Stamping out perfectionism in motherhood

Let’s admit it, ladies. Sometimes we can get a little too obsessed with the idea of perfection: perfect body, perfect hair, perfect outfit, perfectly dressed children, and of course, having a perfectly clean and organized home. But then we wake up and look at our flabby postpartum bellies, our messy homes full of kid clutter, and our misbehaving children, we wonder why we feel frustrated and depressed.

The funny thing is, we spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to reach this elusive state of perfection and feeling vaguely dissatisfied since we almost always fall short, but we never even ask if our definition of perfection is realistic!

For better of for worse, all of us come into motherhood with some sort of picture in our minds of what the “perfect mom” looks like. These images (and the expectations that go along with them) may come from our family of origin, our culture, or even our faith. And while many of these images and expectations can be good and even motivating, the problem comes when we try to do and be more than is humanly possible when considering our personalities and unique life situations.

In our effort to stamp out perfectionism, let’s take a humorous look at some of the mythical moms that exist in our own culture:

First we have Picture-Perfect Mom. Despite giving birth to six children, she is a firm and muscular size 2. This mother’s makeup never wears off, and her hair doesn’t frizz. Her children are always well groomed, even stylish. She has a professionally manicured lawn and her home is beautifully decorated, annoyingly clean. She can find any household item in 15 seconds flat because “there is a place for everything and everything is in its place.” Her minivan smells like vanilla.

Next is Practice-Makes-Perfect Mom. All her children play several instruments and excel at sports. Her family can organize a string quartet or a basketball team at the drop of a hat. This mother can’t see out of the back window of her car from all the “student of the month” bumper stickers. Scholarships dot the horizon. This mom is currently taking classes in French and fencing while getting her master’s degree in child psychology.

Then we have Perfect-Timing Mom. Her household runs on a very tight schedule. She exercises, does laundry and starts dinner before the kids leave for school. She never misses an appointment, is always on time and lives by her planner. She has trained her children to dutifully check off their chore charts and complete all required after-school responsibilities before they engage in “free time.” Calendaring is a weekly family activity.

Last but not least is Practically-Perfect-in-Every-Way Mom otherwise known as The Perfect 10. This mother possesses all the aforementioned skills, traits and talents and then kicks it up a notch: she’s a Martha Stewart! She cooks, sews, gardens and cans. (All organic, of course.) She clips coupons and cuts her own children’s hair. She can get chocolate out of cashmere while balancing her checkbook, and has created more original “pins” on Pinterest than humanly possible. This mom has endless patience and wisdom. She is everyone’s best friend. Her children come to her with their problems, and she lives without regrets. Think Martha Stewart meets Kelly Rippa meets Mother Theresa.

What do all these mothers have in common? They aren’t real! (Isn’t that a relief?) And yet their images live on in the minds of far too many mothers, taunting them when they are already feeling far too inadequate.

As a self-proclaimed Frustrated Perfectionist turned Recovering Perfectionist striving to be a Calm and Contented Realist, let me share with you five suggestions for stamping out the perfectionist in you.

1) Change your definition of perfection.

I am a firm believer that perfection is more of a spiritual state than a physical one. Unfortunately, I think most of us gravitate toward physical perfection because it’s easier to see, manipulate and control. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the world of physical beauty and the manufactured perfection we see in the hundreds of images thrown at us by the mass media every day. But is that really where we want our focus to be?

For example, which is more important to you — to have a clean and clutter-free home or a clean and clutter-free mind and heart? To make your outer appearance stylish and beautiful or to radiate inner beauty? To help your children excel in school and extracurricular activities or to teach them the values of honesty, self-control and compassion?

Of course both important, but there are very few mothers who have the time, money and energy to re-create the manufactured images of perfection that we often see around us, and the thought of them getting frustrated or depressed over this inability to “match up” just makes me sad.

I’ve also wondered about the message I am sending to my own children. While I’m all about trying to help them succeed in the world and improve their talents, I don’t want them to feel like their value lies in looking good, getting straight A’s and excelling in their extracurricular activities. As long as we continue to use “perfect” as a description of things that can be easily photographed or quantified, most of us will come up lacking.

In my own experience, I have a much greater sense of peace and joy in my work as a mother when I take at least as much of the time, money and energy that might otherwise go toward making everything look perfect, and invest it in areas that are truly meaningful to me and my family; to ways that contribute to how my home feels. 

And maybe that’s the take-way: It’s not about how your children look, but how they feel. And it’s not about how your home looks, but how it feels.   

2) Be your own kind of “perfect” mother. 

One of the easiest traps we fall into as mothers when we’re obsessing over this false ideal of perfection is that of comparing ourselves to other mothers.

The truth is, we’re not in the same boat, just the same ocean. Comparing each other’s boats and constantly keeping track of who is ahead does nothing to get us where we are trying to go; it only distracts us from the care of our precious cargo. We all bring different gifts to the altar of motherhood. What matters is our children, not our egos, and it doesn’t do our children any good to compare our weaknesses against someone else’s strength.

Be your own kind of “perfect” mom. That will mean something completely different for you than it will for the mother down the street. And that’s a good thing. Life is so boring when we all try to be the same. Chart your own course!

Anna Quindlen said it best: “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” The irony of that statement is that if you do become yourself, you will be perfect because you will be who you were created to become.

3) Focus on striving, not arriving. 

I like to think of the word “perfect” as a verb, not an adjective. To perfect means to improve, refine, hone or work on. That’s a lot less pressure than trying to “be” perfect today, right now. It’s that whole “joy in the journey” thing we often find difficult to master as mothers. To think of perfection as an unfinished, lifelong process is something each of us can do everyday without a deadline or a flawless end product to measure up to.

I find this quote from Harriet Braiker to be so true: “Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.” Isn’t it interesting how we constantly tell our kids to just do their best, but we don’t offer ourselves the same kindness? We would do well to remember in the midst of our crazy, daily lives that perfection really is more about striving than arriving.

4) Realize that perfection comes through imperfection.

Why do we try so hard to attain an unrealistic standard of perfection when in fact it is the imperfections of our lives that actually perfect us? What do I mean? Think about it: The child with the illness or disability who teaches us how to really pray or sacrifice. The difficult teenager who pushes us to dig deeper and love more. The daily grind that forces us to get more organized and disciplined. The financial struggles that keep us humble and motivate us to reach out to and help others struggling in similar ways. You see?

The definition of mothering is to look after, care for, protect, nurse and tend. That’s messy work! And there is nothing in that definition about alphabetically organized spice racks, Disney cruises, multiple degrees or granite counter tops. Have you ever noticed that children don’t care if your middle is mushy or there are cobwebs in the corner? Their needs are very basic, and you are at the top of their list.

I think we all understand in our heads that the most valuable lessons we ever learn in this life are the ones that come to us through less-than-perfect experiences and circumstances, but how do we get that message deep down into our hearts? I can’t help but think we would all be much happier if we could not only expect imperfection in our lives, but also accept and even embrace it.

Read these inspiring words from Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.

In other words, embrace your perfectly imperfect life and let it work its magic!

There are more than enough years in this (hopefully) long life to have things just so and to live a life of tidy orderliness where things happen at their appointed times and without interruption. (Doesn’t that just sound wonderful?) But now is not the time for that. Now is the time to bask in the fistful of muddy dandelions, the sloppy kisses and the giggles under the messed up covers. That’s my kind of perfection.

Maybe the last time I had tight abs was when I was nine months pregnant, and I have never seen the bottom of my “special issues” laundry basket, but every day I try my best to make sure my kids feel loved, happy, secure and capable of meeting the challenges of life. I know I am on the right track when I’m snuggling in bed with my precious little 5-year-old daughter and she puts her arms around me and says, “You’re the best mom in the whole universe!”

No matter what else I did or didn’t do that day, I’m pretty sure at that moment I am the perfect mom.

 

3 comments

  1. LJ

    Hallelujah!!! I have anxiety watching women around me get so caught up and obsessed with those images. I grew up differently, I feel I am a very good mom despite not being any of those examples mentioned. I have my own definition of a good mom—to protect, nurture and to influence my children for good.., I set my own goals to improve myself and try to not compare myself to what others are always trying to do or be. I can be very candid and humorous about my failings at time…humor is so important. Also, we women judge each other so harshly, we are so quick to condemn and slow to show compassion sometimes. We need to stop comparing and competing with each other. Great article thanks!

  2. J.B.C.

    What wonderful affirmation for me at this moment. I have always struggled with trying to mesh the image of perfection with who I truly am and the two simply cannot exist in the same sphere. I think that especially for me, growing up a bright child with a very broken, large family that like so many others I would imagine the kind of mom I could be someday etc, etc. For me the perfect image is different, a mom who plays and is magically creative and fun. That is not who I am though! I am serious and struggle with learning to enjoy the moment and lighten up. It is the same thing my husband struggles with as a dad. I think there are little things we can be perfect in that give us a sense of order and accomplishment, I just remind myself that not everything can be perfect all at the same time.
    It is also hard that I love to clean and keep an organized, minimal home, but with two preschool boys and homeschooling beginning this year I know something will have to give to some extent. Wonderful article, I really neede that!

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