Confessions of a Not-Perfect Mom
As moms-to-be, the pressure begins long before inception. Are we taking the right prenatal vitamins? Getting enough folic acid? Are we eating right, exercising, resting, and performing excellent self-care? -Not for our own wellbeing, of course, but for the good of our future offspring? The pressure we face as women to perform as “the perfect mother” is massive and insidious. The internet, media, books, doctors, and especially, other moms, tell us how we should be doing it. And if we’re not, we have failed our children before we even make it through the first trimester. The judgement we pass on others and ourselves can be intense.
When pregnant with my first born, I lived in Santa Cruz, an epicenter of home births, doulas, mandatory-breastfeeding, and a wealth of “information” about birth and parenting and the “right” way to do those things. I believed that moaning in the dark in a bathtub was superior to laboring in a bright hospital room with the aid of an epidural. I remembering listening to a hypnotherapy CD that told me that the excruciating pain of birth was identical to waves of orgasmic bliss, an unfolding rainbow of ecstasy as my baby moved through my birth canal. Boy, was I ever in for a shock!
And it didn’t get better once my bundle of joy was on the outside. All I wanted was a healthy happy baby and to feel healthy and happy myself. Instead, I felt overwhelmed by my emotions, bleary with lack of sleep, and lost with the huge changes that had happened literally overnight. So, I clung to the experts, the ones who seemed to have it all together, and tried to be the perfect mom. I wore my baby constantly, I breastfed on demand, and chose the best organic foods. I responded to her every cry and put myself through all kinds of stress to avoid her distress. I believed that letting my baby cry would cause her irreparable damage. So of course, I didn’t sleep much for the first year of her life. If she peeped, I was there, the human pacifier ready to soothe her every squeak, grunt and whimper.
The pressure I put on myself was awful. I had so many ideas about how I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to feel. I knew that with lots of research and good intentions, I would be the perfect mom. I’m sure I must’ve I shot reproving glances at bottle-feeding moms or frustrated parents in the grocery store who were yelling at their kids. I was sure I would do better. I thought I had it all figured out. I was going to be an amazing mom and my perfect children would be… well… perfect, of course! Ha ha! Oh, how life has a way of humbling us… Humbling, is actually, too subtle of a word. Think more like, devastating, crushing, annihilating… but we can and must get back up again!
My little baby is 14 years old. I’ve learned a few things along the way. She is not perfect and neither am I… Nothing better than hanging out my dirty parenting laundry on the public line if it can help some other mom somewhere ease up on herself.
A lot of the stuff that we spend so much time stressing over turns out to not even matter. You don’t need to have a baby in a bathtub to prove your womanhood or create a better bond with your child. If you want a home birth, great! If you don’t, great! But don’t think for a second that you are less or more of a woman or a mom because you had a C-section or your birth went differently than you hoped. The goal is to get the baby out safely. How that happens matters a lot less than the end goal- an alive mother and child.
If you can breastfeed and want to, great. If you can’t or don’t want to, great. That is what formula is for. Babies need to be fed. Period.
Sleep is important, for moms and babies. Sleep is good and you should have it! After years of poor sleep quality, I finally got it mostly right by baby #3. I realized that crying is not the end of the world and that my child would not be irreparably harmed by learning how to put himself to sleep. I learned to tolerate my own discomfort with his discomfort and guess what, we are all better off! He is the best sleeper and most independent and confident of the 3 of them!
I know now in spades that I am not the perfect mom. There isn’t such a thing. Some moms have it fairly easy. They are generally laid back and easy going and get easy-going healthy kids. But many of us struggle. Some of us struggle a lot. We struggle with our own human feelings and experiences. We struggle to meet the impossible standards we have placed on ourselves and then wrestle with guilt, shame, and disappointment when we don’t measure up. Some of us struggle when our vision of “the perfect mother” gets interrupted by the diagnosis of any host of physical, mental, behavioral, or learning problems with our “perfect” child. What then? If our success as mothers depends on our kid(s) looking, feeling, and acting a certain way, we’re in trouble. We set ourselves up for misery. Not only can we not live up to the burden of expectations we have set for ourselves, but our children also get swept up in our impossible standards. And they get to carry around the weight of our disappointment.
We gotta lighten up! Most of us spend at least some portion of the day scanning through Facebook or Instagram, seeing other people’s adorable, healthy, happy children. We think that other families have it all figured out. We see other moms looking relaxed and blissful and we wonder why we aren’t. We struggle with jobs or spouses or being single moms, finding good childcare, and getting enough sleep. Parenting is hard! It really is. And most sources of media do not tell the truth. Just like the beauty industry wants to sell us more make-up and botox, the “mom industry” wants us to believe that another book or product or class is going to be the thing that makes the hardships evaporate. Nope.
As moms, it is essential that we tell the truth, especially if our truth does not fit into the neat package of “perfect” anything. Life is life, and it is filled with good and bad and all things in between. We are human beings. Parenting is a long journey and it requires a lot of compassion, for ourselves and our children. It’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to not know. It’s okay to feel like parenting is not at all what you thought it would be… Or that we, as moms, are not who we thought we’d be. It’s okay. We get to be human. We get to learn and grow and change and make mistakes. We get to do our very best and then realize down the line that maybe a different road would have been better. -That a parenting style or belief that we ascribed to let us down. -That the great education we had set up for our kid turned out to be a big washout. -That the fantasies we had about what our family would be like evaporated in the face of reality. It’s okay! Whatever it is, it’s okay. Whatever we feel or need to work through, it’s okay. We are not perfect and we need not be. It is the belief that life is supposed to be different than it is that causes us so much suffering.
It's easy to say, “Relax. Let go.” Hard to do! Very hard for those of us highly sensitive beings with more-than-a-little perfectionism going on. I remember when I was engaged to be married and I asked a friend who had been married a few years what the secret to happy marriage was. She said, “Low expectations.” I laughed. But she wasn’t kidding. And I’ve banged my head up against that wisdom many a time with impossibly high expectations of myself, my marriage, and my kids. I’m a slow learner, I guess. But Life is a diligent teacher.
So, on the chance that you longed for this baby… maybe even didn’t start until your 40’s and went through rounds of IVF and now you are saying, “Holy cow! What was I thinking?!” It’s okay. If your kid is making you want to tear your hair out, it’s okay. If your perfect child turns out to have autism or a learning disorder or any other host of physical or mental challenges… it’s okay. It’s not your fault. Life happens. As moms, sometimes we think that if we love them enough, do all the right things, we can make their lives free from pain and suffering. If we are “perfect enough” our kids will be perfect too and somehow they can avoid the hurts and challenges that go along with living. But that’s not how it works. And you know what, it’s okay. It’s okay, because it is simply what is. And the more that we can ease up on ourselves, the better off all of us are.
I bless you on your not-perfect journey with your not-perfect children. We are all finding our way and you are in good company! Reach out. Tell the truth. You are not alone.