Several books have come my way lately that all speak to the perfectionistic, impossible standards of modern motherhood: The Mommy Myth; Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juicebox; and Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. It makes me think of a comment a woman said to me at the grocery store: “I’m so tired of always trying to think of the right thing to say to my kids that I’m just going to say whatever I want and volunteer to pay for their therapy in eighteen years.”
When did Motherhood get to be so hard? When did being a good mother morph into being a perfect mother?
I was thinking about this last week, because of two incidents that made me feel like the world’s worst, most terrible mother: On Wednesday I missed my daughter’s guitar recital. I was five minutes late to the park, thinking that they were always running behind, and I’d be fine. But I just missed her performance. Then on Saturday, the police came to call. My family and I were sitting in the backyard after dinner, and my seven year old wanted to push the baby in the stroller on the street outside the fence. I said okay. Well, someone called the police, reporting a small child was pushing a smaller child in a stroller down the street, alone. The police appeared with a reprimand.
Now, if that doesn’t make you feel like you’re failing Motherhood 101, I don’t know what will. My husband told me to laugh about it. And then to write about it. Why? Because every mom has moments when she feels like the world’s worst mother. And if we share these moments, we relax. We understand that perfect mothers don’t exist; all mothers make mistakes.
In my early years of mothering, I was determined to do everything right. I educated myself about the ins and outs of parenting, read countless books, and approached parenthood with conscientiousness. But I did so with much internal pressure: I berated myself every time my behavior didn’t match my high expectations. I kept the perfectionistic standards that had helped me graduate from college with high honors, the standards that kept me on a perpetual diet to lose 15 pounds in my quest for the perfect body. I applied my impossible goals to my new role as a mother.
I know I’m not alone. I think this is why many modern Moms are fraught with anxiety: we are so conscientious that we become over-conscientious: second guessing ourselves, over-controlling, and neurotic, imagining the worst possible outcomes. (You know: the voice that says your children are going to end up as homeless street people because you didn’t raise them properly.)
The danger of trying to be superMom is that in your quest to be everything for your children, you lose yourself. It’s impossible to meet your own needs while you are driving yourself nuts trying to give your children every available opportunity. On top of that, you deny your children the awareness and skills they need to learn to care for themselves. Why should they? You’re doing it all for them. This is fine, until they have to navigate their lives without your involvement.
When I started setting boundaries on what I was, and wasn’t willing to do for my children, I gained an unexpected bonus: I was able to relax my expectations of myself as a mother. My self worth was no longer tied to my children’s behavior, or even my behavior, as their mom. So when I screw up and miss my daughter’s guitar performance, I can feel sad, and accept my daughter’s disappointment and sadness, without beating myself up about it. I can see the police call for what it was, neighborly concern, and be grateful that others beside myself are looking out for my children’s welfare.
I’m beginning to see how connected all our issues are, whether it’s loving your body, relaxing in your parenting, or learning how to say, “No”: they all boil down to accepting your worth as a divine human being, worthy of love and acceptance.
A good mother isn’t a perfect mother. A good mother makes mistakes, learns, grows and evolves: as we all do. A good mother recognizes that all of our moments, good and bad, serve our children’s growth and development. If we choose to view ourselves as guides, versus authoritarians, then we can embrace our mistakes as teachable moments: moments when we show our children how we handle ourselves when we mess up. Mistakes are fertile ground for teachable moments. Successes are, too, but life takes, and gives, plenty of both.