Being a perfect mother is something many women believe they can legitimately achieve. In fact, the quest for perfection (or at least the appearance of it) has become a form of competition in mommy circles and in social media. Our devotion to our children has become a measure of our worth as women.
When our value as mothers becomes based on impossible, unhealthy ideals, we inevitably lose. We lose ourselves, our sense of self-worth, our creativity, our enjoyment of life, and our feeling of connectedness.
And when those things are lost, our families lose too.
These losses are rationalized by telling ourselves we are doing what’s necessary for our children to feel safe, loved, and attached. But we never consider the flip side of the coin: that it is possible to be too good.
I ran into this truth again last night. My husband was working late, and I was playing with my four-year-old and eighteen-month-old daughters on my bed. We were giggling and cuddling when my younger daughter’s head slammed into my nose.
I cried out in pain, which led my younger daughter to start hysterically crying. Then my older daughter cried as well – perhaps in solidarity or because she was just exhausted.
Putting aside the searing pain coming from my septum, I tried to calm the girls down, but it only seemed to escalate things.
To make a long story short, the evening ended with me physically lifting my four-year-old’s floppy, Elsa dress-clad body into her room and then changing my eighteen month old's diaper with my leg across her chest.
A lot of screaming happened, and not all of it came from my daughters.
When the girls were finally asleep in bed, I sat on the couch and mentally beat myself up:
“Another mother would be able to get her daughter motivated for bed without yelling.”
“Your daughter is going to grow up with poor attachment!”
“Other moms don’t bark orders at their kids.”
“You’re not patient enough!”
“You’re not positive enough!”
“You’re just not enough.”
Luckily, I know better than to listen to the perfectionist voice that rears its ugly head during times of overwhelming stress.
And so here is what I reminded myself.
1. If I am giving my daughters a mother who is preoccupied with being enough, it takes them away from the mother they have, want, and need.
My daughters never asked for a perfect mother, and I’m quite sure that’s not what they want. They want me. That means they want me to be present and to be myself. Nothing more, nothing less. Thinking about how a different mother might have reacted better takes me away from being the mother I am. Of course, it should go without saying that ALL mothers sometimes lose their cool, wish they had handled things differently, and make mistakes. To expect any different is not only unfair, but it also makes no sense!
2. I need to prepare my daughters for a world that is not going to be motherly toward them.
Creating an environment where no one ever expresses anger or frustration toward my daughters is not going to set them up for success in the real world. I need to teach them that the world can be both loving and dangerous, and the world will not censor itself for them. Their actions and behaviors have consequences, and those consequences are not always going to arrive in a beautifully wrapped package complete with instruction manual.
The world can be both loving and dangerous, and I need to prepare my daughters for that. Boundaries will be enforced, and not always in a loving, amusing, or playful way. Their intuition is what will keep them safe and their intuition can only be honed when they are exposed to a variety of circumstances – not just perfect ones.
3. My daughters need to develop their own intuition about boundaries. My goal is not to mother them forever, but to teach them the skills they need to mother themselves.
I won’t be there at school, with friends, at parties to guide them and show them the way to live authentically and live from their values. They need to learn from a young age when things are crossing over into the danger zone, and enough is enough. On the flip side, they need to know when something is worth taking a risk. They need to evaluate a situation accurately and pull from it what they need to grow and keep themselves safe. Perfectly censoring myself or trying to filter my emotions and reactions will not help them with any of this.
4. Letting my daughters experience and express all parts of themselves — not creating an environment in which the “bad” parts never get to see the light of day — is how they form a relationship with themselves.
I don’t want my girls to grow up in a family where they get the message that some feelings are not okay and should be avoided at all costs. My job is to give them the message that all feelings are valid when they come from an authentic place. I want them to know and be able to use all parts of themselves.
Shutting down the parts of myself that I fear are less than perfect only models a perfectionist mindset to them. Perfectionist mindsets in any area of life will always separate us from our true selves. So for us and our children, the choice is clear. Mother's don't have to be perfect.
Amy Beth Acker, LCSW is a counselor and coach specializing in working with women who feel they are both not enough and too much and are ready for a better way. Find her on Facebook and Instagram as well as her website amybethacker.com.