Is Perfectionism Rising in Today’s Moms? - Dr. Angela Derrick
“There is no need to be perfect; mothering is NOT a competitive sport.”
That is how my mother, who raised three children in the 1980’s, responded when I confided in her about some of my struggles to “do the right thing” as a modern parent.
I had just rattled off a list of some of the earliest decisions today’s parents face:
- How to get pregnant: via natural conception or IVF
- How to give birth: schedule a C-Section, have an epidural, or natural birth
- How to feed the baby: breast milk or formula
- Whether to work outside of the home or be a stay at home mom
- The type of childcare to use: daycare or nanny
- Parenting philosophy: practicing attachment or cry it out parenting
- When and how to feed real food: opting for child-led weaning or pureed food
I explained to my mother that these decisions feel far from neutral, and that each one comes with judgments on both sides. This part really got to my mom (she may have even said something like “why don’t people mind their own business.”)
The reality is this: it is harder for us to mind our own business these days. Not only are there perhaps more parenting choices then in my mother’s childrearing years, there is also more visibility and a greater forum for comparison via social media and the internet.
[Note: While it is fair to say that both mothers and father may be impacted by these cultural pressures, the majority of the discussion on this topic has historically been focused on women and thus, so will be the emphasis here].
The high expectations of modern mothers
Although mothers spend more time with their kids these days, they feel they are doing a worse job of parenting than previous generations of mothers. They look to others for validation — is it okay that I am supplementing with formula? Does it make me a bad mom if I can’t produce enough milk to feed my child? — and instead find more reasons to be anxious.
The bar has been raised regarding what we expect great mothering to look like, or great parenting, for that matter. A recent article in the October 30th issue of TIME Magazine spoke to how these cultural pressures are specifically impacting mothers.
Referencing the “Goddess Myth,” the article addressed how expectations have changed over the years and how striving for an idealized version of mothering, in particular, can actually be dangerous for both the mother and the baby. An example of how things can get dangerous is this story: a mother feels that breastfeeding is the only acceptable means of feeding her daughter; the baby fails to thrive when the mother doesn’t produce enough milk.
Thankfully, we can look to psychological research in order to understand what truly constitutes good parenting. What we find is this: we don’t need to do everything right or need to be divine beings in order to raise healthy children. It is okay to be mortal — and flawed.
It’s OK, in fact it is best, to be a “good-enough” mother
D.W. Winnicott, a famous pediatrician and psychiatrist, studied and wrote about the idea of the “good-enough” mother. Basically, he found that a mother who makes efforts to attune to and respond to the child’s physical and emotional needs will generally provide a foundation for healthy development. (Note: there is nothing here about which type of crib is best or which feeding schedule to use!)
Mothers will be imperfect at times — such as being late to a feeding or not responding to the first cry. These minor failures can even have a positive impact. It is through these small, appropriate frustrations that children learn to manage difficulties and tolerate not getting everything they want right away. From this perspective, the good-enough mother will “fail” to meet all of the child’s needs, yet this will actually support her child’s development.
The implication, too, is that the seemingly-imaginary mother who tries to attend to her child’s every need will not be able to do so and will probably find herself to be too anxious. Moreover, if she did attain such perfection, she would deny the child a chance to learn how to adapt to an imperfect world.
Winnicott's concept of the “good-enough mother” is a particularly soothing notion for parents. It helps ground us in what really matters in raising a child. It says, just relax and be a loving, caring mother, not a superwoman, and your child will thrive. Again, we could likely say the same thing about what it takes to be a good father, or a good co-parent.
Are you trying to be the perfect parent?
So, how can you recognize when you might be buying into perfectionistic ideals about parenting?
- You find yourself talking or thinking in “should’s” such as “I just had a baby, I should be happy”
- You compare yourself and judge your worth as a parent by what you imagine other parents are doing (on social media or in your social circle)
- You feel ashamed that you are not giving your child the “right” or the “best” care, despite actually taking very good care of your infant/toddler/child
- You overestimate the importance of each parenting decision, however small
- You feel persistently anxious and uncertain about your abilities to care for your child, again, despite no evidence to support this
What to do about it:
- Avoid parenting sites that push a certain type of parenting as “the only right way”
- Critically examine your assumptions of others’ experiences when you notice yourself comparing to others
- Find a parenting group/blog that is more honest, vulnerable and open about the difficulties of being a mother and respectful of personal choices
- Spend time reflecting on what is important to you; Identify your values as a parent and then ask yourself, Why?
- Set an intention for each day that is attainable and reflective of your values. (e.g. I want to be available to spend quality time with my kids today.)
- Practice self-compassion for how difficult it is to be a parent. I am a devoted mother and this makes a difference in the lives of my kids. I don’t need to do everything right for them to be happy and well cared for, or maybe: Everyone parents differently. One way isn’t necessarily better. This way works well for my family.
When to seek professional help
Women may feel ashamed that they are not enjoying the experience of motherhood as much as they imagined, causing them to minimize their difficulties to themselves and others while struggling internally. This shame about not living up to inner or societal standards may lead to refusal to admit that there is a problem and interfere with a woman’s willingness to access treatment for serious illnesses. And, as we know, post-partum depression and post-partum anxiety are not uncommon. Up to 20 percent of new mothers may experience these conditions, according to the CDC.
Thankfully, there is support available for those who wish to clarify their thinking, connect with others, and get clear about the things that really matter. At Insight Behavioral Health Centers, expert clinicians treat difficulties that arise from perfectionistic and unrealistic expectations. This can include issues faced by parents, students, professionals or those in recovery.
If you think that perfectionism is impacting you, your child, or your partner, consider getting help from a counselor trained to work with these issues.
Refuse to “play the game”
Perfection-seeking, in any form, hurts all of us, as it is a form of disconnection from our loved ones, our communities, and ourselves. We are well-served to consider instead how our experiences and challenges can become the very thing that connect us and offer the validation and belonging that we truly seek.
In this New Year, please join me in looking for opportunities to support other’s parenting choices. Instead of bemoaning whether we are doing a good job and comparing ourselves to others, let’s laugh and cry together about the daily challenges and joys of parenting.
Angela Picot Derrick is a clinical psychologist and the Senior Director of Clinical Services at Eating Recovery Center of Chicago and Insight Behavioral Health Centers. Insight Behavioral Health Centers provides specialized treatment for mood and anxiety disorders at five Chicago, Illinois treatment centers and one center located north of Austin, Texas in Round Rock. Dr. Derrick has studied and treated eating and mood disorders for over 15 years and is honored to help her clients build hope, self-compassion and resilience as they work towards recovery.