Embracing the Imperfect Mother


More than ever, moms today juggle multiple competing roles and responsibilities. Those alone make motherhood a pretty hard job, but moms are also saddled with timeworn expectations that place them under a great deal of pressure not just to perform, but to make no mistakes at all.

Not all of that pressure comes from society or finger-waggers on the playground, either. So deeply internalized is the "perfect mom" ideal, moms are often the victims of their own unrealistic expectations. So let's take a moment to unpack the myth. 

The Perfect Mother myth, busted

Part of the problem is the long history in psychological circles of placing the onus of successful childrearing squarely upon the mother. Fathers played very much a secondary role in childhood development among early theorists like Freud, and the belief propagated that one or two missteps on the mother’s part were enough to scar Junior forever.

We know now, though, that a perfect mother isn’t necessary for a child to turn out perfectly well adjusted. There are certain things that a parent should provide for a child to foster their healthy development, like emotional and physical attunement to the child’s expression of needs, and support for their exploration of the world on their own—while also providing a safe home base to which the child can return.

But children aren’t quite as fragile as once thought. A misattunement here or there doesn’t spell disaster. We also know now while the primary caregiver (of either sex) is most important figure for a child, both parents carry a great deal of influence. So moms, you’re not alone on the hook.

Distorted reflections

But myths that well-established don’t die easily and, as highly social animals, comparing oneself to the mythical perfect mother, and to each other, comes very naturally. Whether we like to admit it or not, most of us care how we are seen by others (people who genuinely do not care what any other person thinks of them are in dangerous territory, actually).

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As a result, not only do we compare our perception of ourselves to our perception of others, but we also tend to broadcast images of ourselves that are likely to draw favorable reviews, even if it just means wearing clean clothes to your business meeting instead of your tattered sweatpants. There’s a term for this: “impression management.”

These comparing and broadcasting tendencies, however, create a problem. We’re comparing ourselves to a perception of someone else that is at least in part fictional. More likely, it’s highly fictional, and when we don’t measure up to it, we feel inadequate. Even if we project an image of measuring up, it takes effort to display that image if it doesn’t match the inside.

As deeply rooted in our social nature as these phenomena are, they aren’t easy to change. Sometimes my clients find it helpful just to understand that comparison and impression management are perfectly natural and, thus, they’re not the only ones doing it. But there are certainly ways to feel more comfortable in your “good enough”-ness.

Your fact-finding mission

The one I’ll mention here is pretty simple. Any negative self-assessments you may have probably take the form of thoughts; it would be good for you to make a list of them. Let’s use this one as an example: “I’m always screwing up with my son. I’ll never be a good mother.” Now, what you need to do is separate fact from opinion.

If you recently committed a parenting foul—let’s say, forgetting to pick your child up from day care—then that’s a fact. Are you “always screwing up” and will you “never be a good mother?” Well, the first clue that these are opinions is the presence of the words “always” and “never.” People aren't always or never anything.

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But you can cross-examine those statements yourself. Think of (or list) the times when you were a Class A parent, and the times that you did remember to pick your child up, which are probably much more numerous. The human brain has a tendency to emphasize the negative, so you need to make effort to flesh out the full picture.

Once you’ve done that, restate the original thought with the new perspective and evidence you’ve gathered. For instance:

“I forgot Johnny at daycare today—the second time I’ve done that. It’s not like me, because the vast majority of the time I’m very much on the ball and a loving and responsible mother. Still, I feel terrible about what happened. So I’m going to make an extra effort to get organized and leave myself reminders, so this never happens again.”

See what we did there? It’s not a hollow, feel-good affirmation. We produced a statement that acknowledges the negative and the positive, using solid evidence on both sides, that expresses the reality of what is going on. Let the opinions go and bank on the objective facts, and you’ll feel much better about yourself.

Intangible self-care

Speaking of feeling better, Mother’s Day was conceived as an occasion to honor the important role the mother plays in the world, and it makes for a good excuse to pamper yourself.

But that's only one day per year! I encourage you to make time to have your nails done, get a massage, buy yourself some new clothing or whatever it is you like to do, at more frequent intervals.

However, I also encourage you to consider activities that pamper the parts of yourself that you can’t see.

Our social nature means that deeply-felt interpersonal connection with others is a crucial ingredient in our ability to thrive—whether we’re an infant or a mother. Therefore, a high-quality conversation with a close friend or family member would be an example of intangible self-care.

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Others would include clearing your schedule for a long walk in a pretty place, taking a class in an area of interest, or giving a new hobby a try. You could also take some quiet time to create a personal mission statement for the next year of your life.

It doesn’t need to be boring, like homework. You could get even more creative with it, by making a "vision board" or collage instead of a statement. Just let your mind run free to an ideal vision of your life, and start working backward to identify the things that are really important to you, and how you might get closer to them. It can be an empowering and refreshing exercise.

Above all, be sure to take some time frequently to cultivate appreciation for yourself, for all of the good work you do as a mom, and all of your good intentions. Let it soak in, and enjoy it. Sure, you could probably use some improvement—who couldn’t? And you’re also probably doing pretty great just the way you are

A version of this article was published by our friends at Viva Fifty.