Perfection is so alluring.
We love our children so deeply that it makes sense that we would want to give them the best start to life and the best opportunity to flourish through being the perfect mum.
We are parenting in a society that places excessive pressure on mothers and constantly highlights how they aren’t measuring up. Mothers are held accountable for how their children develop, behave, and ultimately turn out and while we do certainly have significant influence, other contributing factors are often downplayed or overlooked. Marketing often relies on creating the fear of not being a good enough mum, to drive us to make purchases and decisions.
There’s a reason that you feel so much pressure and judgement.
There’s a reason you feel like you can’t ever win, no matter your choices.
The reason is the socially constructed myth of the perfect mother. She’s an accumulation of ideas from the past and present, about what women and mothers should be like. And she’s evolved into something completely unattainable.
The perfect mother doesn’t exist and is more than any one human could possibly manage to be.
The more we try to live up to the perfect mother myth, the more we see the ways we fall short (which is inevitable and has nothing to do with our personal flaws) and feel there is something wrong with us (there’s not). We also experience more guilt, which can lead to us pushing ourselves harder, self-sacrificing more, and compromising our boundaries until we end up unhappy, burned out and resentful.
If we want to thrive in motherhood, we need to break free from the perfect mother myth.
Here are some steps you can take toward finding freedom from this pressure.
1. Embrace good enough mothering.
It’s hard to break free from the perfect mother myth if you still believe you need to live up to it. So, let me reiterate – the perfect mother ideal is unattainable.
We all make mistakes. We all have a past that impacts the way we parent and relate to others, sometimes in ways we may not expect until it happens. There is no one right way to raise a child and every child is different, so we need to engage in some trial and error to find what works for us. We learn along the way.
Paediatrician and Psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, coined the term good enough mother in 1953, saying that a good enough mother was better for children than a perfect mother.
This is because children ultimately need us to prepare them for living in an imperfect world.
Through small, tolerable failures that inevitably happen in the normal course of human life, children experience disappointment and learn that they can tolerate frustration, soothe themselves (at the developmentally appropriate age), and become self-sufficient. They learn to have grit, which can be defined as having courage and determination despite difficulty.
Through our imperfections, we show our children that we are whole people – complex and deep. Just like them.
The way we treat ourselves shows them how acceptable that is. We also show them that we accept them in their imperfections so that they can accept themselves and be self-compassionate when they make mistakes. This is necessary for thriving in the real world.
We are not harming our children by being imperfect. We are not failing by being imperfect.
And cannot help being imperfect because we are human. We need to accept this and know that we can still be great mums with flourishing children if we practice good enough mothering.
2. Increase your awareness of the perfect mother myth
Once you see it, you can’t unsee it!
Have you ever thought about exactly what makes the perfect mother? What does she do? What does she look like? How does she feel? What are her relationships like? What is she good at?
I invite you to grab a pen and some paper and start writing down what comes to mind when you think about the perfect mother. Try to avoid critiquing your answers, just write them all down because some of these ideas are held subconsciously and while they may not logically make sense, they can still affect our choices and behaviours.
Professor Andrea O’Reilly, a world-leading maternal scholar, identified the 8 rules of perfect motherhood. See if any of these resonate with you.
- Children can only be properly cared for by their biological mother.
- This mothering must be provided 24/7.
- Mothers must always put their children’s needs before their own.
- Mothers must turn to the experts for instruction.
- Mothers must be fully satisfied, fulfilled, completed and composed in motherhood.
- Mothers must lavish excessive amounts of time, energy and money in the rearing of their children.
- Mothers have full responsibility but no power from which to mother.
- Motherhood and childrearing are personal and private undertakings with no political relevance or value.
You might also include some other points about the perfect mother, such as she:
- Is responsible for meeting all her children’s needs – physical, emotional, social, psychological, developmental, mental and spiritual.
- Looks good, stays fit, and bounces back to her pre-pregnancy body.
- Attends to her husband and keeps the romance alive.
- Keeps a clean and tidy house.
- Disciplines her children with a mere look.
- Cooks highly nutritious meals for her family from scratch.
- Plays with and entertains her children.
- Contributes financially to the household.
Once you’ve created your list, reflect on each point.
- Where did you come to learn about this expectation?
- Is it in line with your values and the sort of mother you want to be?
- What are the personal costs to you of pursuing this expectation?
3. Know where your value comes from
Society does not value mothering work like it values paid employment.
That’s why many women feel like they are not contributing enough when they are at home with their children. That’s why we say things like “I’m just a stay-at-home mum”.
It’s why mothering work can feel invisible and people don’t consider that many women are working a second shift at home, once they’ve finished their paid work for the day.
It’s why we’re expected to work like we don’t have children and then according to the perfect mother ideal, we also need to mother like we don’t have a paid job.
Living up to the perfect mother myth may feel like it’s proving our value in a world that undervalues our mothering work, but we can never win if the goal is unattainable.
It’s not your fault. Our institutions and systems are not set up to support us in the way we need them to and the views of society will take time to change, but in the meantime, we need to see our value for ourselves.
Your value doesn’t come from what you do and how busy you are. It doesn’t come from how well you meet those socially constructed ideals. It doesn’t come from looking a certain way, parenting a certain way, contributing to your school or community to a certain level, being productive and busy or self-sacrificing.
Your value comes from being YOU in a world that needs authentic women to live their truth. You get to choose what you value and live in a way that honours what’s most important to you.
Consider these questions:
- Where have you sacrificed your dreams, needs or desires to live up to the perfect mother myth?
- What is most important to you in your life and what needs to change so you can give those things the majority of your energy and attention?
4. Redefine success for yourself.
If the perfect mother myth is not the definition of success, then what is?
We all want to be successful, so when you break free from the perfect mother myth it’s really helpful to have an idea of what we are now aiming for, but let’s choose our own definition.
Success for each of us should be based on our values, dreams, goals and priorities for both ourselves and our (immediate) families.
Success for you doesn’t have to look like success for me. Only you know the kind of mother you want to be and the vision you have for your family. Only you know what your partner and children need and want.
Again, grab that pen and paper and answer these questions. Remember the answers may evolve as you journey through the different stages of motherhood. That is completely ok! Revisit your answers regularly.
- What sort of mother do I want to be?
- How do I want my children to remember their childhood and me as their mother?
- What are our family’s values and goals?
- What else is important to me in my life, outside of raising my family?
It is possible to break free from the perfect mother myth. These steps, while written here in just a few paragraphs, are likely to require ongoing exploration and reflection. If you would like personalised support with this, please reach out so we can talk about how we could work together to help you feel happier, calmer and lighter in motherhood. I’d love to support you.