This is for my own “perfect” mom. Happy Mother’s Day!
Over the years I have talked to more than one mom who does not like Mother’s Day. Why? Usually it has something to do with feeling she doesn’t match up to the accolades; that she somehow falls short. Maybe her kids are struggling a bit and she sees that as a reflection on her mothering. It seems that for some women Mother’s Day is just a painful reminder that they are not the mother they thought they would be. Why all the anguish and guilt?
I believe at least part of the problem is perfectionism. None of us goes into motherhood without some sort of picture in our minds of what the perfect mom looks like. Whether we realize it or not, these expectations color our thought processes and daily experiences as we try to figure out what kind of mothers we are and want to be. The sooner we can recognize how crazy and unrealistic some of these self-imposed expectations are, the sooner we will be free to be truly great mothers. Let’s take a look at some of these mythical moms.
First we have Picture-Perfect Mom. Despite giving birth to six children she is a firm and muscular size 2. This mother’s make-up 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 mini-van 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 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 masters degree in child psychology.
Then there is Perfect-Timing Mom. Her household is 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 Betty Homemaker! She cooks, sews, gardens and cans. She clips coupons and cuts her children’s hair. She can get chocolate out of cashmere while balancing her checkbook. 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.
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.
My memories of the last days before our first child was born are vivid. I can see myself sitting in a second hand rocker with my feet up, pouring over every last detail of “What To Expect When You’re Expecting”. I took Lamaze, upped my folic acid intake, and slept only on my left side. I had all the baby clothes washed and organized by size and weather condition. I put headphones on my belly and pumped classical music into my unborn baby’s ears. I was the perfect mother . . . until I actually became one.
Fast forward almost 12 years to the present. The former me would probably be horrified by what she saw. My eleven year old stashes garbage under her bed. My eight year old practically lives on peanut butter and jelly. My four year old intentionally goads her little sister and my toddler can identify Sponge Bob in a line up of Nickelodeon characters. The only time my house is visibly clutter free is if I am hosting something at my house, I use paper plates for dinner more often than not, and my idea of continuing education is watching the Food Network.
My personal evolution as a mother has been shaped by more than a few surprises, challenges, disappointments and frustrations. But the “perfect” me of days gone by could never have anticipated the joys and triumphs that have come precisely because of the surprises, challenges, disappointments and frustrations. I have learned over the years that perfectionism is not only unrealistic when mothering young children, it’s downright silly.
As a recovering perfectionist, let me share with you four suggestions for putting out the perfectionist in you.
1. Strive for excellence, not perfection.
Harriet Braiker said, “Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.” How true! We constantly tell our kids “Just do your best!” and yet we don’t offer ourselves the same kindness. By simply changing the use of the word perfect from an adjective to a verb, perfection becomes motivating, not demoralizing. To perfect means to improve, refine, hone, work on. That’s something each of us can do everyday without a deadline or flawless end product to measure up to. It’s more about striving than arriving. 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.
2. Practice contentment and gratitude.
You may notice I didn’t write “be content and grateful.” It really does require practice. When I have a particularly trying day that knocks me down more times than I’d like to remember, I play the Pollyanna game. I force myself to count my blessings, to see the beauty and the bounty that exists in my every day life if I will just take the time to notice. And you know what? It works. Try it. Are your kids healthy? Do you have running water? Did you get at least one square meal today? It seems ridiculous, but in our culture of excess and entitlement you would be amazed at how good it feels to recognize the most basic of blessings.
When I start to feel like life isn’t fair and I ought to be able to expect x, y and z, I like to read this quote by Jenkins Lloyd Jones.
“Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he has been robbed.
“[The fact is] most putts don’t drop. Most beef is tough. Most children grow up to be just people. Most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration. Most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. …
“Life is like an old-time rail journey—delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed.
“The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.”
3. Be your own kind of mother.
M. Russell Ballard said, “There is no one perfect way to be a good mother. Each situation is unique. Each mother has different challenges, different skills and abilities, and certainly different children. The choice is different and unique for each mother and each family. What matters is that a mother loves her children deeply and, in keeping with the devotion she has for God and her husband, prioritizes them above all else.”
As mothers, 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.
One of the most liberating things about getting older and having more kids is learning to let go of stereotypes and expectations and focusing on what I can do. (That’s on a good day of course.) We can’t all be Type A mothers. We all bring different gifts to the altar of motherhood. What matters is our children, not our egos, and it does our children no good to compare our weaknesses against someone else’s strength.
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.”
4. Remember that mothering is not about you.
Do not misunderstand. The old adage, “If momma ain’t happy ain’t nobody happy” is a very real truth. We all need our “me time” as well as a chance to develop and use our god-given talents outside the realm of motherhood. But if you have little ones still at home and have chosen to be their mom at this time in their life, make no mistake about it: you will make considerable personal sacrifices for them. That’s a good thing! Nothing really satisfying and worthwhile ever came from lounging by the pool reading fashion magazines. Unless you have a full time nanny, maid and cook, embrace the blood, sweat and tears that is mothering young children and know that it is worth it!
The definition of mothering is to look after, care for, protect, nurse, and tend. 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.
There are more than enough years in this (hopefully) long life to do what we want to do, to have things just so; to have a life of tidy orderliness where things happen at their appointed times and without interruption. (Doesn’t that sound wonderful?) Someday there will only be pictures and memories of Little League, ballet recitals, shoe box dioramas and lemonade stands. Now is your time to bask in the fistful of dandelions, the sloppy kisses, the giggles under the covers and those trusting eyes that are looking up to you.
For all those mothers that dislike Mother’s Day because they think they don’t match up, take the magnifying glass off you. On Mother’s Day this year please try to focus in on how much you love your children and what you have learned from being their mother, warty imperfections and all.
For me, my quest for perfection is not so much about how my home looks as how it feels. It’s not so much about how I look but about how my kids feel. The last time I had tight abs was when I was nine months pregnant. I have never seen the bottom of my “special issues” laundry basket. I throw out the Pottery Barn Kids catalog before it has a chance to depress me. But every day I try my best to make sure my kids feel loved and happy, secure and capable of meeting the challenges of life. I know I am on the right track when I am snuggling in bed with my dear, sweet, precious, little four year old daughter and she puts her arms around me and says, “I think I have the best family in the whole world, Mommy!” No matter what else I did or didn’t do that day, I’m pretty sure at that moment, to my daughter, I’m the perfect mom.
Allyson blogs at: A Day In The Life
QUESTION: What are some of the things about you that make you the “perfect” mother for your children?
CHALLENGE: Next time you catch yourself comparing yourself to another mom in a negative way, stop and remember this article.
#1 April Perry Said this on 5-6-2009 At 02:46 pm I had tears in my eyes through that whole thing, Allyson! Fortunately you gave me plenty of opportunities to laugh, too. Some days are just so hard, and I can completely relate to all the standards of perfection you mentioned. Thanks for creating such an amazing, beautiful, well-written essay. I’m going to come back and read this one again and again. P.S. Welcome to The Power of Moms…you’re a WRITER!!!! Reply to this Comment
#2 Elizabeth Said this on 5-6-2009 At 04:07 pm Allyson is my older sister and I have to say- GREAT JOB! Thanks for inviting me to this site. I’m looking forward to more fun and inspiring reading. Reply to this Comment
#3 Kate Reynolds Said this on 5-6-2009 At 05:27 pm I’m not a mom yet but Mom, that was great! It’s just that you don’t seem to care about my happiness when I ask about a pet snake! Reply to this Comment
#6 Sarah Elzinga Said this on 5-6-2009 At 09:13 pm Wow Allyson–you’ve always had a way with words and maybe writing should be your next career. I gave up on the perfectionism thing years ago but your words were still inspiring. I think aging and watching your kids age gives all the perspective you need about what matters. Reply to this Comment
#7 Bethany Said this on 5-6-2009 At 10:02 pm I had no idea you were such a great writer! Although, I probably should have guessed, since I am privileged enough to hear your peals of wisdom every month. Thanks for the inspiration. I posted about your essay at my blog, pabstadventure.blogspot.com. Reply to this Comment
#9 Joyce Goodsell Said this on 5-6-2009 At 10:44 pm Allyson, having walked the road you now travel, may I say, “press forward.” You have chosen the road less traveled and that will make all the difference. You are an inspiration ! Reply to this Comment
#12 Marsha Paulsen Peters Said this on 5-10-2009 At 07:27 am Love it, love it — Love you.
This works not just for those of ye with little ones, but Us Aged Moms with adults and Grandkids, too. Rock on, Write on, Allyson – –
— mapp, with song, in iowa Reply to this Comment
#13 Miriam Said this on 5-12-2009 At 11:37 am Allyson, what a fabulous article. I loved it! Isn’t it amazing what we realize over time? I’ve long given up on perfectionism. You have to hug those little ones as tight as you can because guess what! Before you know it– they’re gone and how you will miss those days. I know I do. xoxo Reply to this Comment
#14 Dee Armstrong Said this on 5-15-2009 At 08:06 am I am an older mother of 3 kids, now approaching the empty nest stage whenever my seventeen year-old daughter is ready to leave. I worked through all these aspects of being an imperfect mother. My challenges included physical and mental problems of my own, and I took a lot of flak from my mother-in-law about the piles of laundry on the couch, piles of toys in the floor and piles of dishes at the sink. Her greatest compliment was “You may be a lousy housekeeper, but you are a good mother to your kids.” The clothes are folded now, the toys turned into a backpack and big purse, and the dish pile regularly disappears. My children think they were lucky to have me for a mom. I could never be perfect, I just learned how to do the best I could and let Heavenly Father help with the rest. Thank you, Allyson, for bringing wisdom to your sisters across the internet! Reply to this Comment
#15 Kelly Eggertsen Said this on 5-19-2009 At 10:42 pm Thanks so much for sharing this article and this website with me. There are lots of helpful ideas to help me let go of some of my perfectionisms. Reply to this Comment
#16 Marsha Reynolds Said this on 5-20-2009 At 07:22 pm You are always so down to earth. I think it must be fun to live at your house! I agree with all you said in your article. Well done! Reply to this Comment
#17 meg Said this on 5-21-2009 At 02:05 pm This should be a standard essay required for motherhood! I am a perfectionist and trying to find a way to let it go — it’s caused a lot of sorrow and despair. Thanks for your words. I really appreciate hearing from other mothers — and knowing I’m certainly not alone when I can’t find my sink under all the dishes! Reply to this Comment
#18 Saren Said this on 5-22-2009 At 11:11 am What a beautifully written and important essay. It’s so easy to get caught up in the things that “show” to others but really don’t matter that much. As school lets out and my somewhat orderly schedule and house gets thrown for a loop, I needed these reminders big time! I love the quotes you used. I have my own favorite little poem to add “Cleaning and scrubbing can wait til tomorrow, for babies grow up, we’ve learned to our sorrow. So quiet down cobwebs, dust go to sleep. I’m rocking my baby and babies don’t keep.” And one more by Iris Krasnow: “I used to think that my babies would fit in between all the other things I had going on. But now I’ve realized that my children must be at the top of my list and that my list must dwindle considerably.” Thank you thank you for your wonderful essay! Reply to this Comment