There is a terrible mythology operating among sensible, educated, intelligent women, and the result of this mythology is a whole host of trouble: increasing stress levels, anxious thinking, moodiness, roller-coastering emotions and self-esteem. This is the myth of the perfect mother, who, with no apparent effort, has perfect children. She is totally self-sacrificing, perpetually loving, has boundless energy to give to her children, and her life, because she has sacrificed everything, is perfect. Her children lead charmed lives, as well, because she is a perfect mother.
Do you believe this? I know that in your intellectual mind, you understand that it is an impossibility, unachievable. We all “know” that nobody is perfect. But deep in your heart of hearts, do you believe that if only you are perfect you can protect your baby and child from harm? That you can support her development to the degree that she can become something wonderful and special? That if you breastfeed longer, play the right music, keep her away from screens, anticipate her every need, that you can protect her from anything that might befall her?
Many moms seem to have this belief underlying their everyday behaviour. There is a terrible fear of being less than perfect and thus putting your baby at risk. And maybe the worst part is this “perfect” is a moving target! Today it is about co-sleeping. Tomorrow it is about enforcing a schedule. Avoid peanut butter. No, no, offer it early, prevent allergies! When you are in the middle of this, it is impossible to see the whole context…. which is that the “right” way to raise baby is going to be different next week….and in five years, you’ll look back and say, oh, I can’t believe we thought that was right….
A mom got really angry with me once for suggesting that she could maybe try to be a “good-enough” mom. This concept is time-honoured, and I’ll get to the background in a minute. The mom who got angry thought that she would be short-changing her children if she only was “good enough.” She needed to be more than that, more than even what is possible, in order to justify her having these children in her life. She couldn’t relax into the idea of being “good enough” because that would mean she didn’t actually deserve to have children. What a painful, limiting way to think….and she wasn’t completely aware of it until it came out in therapy. When those ideas get some light and air in therapy, then we have the ability to think about them, and decide if we want to believe them. We develop the capacity for making choices in how we will mother.
So what about the “good-enough” idea? Well, it got its start with Donald Winnicott, a very important psychiatrist from the U.K. in the last century. He suggested that children have very particular needs in order to develop to their highest capacity. Most mothers supply these needs without a lot of outside intervention. And once those needs are met, then adding more doesn’t do anything to support development. It is actually energy spent that could be doing something else, like maybe taking care of yourself, or working at your career, or doing something you love.
How can you switch to being a good enough mommy when you have been programmed since forever to aim for perfection? You have to reprogram your inner world and then restructure your outer world.
- Check your default thinking. When you interact with your child and you hear self-critical thoughts come up in your mind, see if you can think “that was probably good enough.” If that’s impossible, see if you can think “I wonder what good enough would be like?”
- If you tend to catastrophic thinking (i.e. if I give my baby a bottle all these terrible outcomes could happen), do a reality check. Specifically, how likely are those outcomes? If one happened, would you manage it? Another approach to that worst-case thinking is to just notice that you are doing that kind of thinking again. If it is a pattern for you, you might be able to notice that you are in your pattern. Once you can see the pattern, you have some traction for fact-checking. “Oh, this is my scary thought pattern. I don’t have to believe these thoughts; this is just my pattern.”
- Practice thinking about what is constitutes “good enough.” Do I have to read three books at bedtime or is one book enough? Does the baby need to nurse five times a night at six months or is less going to be enough? Don’t expect to know what enough is…. but at least when you are asking the question you can notice when you are giving too much.
- Destress your life as much as possible, and focus on enjoying the time with your baby or children. More about that later.
- Check your context. Are you inundated with other peoples’ views on perfect parenting? Do you spend time on social media listening to women judge other peoples’ parenting? Or do you spend time in social groups trying to improve your parenting? See if the context supports your sense of being okay or if it contributes to a sense that you are not okay at this mothering thing. It probably won’t be all or nothing: there may be parts that feel good and supportive, and parts that feel judgy and uncomfortable. See if you can extricate yourself from judgement. That includes offering judgment as well as being the recipient.
- Ask for what you want. In an effort to change the context to support you in being “good enough” instead of perfect, you can ask for support. Ask for support for your parenting and tell them what that will look like. For example, “Mom, I’d really like you to tell me that I am doing a great job, and that you know it is sometimes hard, and that you think I’m a good mom.” You can’t control whether she will do it, but you will have made your preference very clear.
- Destress your life as much as possible. Yes, you did just read that in the list above, but it is essential for both inner peace and an outer serenity. More about this later.
Getting out from under the burden of perfectionism in motherhood is not easy, but it can be liberating. You know what your child needs, and you know how you want your family life to be. You and your spouse get to make those decisions for your family. It can just like the folks next door, or people on Pinterest, but it probably won’t be. And just as perfect mothering cannot protect your child from real life, it cannot keep you from struggling with the complicated feelings that arise as our children grow, change, and face their lives. Liberating yourself from the myth of the perfect mommy offers the possibility of deeply enjoying the process of raising children.
Photo credit: Thanks to Katie Huffman, of Looking at Life through Agreeable Hours for the lovely hands on mug picture.