The Myth of the Perfect Mother
Remember that mothers are made, not born.
Posted May 14, 2012
What's so hard about mothering? Aside from being everything to everyone -- including the eternal fountain of love, connectedness, support, and protection -- moms function as personal shoppers, cooks, janitors, bankers, and repairmen. We're responsible for scheduling appointments, social events, and homework. What's more, we're supposed to love every second of this.
I'm going to tell you a little secret: It's okay not to.
Before I had a child of my own, no one told me about the endless mental work of mothering. Sure, I knew about mothering duties -- those things noted above that fill the To Do list. But figuring out how to mother (and then actually doing it) is demanding both physically and mentally. A lot of the emotions can come as a shock. When I was raising my children, I frequently suffered a kind of dissonance between what I felt and said and what I was supposed to feel and say. I often felt angry, helpless, and frustrated. The psychic space that my children took up in my mind often felt overwhelming.
Though back then I was sure I was alone in these feelings, I now know that's not true. Mothering takes softness, strength, and awe but it also involves suffering and sadness; despair; conflict; breakdowns and build-ups; learning to hold on and learning to let go. We suffer guilt: from not being there, from being there too much. It takes work to not lose yourself.
Every month, magazines publish articles featuring some flawless mother they've dug up from who knows where. But that's not reality. Real mothers are flawed. Real mothers know that the act of mothering is an ongoing and ever-evolving process. Embrace your "mompower" in whatever form it takes -- and remember that perfection needn't be one of them. A few simple steps to get you started:
Remember that mothers are made, not born. In retrospect, if I had known this, I would have felt less concern about some of my "unnatural" reactions, like feeling pinned down, angry, or on-call. The fact is that a lot of parenting just doesn't come naturally. Only by making mistakes do we figure out what we still have to learn -- and unlearn -- as moms.
Accept there will be bad days. At times, you might want to be anywhere else. Admitting as much doesn't mean you're doing a sub-par job or that you love your child any less. As mothers, we agonize, struggle, scream, learn, and make the same mistakes more than once. We are infantile at times; we feel blessed and feel cursed. We love mothering, we hate mothering.
Before I had kids, I rarely heard about those less-than-sterling moments, or about how raising a child would involve so much of me that I felt I had nothing left. The endless repetition of tasks often wore me down--and then the guilt would set in. I remember taking my son to the playground on intensely cold days. Shivering on the bench alongside some other poor mother, I'd watch him play and feel bad that I didn't want to be there. But who would?
Laugh -- and cry. And then get out of the house. Somehow, the joys of motherhood are supposed to erase all the less-than-terrific aspects of the job. Well, I have news for you. They don't -- not always. Motherhood comes with an incomprehensibly vast range of emotions, from the high of being so in love with your child to the desperation to get away. As a young mother, I didn't understand this.
When my son was born, despite being proud, excited, and enamored by my baby, I felt that the old me had disappeared. And that felt like hell. One day when he was being particularly irritable, I thought my head might explode. I love to swim, and all I could think about was heading to the pool. When my husband got home, I basically shoved the baby in his arms and bolted out the door. As I darted away, I felt like I had committed a sin. What I didn't know back then: The act of mothering should not obviate personal needs, and it's essential to carve out space for yourself.
Embrace the dark side. As much as I loved my children, I often felt stretched beyond my limits and overtaken by the sense of wanting to resume my old, less complicated and more fulfilling life. I did not want the mind-boggling responsibility. I wanted my life to return to the way it had been. I hated myself for having these emotions.
I've envied other women who seem so content with mothering, women who are totally satisfied with that sole role. However, I've come to think that my envy is based on a myth. Kids are interesting. They're fun, and lovable and gratifying. But what exhausted, emotionally-tapped mother who's ready to scream if one more question, judgment, or mishap comes her way hasn't wanted to walk out the door and never look back? These feelings are normal. Give yourself permission to feel them.
Let them see you're human. How you respond to annoyances, how you answer the phone with impatience, how you snap at the end of the day -- a mother's every move is setting an example for her wide-eyed kids. That's an unreal amount of pressure. But listen: No one ever said that Mom had to be right all the time, or even most of the time. In fact, there are benefits to reminding your kids that you're only human, just like they are, and that mistakes are inevitable. And that it's how we recover from them that matters.
Overworked and stressed out, divorced mom Ursula was getting her two children ready for school when she'd finally had it with their constant bickering. "I said, 'I'm so glad you're going to see your father tonight!'" she recalls. The words were barely out of Ursula's mouth when she began thinking of all the rules she'd violated. She apologized while driving them to school, acknowledging that she'd said something hurtful that she didn't mean and assuring them she liked the time she spent with them. She may have felt awful, but what Ursula was teaching her kids was an important lesson in forgiveness and second chances.
Savor the little things. The most rewarding parts of mothering can be the easiest to let pass us by. But through our children, we can regain some of the wonder we may have lost as jaded adults. As Pam, mother of 7-year-old Cody, says, "Having Cody around has given me a renewed outlook on life. We go to the park. We sit down and talk about things. I do things knowing they'd be something Cody would enjoy. And you know what? I find myself enjoying them, too."
Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Medical College, Cornell University, and author Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family (Rodale, May 2011). Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com.