It was 9:00 at night, and our 10-month-old was finally sleeping. After nursing him down, I peeked in the fridge and realized there was no food for our nanny to give him the next day. So I put some carrots in the slow cooker and set it for two hours.
In the meantime, I was trying to answer work emails, wash all the pump parts I had used that day and re-read a chapter in the sleep training book so that my husband and I could get on the same page about what to do with our son when he inevitably woke up at 2 a.m.
Two hours later, work stuff was dealt with, parts were washed and carrots were mashed and scooped into tiny, baby-portioned Tupperware. But it was 11 p.m. and I hadn’t eaten yet. I just ... lost it. Hot tears streaming down my face, I sat down on the floor and cried and cried. And cried.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I said to my husband between sobs. “It’s not working.”
“So why are you doing it?” He asked. “Just stop.”
I am not, by nature, a stopper.
Parenting As A Perfectionist
As a child I was what you might call “high achieving.” In third grade, I was obsessed with getting the most books on the book train challenge by at least 10, and I’ve been, more or less, functioning on that level since. Suffering from perfectionism sounds like one of those things you say during a job interview when a potential boss asks you to name a weakness, but living with perfectionist tendencies is not something I’m proud of.
Perfectionism — defined by the American Psychological Association as “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations” — is incredibly exhausting, time-consuming and debilitating. It’s also addictive because you become highly dependent on approval from others.
Parenting as a perfectionist is intense. As part of the first wave of millennial girls, raised in the “you can be anything” generation, I was accustomed to approaching every aspect of life as an opportunity to achieve. Why would motherhood be any different? For me, that meant reading and studying up on every possible method of sleep training and scheduling and swaddling and feeding. It meant waking up every two hours to nurse on demand for months. And months.
While on maternity leave, I made sure to leave the house every day (and according to some photo documentation, wear makeup?) because the books said that was good. I went to the gym. When our son started on solid foods, I cooked a lot of it myself. I was also working a demanding job with a long commute, pumping every few hours at work, and getting very little sleep. I normalized the intense amount of pressure to do all of this. After all, who doesn’t want what’s best for their baby? Also, who doesn’t want to be the best at everything?
After all, who doesn’t want what’s best for their baby?
I set excessively high standards and punished myself with overly critical evaluations when I inevitably turned out to be human (such as the time I lost my mind because I had forgotten to pack the baby wipes in the diaper bag). Those patterns and systems became part of how I functioned as a mom. I thought I was pushing myself toward success. I was pushing myself toward insanity.
This method (spoiler alert!) was not working. Instead of feeling like I was on track, I felt angry and frustrated. I was angry at my body for betraying me when it didn’t drop 15 pounds the way it had before I was pregnant. I was angry at the medical systems for failing me by not properly diagnosing the diastasis I developed after pregnancy. I was mad at the bathrooms with no changing tables and the electrical closet I had to pump in at work. And I became incredibly defensive because the approval I had been so used to getting from the outside world when I overachieved had seemingly vanished.
I believed that if I tried harder, I could somehow “win” at motherhood. But, despite what every book, blog and mommy influencer on Instagram would have you believe, I’m here to tell you: There are no winners in the realm of motherhood. The game is rigged. Anyone who looks like they are doing everything right is either faking it or has tons of money which they use to hire 10 more arms to help them.
Mommy Hunger Games
Motherhood is unwinnable. Whereas fatherhood is like the first grade “everyone gets a trophy” soccer game version of parenthood (he changed a diaper! bless him!) motherhood is more like The Hunger Games. A bubbled-in universe where overlords set various impossible goals before us, and then activate a complicated mechanism of systems to actively work against us.
The chasm between what we expect from mothers and the resources we provide to make those things happen swallows any chance we have to feel good about or enjoy this “precious” time.
On one hand, women are told to do what’s “best” for our infants (like breastfeeding for a full year and having the baby sleep in our room for six months). But simultaneously, systems are actively working against us to ensure this doesn’t happen by offering little to no mandated paid parental leave or affordable child care. We live in a culture that openly shames women who bring their children into public spaces ― implying women shouldn’t want to do anything other than live in a playroom-like prison. (Is it any wonder “Mommy Needs Wine” is the slogan for our parenting generation?)
I’ve had everyone from friends to near-strangers confide in me about how the inability to live up to the expectations of motherhood were crushing them.
I’ve had everyone from friends to near-strangers confide in me about how the inability to live up to the expectations of motherhood were crushing them. There was the friend who felt like a criminal for bottle-feeding her baby. One mom told me she couldn’t wait to go back to work so she could finally feel like she was good at something again. Another deleted all her social media platforms because they were exacerbating her postpartum depression.
As for me? I just longed for the picture in my mind to become a reality: I was winning at mommyhood. I wanted my system of overachieving and self-hatred, which had managed to get me so far for so long, to work again.
Instead, the system melted down. And then I melted down.
There I was: exhausted and crying on the floor over homemade baby food. My husband told me to stop and, for once, I actually listened to him. I now call that day “the day I embraced mediocrity in motherhood.” I haven’t read a single parenting book since. I began supplementing with formula. I’m now the “Fresh Direct mom” because practically every vegetable my family eats is prepared in a microwavable bag. (Sorry, Earth.)
You Will Lose ... And That’s OK
Making life easier on myself was ... not easy. Dismantling those internal systems that worked for me for many years took a lot of self-reflection. I’m still searching for that magical thing called “confidence” that allows you to feel good about yourself without the approval of others.
If I’m being totally honest, on most days, “good enough” still feels like “failing.”
I know I will probably continue to struggle with perfectionism throughout my life. I’m sure I will always fight the urge to spend my energy monitoring, comparing, surveying and searching for signs that I am succeeding. But I have gotten a lot easier on myself. I don’t panic anymore if I forget to pack something in the diaper bag. If my kid has a bagel for dinner, it’s fine. Sometimes we don’t go outside for a whole day. I almost never wear makeup.
Still, inevitably, there are days I do find myself setting exceptionally high personal standards. Whenever that happens, I try to remember how futile it is to seek approval around mothering. Playing the Mommy Hunger Games will drive anyone insane, mostly because it requires buying into the notion that there is some way to achieve within this rigged, unwinnable system.
At one point, a mom friend gave me this sage advice: “Don’t worry. When you’re a mom, it doesn’t matter what you do — you’re doing it wrong.” In other words, there’s no point in playing. Not only because you can’t win but also because you will, inevitably, lose. You will lose time; you will lose happiness; you will lose yourself; and you may very well lose your mind. So, from now on, I am not competing.
Fellow perfectionist mothers, I welcome you to join me.