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Guilt, Motherhood and the Pursuit of Perfection

Mothers are making themselves sick with expectations of perfection

Ah, the pursuit of perfecting mothering. How much is too much? What if it's not enough? What kind of damage will I impose on my children if I do it the wrong way? Whatever the issue, whatever the question, whatever the proposed solution, mothers have, for decades, backed themselves into a no-win corner. It's never enough. Or it's not right. Not exactly. They've passed through phases of Donna Reed and Leave it to Beaver mothers. They've tried working and staying at home. They've tried working and staying at home. They have compared themselves to those mothers (whom we all know) who seem dangerously similar to the fictional character of the Stepford Wife. They've tried holding on and letting go. Still, mothers today are left with one tenacious response: guilt.

Guilt is so pervasive that many mothers, particularly those who are depressed, presume it is a natural part of mothering, one that is inescapable in this day and age. Judith Warner describes the plight of American women today in her book, Perfect Madness (2005):

"Too many [women] are becoming anxious and depressed because they are overwhelmed and disappointed. Too many are letting their lives be poisoned by guilt because their expectations can't be met, and because there is an enormous cognitive dissonance between what they know to be right for themselves and what they're told is right for their children." .

Pressure comes from all sides and settles uncomfortably in the laps of women trying to do everything the right way. Women say they are reluctant to speak about their feelings:

I felt harassed. I didn't want to talk to anyone about how I was feeling. It's like I was a bad mother because I didn't want to breastfeed.

I didn't feel prepared to have a baby. I was afraid to tell anyone that I couldn't stand being alone with the baby. It made me feel incompetent and anxious. I was scared to death to be alone with him.

The conflicting messages espoused by countless parenting advocates are enough to make anyone wonder if they are doing it right: Babies should always sleep on their backs. (Really? Mine would have protested vehemently.) Babies should cry it out. Don't ever let babies cry when they are too young, for too long. Baby-wearing is a great way to establish and maintain total need fulfillment (whose?) and maximize attachment. Does daycare promote socialization or will it increase separation anxiety (and whose anxiety are we talking about?). Do good mothers leave their children to go to work? (Of course they do.)

I determined very early on that I would be a much better mother to my children if I returned to work, part-time at first. The part-time option sounded perfect. I could be home early to spend more time with my baby, and it felt right, since I was too tired to work a full day anyway. It has always been easy for me -- I'm not particularly proud to say -- to be selfish, or self-serving during those early postpartum months and put my needs right up there next to those of my baby. I have a slight rebellious streak that dates as far back as I can remember, true to my Baby Boomer form. I can still remember the exultation I felt walking into the high school gymnasium with my boyfriend clad in jeans to the formal prom. I remember the work boots I wore with colored socks accompanied by a mini skirt to go along with it, long before it was a fashion statement, simply because I hoped I could get away with it.

Similarly, as I entered the world of motherhood, I recoiled from what was expected of me, whether that pressure came from my family, or society as a whole, and found comfort in doing things that felt comfortable to me even if it mean ruffling some feathers. That didn't mean I wasn't tempted to surrender, however, when I found myself sucked into the pressure-cooker of "opportunities" for young mothers and their babies. Longing for daytime companionship, I took my four-month-old son to a local baby gym class. I am positive he did not care whether he was in this brightly decorated room filled with expensive baby-friendly, brain-enhancing equipment, or whether he was snug in our living room surrounded by unvacuumed dog-hair and a Sesame Street video that had looped in repetition for the fifth time. I sat for a while, in the circle of neurotic competitiveness, listening to mothers chatter on about whose baby was doing what and how many activities they had squeezed into their sleep-deprived schedules. My head swelled with the rude sights and sounds of one mother trying to outdo another. Why was I there, I asked myself, and who, exactly, expected this of me?

That was the first and last class to which I would drag myself.

It was then that I decided that if I were to maintain my sanity, I would pledge to:

  • Not go to baby classes programmed to make my baby smarter, faster, more agile, or speak foreign languages.
  • Not compare myself to others.
  • Not compare my baby to others.
  • Do what I needed to do for me and bring my baby along in the process.
  • Do the best I can.
  • Not be hard on myself if I failed to live up to unrealistic expectations.
  • Ask for help when I needed it.
  • Trust my instincts.

The pressure to be perfect

In spite of all the ways women have advanced with liberated glory, sadly, there remains a pressure to be perfect. No where do we see this which such fervor as in the American culture. So what's to be done? Therapists who work with postpartum women witness the crushing effects of this pressure. The pressure of cultural directives to be smarter, better dressed, and thinner than the rest, looms over vulnerable new mothers and takes its toll. We note the insidious stress creasing the tired face that sits before us. How do we soothe her? It's a daunting task to try to offset such far reaching demands put forth by the society in which we live.

Within her quest for comfort and meaning, therapists may represent the voice of reason amidst the clash of cultural mandates. In today's world, there is way too much access to information, way too many opinions, and far too many choices. New mothers often spin with indecision, resulting in deadlock from both trivial (which never, ever feel trivial) and significant choices. A woman's mother-in-law might be telling her which decision to make and why, commercials are enticing her, social groups are encouraging her in a different direction altogether, and, then, just to top it all off, there's the shrill and constant tape in her own head looping over and over again.

By the time she reaches a therapist's office, she needs someone to tell her that none of these things matter as much as she thinks they do. That's a tall order and one that doesn't sit well with hypervigilant, control-freaky, symptomatic mothers who are desperately trying to take charge of their lives.

Women are making themselves sick with expectations of perfection. This can come from many sources. It can be the result of hard-driving, high achieving parents, or it can be a personality type. It can stem from an underlying obsessive-compulsive disorder, or it can come from a biologic predisposition. It can be the product of societal demands. It can be the result of abuse, trauma or another major life disturbance, or it can just be because it is. Regardless of the origin, it needs to be identified and modified. In the end, women need to learn that they can indeed be alone with themselves and find peace there. It's a concept that is foreign to many women. Some may claim to be fed up with the myth of the perfect mother etched in their obsessive minds and reinforced by commercialism, but it remains pervasive, and we see the consequences of that pressure every day.

Mothers need to hear that it's okay follow their good instincts and it's okay to make mistakes.

Then, they need to hear that again, and once again.

Adapted from Therapy and the Postpartum Woman Routledge, 2009

© Karen Kleiman 2011