Motherhood is screwing up my perfectionism

Thank goodness, I say. It’s about damn time! (Oops, that’s a bit of mama-shaming on myself, so let’s start again.)

Hi. I’m Shonnie. I’m a mother and a recovering perfectionist.

I’ve been in recovery for almost twenty years, but my commitment to change has been on the front burner since 2010, the year I became a mother. It may seem surprising to some that having a child has spurred my desire to be less perfect, and, in fact, it is given the persistent cultural message that mothers should be perfect.

Sure, there’s not a billboard, TV spot, or Facebook ad touting the need for motherly perfection, but it’s still communicated in less direct ways. Here are a few you may have personally experienced.

When your child behaves the way others think she should, you’re praised either directly or indirectly: “What a sweet girl you have!” If your child misbehaves, however, get prepared for looks of scorn, disgust, or disbelief – oh, and advice on what you should do, of course.

Moms who return to work shortly after having a baby are reviled by many, while those staying home get disparaged for taking it easy. It’s a no-win situation.

Whether you’re induced or wait until baby starts labor, deliver “naturally” or with the help of drugs, breast feed or bottle feed, or co-sleep or have baby in another room, from the time you announce that you’re pregnant, moms are constantly evaluated as doing motherhood right or wrong. Each choice can seem monumental.

So, yes, I too was infected by the perfect parenting virus, but I was a prime candidate to contract, having been a highly accomplished perfectionist years before giving birth to my daughter.

Perfectionism seemed to suit me

My perfectionism was most pronounced in my scholastic life. Through most of my years in school I’d been known as a teacher’s pet (which I took as a compliment). I was a straight-A student from 5th grade on and in 9th grade took home nearly every award that my school offered (even for Home Economics, much to my mom’s surprise). Sure, I was smart, but I also knew how to perform to the standards set by my parents, teachers, coaches, and friends. I was keenly aware of what a girl from my family, my social class, or my school should do. 

Though perfection in human beings is an illusion and I wasn’t actually perfect, I internalized the expectations of the adults and peers around me and reveled in my mastery at meeting them. While I wasn’t deeply unhappy during those years, I wasn’t truly free either and wasted untold energy and effort conforming to the expectations of those I most loved for fear of being cast aside if I let them down. Rather than viewing feedback neutrally, I believed others’ disagreement or disapproval actually revealed fundamental flaws in who I was as a person. When I didn’t do what key people in my life expected from me, I was compelled to work harder to get it “right” so I could regain my sense of self-worth.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my perfectionism posed two problems:

  • I didn’t know what my own standards were.

  • I had difficulty simply being and loving myself.

In other words, my self-esteem and self-love were conditional and based largely on the opinions of others. Bottom line in my mind: When I was perfect I was loveable, but anything less than perfection meant I was worthless.

How my daughter radically shifted my views on perfectionism

Thanks to some big wake up calls in my early twenties, I’d begun to recognize how toxic perfectionism was to my well-being. So, while I’d been actively honing my self-esteem as a less-than-perfect person for fourteen years (Geez, how long was it going to take me to get this imperfection thing handled?!), the heat got turned on “high” two years ago.

My four-year-old daughter was lying on our dining room floor drawing. I heard her say “That’s no good!” as she began balling up the paper.

Oh hell! I thought. What’s my four-year-old doing critiquing her own creativity? I don’t want her to judge her efforts as failures. And I certainly don’t want her to judge herself in this way.

That’s when I knew that my perfectionism wasn’t just impacting me. It was bleeding over onto the canvas of her life, and this was not something I was willing to let happen.

I knew perfectionism – though it usually looks bright and shiny from the outside – wasn’t making me a better person, nor a better mother. And it was undoubtedly laying the groundwork for my beloved daughter to walk down a similar road to the one I’d traveled. And in this country of photo-shopped ads, celebrity culture, and the demand for constant growth, the boulevard of perfectionism is really a 16-lane super-highway with bumper-to-bumper traffic and too few exits. Definitely not a place I want my daughter to travel.

How we’re becoming less perfect at home

With the shit now stuck on the fan blades, I got serious about deciding how I could start cleaning my mess (yep, perfectionism can be messy), embracing my own imperfection, and loving myself exactly as I am.

After two years of focused practice, here’s what I do (Most of the time, except when I don’t because as we’ve already determined, I’m not perfectly imperfect.):

  1. I admit mistakes, challenges, fears, and weaknesses to my daughter. Instead of hiding my cookie dough eating habit from her, for instance, I eat a few cookie’s worth of dough in plain sight whenever we bake at home. “That cookie dough is really tempting for you, huh, Mommy?” she now teases me.
  2. Instead of internally berating myself when I talk in a sarcastic way to my daughter or husband, I apologize to them and ask for forgiveness. And I forgive myself too (no more mama-shaming from me).
  3. Rather than getting totally worked up about little mishaps, I now say, “It’s no big deal” or “No worries, let’s try that again.” (Admittedly, I still sometimes react with “Oh shit!” before coming to my senses.)
  4. Though I continue to review choices I’ve made (and thoroughly consider those I’m contemplating ahead of time), these evaluative exercises no longer have much judgment involved. The shoulds are being replaced by more coulds and mights.
  5. Rather than asking my husband what he wants for dinner, I ask myself that question first. I’m turning my attention inward instead of letting the ideas of others too strongly influence my choices.
  6. And when my daughter displays frustration at her own inability to do something “right,” I empathize (because I totally understand). Then, when the time is right, I gently remind her that “right” and “wrong” are merely opinions and not the objective facts they’re commonly made out to be.
  7. Finally, for nearly every night of her six years on earth, I close our bedtime ritual by saying what I call our important things: “You are loveable. You are worthy. You are whole. You are perfect exactly as you are.” No exceptions! No conditions ever limit your inherent worthiness (or anyone else’s for that matter).

Though no choice I make can guarantee a positive future for her, I feel confident that by letting go of my own perfectionism, I’m playing an important role in making self-love and self-acceptance much easier for her than it was for me. And even getting that job done less than perfectly will serve her well.

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I invite you to join the conversation on The Conscious Moms’ Circle. You can also find parenting tip videos on my YouTube Channel, follow me on Twitter, find inspiring parenting quotes on my Pinterest Board, or find other resources on my website.

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