The Myth of the Perfect Mother

What I've learned about being a mother

Posted Jun 10, 2019

This Mother’s Day was the 40th one that I have celebrated as a mother. And it has occurred to me that I have earned the right to answer the question: “What piece of advice would you offer about being a mother?”  I used to think that only perfect mothers were qualified to speak on this subject. But this gets me to the one thing that I now know for sure: there is no such thing as a perfect mother.

This whole motherhood (and parenthood, for that matter) experience is so complicated and confusing! We love our children with all of our hearts, and we want to be absolutely perfect parents, because we want our children to have absolutely perfect childhoods. We don’t want them to hurt or want for anything. We want them to feel loved and understood. We don’t want them to suffer in any of the ways that we did growing up.

But then, after a hard day at work, we end up getting impatient with our kid when he’s struggling with his homework. Or our child is crying and we’re at our wit’s end trying to figure out what’s wrong and how to console her. Or we’re rushing to get the kids off to school and out of our mouths come words from our parents that once stung us. And we feel awful; we’ve let our kids down and we’ve let ourselves down, too.

To make matters worse, our critical inner voice is always on the ready to attack us for any of our shortcomings as parents. You’re no better than your own mother/father! And thought you were going to be different? Well, you’re not. You’re just as bad!  Our confidence is already faltering, but these types of attacks finish us off and send us spiraling into an abyss of self-hatred and self-doubt about how we are as parents.

So--after four children, four stepchildren, and eight grandchildren--here is my advice about motherhood (parenthood): STOP TRYING TO BE PERFECT! It’s an impossible goal. We’re all human which means that by nature we are flawed. But, this also means that we can have compassion for ourselves and our humanness. We can try our best, knowing that we will make mistakes. There will be times when we fall short and let ourselves and others down. And when we do, we can be kindhearted toward ourselves and understanding of our limitations, while being respectful of our efforts. We can repair any emotional ruptures that our actions have caused and continue on with our dedication to the imperfect endeavor of parenthood.

In the middle of the last century, British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott coined the phrase “the good enough mother.” Bruno Bettleheim elaborated on it in the 1980s in his book, A Good Enough Parent. Over time, this phrase has evolved and is now being used to denote the concept that parents don’t have to be perfect to be a good parent; they simply have to be good enough. We can be ourselves; we don’t have to strive for perfection.

In 2012, Glennon Doyle’s post “Don’t Carpe Diem” on her blog Momstery went viral.  In it she wrote about the pressure and failure to be the perfect parent, “I felt guilty because I wasn’t in parental ecstasy every hour of every day and I wasn’t MAKING THE MOST OF EVERY MOMENT like the mamas in the parenting magazines seemed to be doing.” Doyle admitted, “Clearly, Carpe Diem doesn’t work for me. I can’t even carpe fifteen minutes in a row so a whole diem is out of the question.” A few hours after her blog was posted, it had been viewed 250,000 times. Clearly, Doyle was speaking a secret truth that was resonating with many people.

It’s important to remember that our kids need us to be real people with them. In his latest book, Separation Theory, Robert Firestone writes that parental love “includes a willingness to be a real person with the child as opposed to acting the role of ‘mother’ or ‘father.’” Our children need us to step out from behind the role of Perfect Parent so they can see and know us as an authentic person. And they need to be related to by a genuine person to feel seen and real themselves. In Compassionate Childrearing, Firestone says, “Genuine contact [with a child] can be said to occur only when a parent expresses feelings honestly as a real person.”

Our kids need to see how we deal with our mistakes and missteps, because children model their parents’ behavior. Through our example, they can learn about being accountable and accepting responsibility. They can come to understand self-compassion and see that it’s okay to make mistakes.

So, step away from the perfect social media images of family life and stop aspiring to images and ideals that are fabricated. Step back into the real world with fellow human beings who, even with their flaws, are good enough. Pursuing the impossible goal of being the perfect parents puts a burden on our children as well. They have to be perfect kids as proof that we are perfect parents. But if we accept our humanity, the pressure is off of both ourselves and our children, and we will realize that, not only are we are good enough parents, but our children are good enough kids.