Unpacking the Myth of the Perfect Mother
April 16, 2019
Forget what you see in movies: the transition to motherhood can be difficult, messy, and downright overwhelming. A recent study of 13,000 parents around the world found that 55% feel they are failing at the first year of parenthood—and moms are more likely to feel this way (60%) than dads (45%). The study, commissioned by WaterWipes as part of the global campaign This is Parenthood, dives into pressures new parents face today.
One of these pressures is to measure up to the perfectly filtered images parents see daily on social media. Half of American parents say they can't relate to the pictures they see on sites like Instagram and Facebook that are meant to depict parenting and 70% wish there was a more honest representation of what parenthood really looks like on social media and in pop culture.
Alexandra Sacks, M.D., a reproductive psychiatrist with a private practice in Manhattan, New York, aims to help show what parenting is really like on her newly launched podcast, “Motherhood Sessions.” The show features emotionally honest conversations with moms struggling with certain facets of motherhood. Though these women are not patients of Dr. Sacks, these conversations often seem therapeutic.
Perfectionism is, of course, a theme that regularly comes up on the podcast.
“No one wants to be a bad mom no matter what their circumstances are,” says Dr. Sacks, co-author of the upcoming What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions From Pregnancy to Motherhood. “I think as an alternative, everyone wants to be a perfect mom because they don’t want to mess up.” But there’s a big problem with seeking perfectionism: it’s completely unattainable, says Dr. Sacks.
In an interview with Parents.com, she dives further into perfectionism and explains why striving for it can cause more harm than good.
How is trying to be the perfect parent detrimental?
You can have an idea of the best way for you to be a mom but when you apply it to reality, it never pans out exactly how you want it because the petri dish of life has a lot of variabilities in it. Things are constantly in flux—not to mention biologic things like how sleep deprivation factors in, hunger, development, and your child’s brain changing. You can’t be a perfect mother because motherhood is not an idea, it’s a real relationship and no human relationship is perfect.
The anxiety that I help people with is that while you can’t be a perfect mom because you are in this human situation that’s in flux, how do you tolerate being a good enough mother? And how do understand that being a good enough mother is actually really all that your child needs? That’s the best of any circumstances—that you’re loved, you’re cared for, that your parents do the best they can, and that you grow up in that real environment.
And by the way, that prepares your child best for life because the real world is not going to offer them perfect situations either. Their friends, their teachers, their courses at school, their experiences in sports, are all going to have shades of imperfection. When children are raised by parents who are secure and comfortable in that experience of being a “good enough mother,” which essentially means tolerant of their flaws, kids learn to accept their owns flaws and forgive themselves when they mess up. It’s a really good model for your child that being imperfect is OK. It’s problematic when kids themselves want to be perfect; that leads to issues with self-esteem.
Why do moms strive for it?
Perfectionism has to do with black and white thinking. It’s often easier for us to wrap our mind around things when we make them into binaries like good or bad—a perfect mom or a bad mom. It’s really hard to think in the grey—you have to tolerate your own feelings of ambivalence, and you have to learn to think abstractly. It’s a perfectly natural instinct to want to oversimplify things into the good and the bad.
Your podcast touches on the idea that moms need to learn to be kinder to themselves. Why is that important?
Being a mom requires so much giving, it requires so much caretaking, so much kindness, and so much love to bestow on your child. In order to love your child well, you need to feel OK with yourself and your own feelings. I think it’s important that moms be kind to themselves so that they can be kind to their children. It sets you up to be a more empathic parent when you are kind to yourself because it creates this environment of acceptance, support, and love, which is such a different environment than constant self-criticism. You’re going to enter your relationship with your child from a different place if you’ve been beating yourself up in your head all day.
And what about the idea that it’s not always a reflection of the parents when children act a certain way?
Babies, children—they have their own temperament. Your temperament is kind of the core patterns of your personality that research has shown people are born with. We don’t know exactly how nurture and nature balance each other out, but there are some babies that are good sleepers and there are some babies that are fussy sleepers. Many of those babies are put in the exact same environment but have different responses to sleep and that’s because they have different temperaments. It’s helpful for me to remind parents your child is a human and there are certain things that are programmed in their biology that have nothing to do with you. Sometimes you can help with interventions and then there are things that will be out of control.
What are other things that are biological that are out of a mom’s control?
A baby’s weight and birth…It’s just like when a baby is born a month early they are probably going to be month behind, and that has nothing to do with you. If your child is not walking as quickly as your friend’s child because your baby was born four weeks early, that’s biology; that’s not because you weren’t doing a good job helping your child get ready to walk…Or a kid who has a more sensitive temperament. Some kids may find a loud birthday party to be overwhelming because of something about their wiring, and so there may be nothing you can do to have your kid be the one who loves running around at a loud birthday party. There are so many things in the way children develop that have to do with their wiring and that you can’t necessarily prevent or shape.
What do you hope that moms get from listening to your podcast?
In our culture, it’s hard for us to lead with our vulnerability. Particularly in motherhood, there is this culture of shame that leads to not wanting to mess up, not wanting to be that bad mom. I think it leads people to speak less about their vulnerabilities in parenting.
I really hope that the conversations on my podcast will normalize vulnerability in the parenting experience but also in the human experience. If you can validate that it’s OK to feel what you’re feeling, you’re going to be nicer to yourself and that’s going to keep your cup full to have more to give as a parent.