Imperfect Mothers

Raising functional families, one mistake at a time

The Myth of the "Other Mother"

How to feel comfortable in your own shoes.


When my daughter Cricket was three years old, she started taking ballet lessons. Every week the dressing room was a swarm of tiny ballerinas in pink tutus, twirling in the mirror or squirming away from their brush-wielding moms.

Amid all the confusion I was always drawn to one particular mom. Ella and her three daughters arrived to class on time each week—the first of many reasons Ella amazed me. Her girls were always sweetly composed and neatly dressed, wearing shades of light grey and soft pink. Ella herself wore slender grey or black jeans tucked in stylish leather boots with a long flowing sweater. She seemed so calm and unhurried.

I felt like such a slouch next to her. I had only one child to think about, but I usually showed up for class late, dragging Cricket behind me, both of us dressed in hastily put-together outfits (and on at least one occasion, sporting an inside-out shirt). Inevitably—though I loved to watch Ella and her three girls—I always ended up feeling like I could and should be doing better.

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One day I turned to Ella saying, “Three girls, huh? Wow,” or something equally as intelligible. I was about to ask her how she did it, but before I could, she looked up at me with glazed eyes and, in a non sequitur, said, “I have so much laundry to do.”

She then began rambling about her baby’s horrible sleep patterns and her guilt over letting her girls eat chicken nuggets in the car. She looked as if on the verge of tears. She’s not doing it, I realized, she’s not really perfect. She’s just found a way to hide it.

For some reason, it’s human nature for people to be self-critical and to assume that others have it all together. For moms, these feelings are often magnified, especially when we experience the realities of motherhood versus our idyllic expectations. Most of us have self-doubts about our parenting skills to begin with; seeing someone who appears to be a supermom can leave us feeling pretty down on ourselves.

For adult daughters of alcoholics, this problem—this assumption of the mythical other mother and the resulting angst—is even more intensified. In his book Perfect Daughters, Dr. Robert Ackerman, co-founder of the National Association of Children of Alcoholics, discusses the twenty characteristics of women who grew up with an alcoholic parent, the most common being the tendency to be overly self-critical and the drive to be perfect (thus his title of Perfect Daughters.) Ackerman makes it clear that these behaviors are not always what he calls “alcoholized,”—the results of living with an alcoholic parent—nor do they always have negative consequences: adult daughters are generally very organized, reliable and results-driven.

Yet when an adult daughter of an alcoholic becomes a mom, her old perfect daughter patterns can really work against the goal of raising a functional family. From my experience, the most debilitating of these patterns is the drive for perfection and the tendency to be overly self-critical. Letting go of these behaviors is easier said then done, however. In Perfect Daughters, Ackerman provides transitions,which are strategies to recover from these former ways of doing things when they are no longer being helpful. Ackerman’s book, in my opinion, is a must-read for women who are ready to heal and move forward.

On Imperfect Mothers, I’d like to offer, from time-to-time, the strategies I’ve found helpful in my own growth from a perfect daughter to feeling comfortable being an imperfect mother. I call these strategies my 3-F Process: Find, Forgive, Focus.

So, when you find yourself being your own worst critic, and assuming that other mothers are doing it better, faster, smarter and in better shoes:

1. Find an empathetic person and vent your frustrations. Moms often have a difficult time admitting how hard parenting can be. When Ella started opening up to me, it seemed as if she hadn’t talked with another adult in days, and especially hadn’t revealed how overwhelmed she felt. A quick phone call, email or text to another mom will remind you that everyone feels frustration and angst over not being a perfect parent. And perhaps, the person on the receiving end might be needing to hear the same thing.

2. Forgive yourself when you find yourself sliding back into old patterns. Recovering—like parenting!—is a life-long process.

3. Focus on what matters: your relationship with your children. We will never feel as close to perfect as when we are spending time with our children, and truly living in the moment. Squishing your hands in Play-Doh, cuddling with a good book, or shooting hoops with your teen at the local gym will quickly take your mind of that mythical other mother.

Andrea Fox is a stay-at-home mother and widely published author of personal essays concerning the challenges and humor of parenting.

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