I am kicking myself because I feel I have robbed them of independently figuring it out,” she says.
And Heather wrestles with comparing herself to others, too. “I think the one I struggle with the most is the moms that come up with all these fun crafts to do and creative games on the weekends, and I feel like I fail in that department.”
Kamara explains that moms often experience unrelenting guilt and anxiety for not measuring up to their own or others’ ideas about parenting. As a result, mothers are prone to over-analyzing and rethinking their choices. “Anxiety is likely to become a constant companion that interferes with a mother’s ability to be present with her child and to relax into the vicissitudes of life,” she says. “These are serious threats that ought to be considered by all mothers who find themselves stuck… when it comes to their parenting styles and choices.”
Our beliefs that we must not fail our children and that we must be perfect mothers play like a negative message over and over in our minds. And if we don’t interrupt the cycle, we end up potentially damaging relationships within our families. “Ironically,” say Kamara, “perfectionism in mothering can be a significant threat to the quality of a mother’s relationship to her child.
What Counts Most
Striving for perfection in motherhood means we can miss out on what’s important—loving our children and being there for them. “What matters most when it comes to parenting is mindfully showing up and being authentically present and available to your children as you are,” she says. Kamara encourages mothers to take advantage of the freedom that is possible once we accept that people are likely to judge us no matter what. “From here, we can focus on what really does matter—our personal values and our unique relationship to and with our children.”
She suggests that breaking the cycle of “perfect mom” syndrome and strengthening our relationships with our children starts with practicing compassion. “If mothers can take the time to compassionately understand and accept themselves, imperfections and all, they will be offering their children a wonderful gift,” says Kamara.
Kamara says that practicing self-compassion can help break the cycle of negative self-talk and help us be present for our children. “When you find you’re beating yourself up… see if there are realistic things you can change about your parenting style,” she says. “Set goals for yourself and practice new ways. Doing this will help you stay active and more positive, rather than continuing the negative story.”
Kamara also encourages mothers to be gentle with themselves when they make mistakes or when they don’t live up to their expectations. “Treat yourself as you would a dear friend,” she says, “and celebrate your setbacks as an opportunity to model perseverance for your kids.”
When we love ourselves, flaws and all, we show our children that we’re “enough.” “Celebrate your unique gifts and what you bring to the parenting landscape,” says Kamara. Our children don’t care if we bake the best brownies, organize the most creative crafts, or volunteer the most hours at school; they just want to spend time with us and know they are loved. As Brenè Brown says in the Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto, written as if she and her partner were speaking directly to their children, “We will teach you compassion by practicing compassion, with ourselves first, then with each other.”
When Heather P. realizes she’s stuck in “perfect mom” syndrome, she makes sure to get some exercise or she calls her best friend. “It always helps to reach out to friends,” she says. “It gives you perspective… and stops that inner voice that beats you up about not living up to the standards you set.” Heather also likes to kick the ball around with her children when she’s feeling down. “Or I snuggle with one of my kids on the couch,” she says, “and make sure their world is ok.”
Rather than fretting about our decisions as mothers and living in fear of what others think, Kamara encourages mothers to “make room” for the joy that’s possible when we make peace with ourselves and accept ourselves just as we are. “I can’t think of a greater gift for a child than that of having a happy, healthy parent who is connected and aware.”
You’re Still a Good Mom If . . .
We can’t be perfect all the time. The mistakes we make as mothers make us human. But there are so many little things we do every day that make us moms.
• You embarrass your kids when you try to be funny in front of their friends, but you laugh at every joke your children tell you.
• You take your eyes off your daughter for one second—right before she runs into the curb and falls off her bicycle—but you have a surgeon’s skill when it comes to kissing her bruised knees and banged-up elbows.
• The laundry hasn’t been done in days, but you take an hour off in the evening to shoot hoops with your son. The laundry will get done eventually.
• You rush the kids out the door for school with an off-brand toaster pastry for breakfast, but you pack a “mom” coupon for an after-school shake in their lunch bags.
• You forget to buy milk on the way home from running errands, but know exactly where to find the misplaced favorite toy or homework folder.
• You are at a loss for the perfect words of wisdom when a bully teases your child, sending her home in tears. But your comforting arms and silent assurance speak the language of unconditional love that will get her through life.
• You missed your son’s baseball game because of a meeting, but you listen attentively and proudly as he recounts every detail of the game.
• You don’t have the knack for drawing or painting, but you get out the art supplies and get messy with the kids anyway, joyfully presenting your finished work as a modernist abstract masterpiece.
• You don’t know the words to your daughter’s favorite pop song, but you stand in line for concert tickets and happily escort a giggly gaggle of girls to the must-see show of the season.
• You can’t afford to buy your kids every latest fashion trend, but you let them express their youth and individuality in what they wear.
• You can’t prevent every tantrum or fight between siblings, but you know just the trick to calm tempers afterwards.
Heather Van Deest is a recovering perfectionist and a mom to two young boys.