Motherhood can bring out the perfectionist in all of us. Over the years, I have reflected in many conversations with my mother, my three sisters and numerous friends about how we raised our respective children. The recurring theme of our discussions was that we wished we had been less uptight and more spontaneous - another way of saying we were scared stiff and worried too much about the wrong things.
The true vulnerability of being a mother cannot be easily described. We must hold the body, mind and spirit of a precious, fragile little person in our hands and hearts for the rest of our lives. It isn’t just that we don’t know what we are doing much of the time; it is that they own us from the moment they are born. The mere thought of our child being hurt or harmed, or the ever present reality that we could lose them, sends us into the abyss. Every stage of child rearing, including pregnancy, is fraught with potential danger and missteps and yet most of us sign up regardless of that truth.
A few months ago, my daughter, then a new mom with a two-month old baby girl, called me crying, exhausted and overwhelmed from lack of sleep and colic. "Mom,” she said “I don't know how people do this!! I don’t think I can do it!”
I remembered feeling the same way, not only when she was a newborn, but over and over as my children passed through various stages and into adulthood. My reply was, “I don't know how we do it, but there seem to be a lot of people on this planet, so I guess we manage to get through it.” Somehow we put one foot in front of the other and most children survive, and many thrive, despite our flaws.
Perfectionists who are mothers not only have the issues mentioned above, but also have an invisible internal pressure to accomplish raising a popular, accomplished, happy and successful person.
Competition amongst moms can also be a trigger for perfectionists. With infants and young children, perfectionist mothers are caught between the expressed or implied wisdom of their mothers and the current trends communicated through social media, friends, Google searches and their doctors: Must I breast feed? Am I a bad mother if I try and quit? Should I discourage thumb sucking or use a pacifier?
Does my child have the right look? Is she hitting her milestones? Am I engaging her in the right activities? What if Sophie has a learning problem?
Adolescence is a very trying time for perfectionist parents. Teens can struggle or even become mentally ill or chemically dependent despite the best efforts. A perfectionist may be so focused on her child’s status and achievement prospects that she may put unnecessary pressure on her child and may not emphasize other values, such as kindness and creativity, which can be just as important for a fulfilling life.
In fact, research shows that adolescents may need to make mistakes in order to learn while they are still in a structured and loving environment. The relationships and openness formed early on make it possible for teens to share their struggles with us. Mom’s perfectionism says to a teen “I need you to be okay for me. I can’t deal with failure so you better turn out okay.” So the teen pretends to be okay.
Perfectionism in child rearing can also wreak havoc on an intimate relationship. All couples have conversations about what children need, the “To-do List” and what the house needs. Emotional needs are repressed and the anxiety/worry of a perfectionist puts her sex drive on the back burner. She lives with the fantasy that once the children grow up, she will have time for her relationship and her personal needs.
Children learn from who we are, not from what we tell them they should be. If mom is worrying about my grades not measuring up and helps me with homework with a pinched expression on her face, I feel her disappointment and unhappiness and think that it is my fault. Self-esteem can plummet because mom is trying too hard.
If a perfectionist mother has a career or a job that is stressful and demanding, guilt becomes a constant companion. When my children were young and I was a single parent with a challenging job, I remember having a constant feeling that wherever I was, I felt like I should be somewhere else. I kept pushing through and tried to be the best in both areas without falling apart. When the kids went to bed, I would collapse, sometimes cry and start all over again the next day. I could hardly be spontaneous. I don’t recall telling anyone how I felt until I finally saw a professional for counseling.
Here’s the good news. If you experience any of these issues there are simple steps you can start to make today to find better balance in your life.
8 Tips for Overcoming Perfectionism
- Think “People First.” Instead of focusing on making yourself, your children and your world perfect, put your heart into connecting with the people you love.
- Come out as a human being. Authenticity is a requirement for the pleasure of love, joy, fun and overall happiness. Yes it is messy, but being real and looking foolish will be worth it.
- Challenge your negative self-talk by turning the volume down rather than trying to shut out all critical thoughts. Try to avoid comparing your efforts to those of others. Be you.
- Let your children learn to be who they are rather than what would look best. Remember that they need a little hurt and a few bumps in life to become that wonderful person.
- Have fun and/or be around others who do. Smile authentically; get dirty and let children get dirty – play. Reward yourself for the effort of having fun.
- Let go of expectations and try to accept people as they are. We are all unique and flawed as human beings. Don’t judge your flaws or those of others. Embrace your essence and see it as all part of being you. Amazing things will happen if you let go.
- If this list seems daunting, seek professional help. Change will come faster when you have a guide who can help you be yourself with a little less discomfort.
- Remember it is never too late. Even adult children will benefit from you becoming lighter.
Ann Smith is the Executive Director of Breakthrough at Caron. Her updated book, Overcoming Perfectionism: Finding Balance and Self-Acceptance, was released on March 5, 2013. Leave a comment here or connect with her on Twitter, @CaronBT or Facebook