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Mom Guilt — that sinking feeling that there is not enough time to do everything and do it well, but if you don’t you’re a miserable excuse for a maternal figure — is a real thing.
And it’s only gotten worse with time. Sure, the mothers of the ’80s and ’90s compared themselves to the supreme Martha Stewart, but they knew, deep down, that she had a small army helping her stage those cute birthday parties. The moms of the aughts and beyond, though, find points of comparison in every blogger and tastemaker slicing out the best parts of their lives for distribution on social media. They have a hard time trusting that their less-than-picture-perfect way is just fine.
“The absolute flood of information both from experts and from our peers on social media can feel totally overwhelming for parents,” says Julia Bosson, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City and a mom to three kids age three and under. “Moms very often come in and tell me the pressure they’re feeling as they’re seeing what this other person does” for their kids.
What is this epidemic my peers and I are suffering from? According to the Oxford Dictionary, perfectionism is the belief that perfection can be attained, that you can improve something until it is “faultless.”
Yikes. That’s a heavy burden for anyone. When you consider how messy it is to raise little people, it’s positively cruel.
A recent global research study by Dove, to coincide with its launch of a line of wipes, lotion, shampoo and other baby-care products, found that 89 percent of mothers feel pressure to be perfect, and 72 percent question whether what they’re doing is good enough. Only 26 percent of new moms say that it’s possible to be as perfect as the moms they see in media — and yet we all keep trying!
Part of this nagging perfectionism is inherent to the job: You want to do the best for your kids because you adore the ever-loving snot out of them. Yet that normal desire can easily spill over into anxiety and stress, feelings that can prevent you from laughing at your preschooler when he’s so excited to see you that he falls off the couch in a clunk … revealing a pile of illicit cookie crumbs.
Bosson, who works with patients on mindful parenting, and is helping her office, Union Square Practice, launch a reproductive mental health wing, has a few tangible, take-home ideas to combat those ugly Negative Nancies in your head and accept that your less-than-perfect parenting is just fine. Here are her suggestions.
Question your expectations. “Are you setting standards that are impossibly high, that no human can attain 100 percent of the time?” Bosson asks. Question, too, whether you equate one slip-up or mom-fail with complete failure as a parent. “Can you find the gray — is there something between perfection and absolutely abysmal failure?” Bosson asks.
Treat yourself like a friend. “Stop for a minute and ask yourself what would you tell a friend in that situation? If this were your closest girlfriend or guy friend struggling with this issue, what would you say to that person?” It’s unlikely you’d chew a friend out for letting her child watch more than two hours of screen time on a sick day.
Choose a mantra. Find a saying that resonates with you and write it down. “Put it on your mirror, put it in your cellphone,” Bosson says. One could be, “You can only do what you can do.” Or, “That’s enough for today,” for when you’re too tired to wash that last dish in the sink at night.
Remember social media isn’t reality. “A lot of times when moms are feeling all this pressure, we’re forgetting that we’re seeing a very small portion of other people’s lives,” Bosson says. “You see this picture of this perfect birthday cake, but what you don’t see are the three burned cakes on the counter.” For every perfect family picture, there are 15 outtakes of tears and boogers.
Model being kind to yourself. “It’s very important for a kid to see mom being kind to herself, being moderate, instead of being all or nothing,” Bosson says. “And having confidence to go forward and trust her way even in the face of criticism or imagery that others are doing things so much better than they are.” (Here’s one thing we say in our house when the kids complain: “The only perfect thing is God.”)
Don’t forget self-care and self-compassion. Ninety-four percent of the moms surveyed by Dove say they believe they can provide better care to their children when they care for themselves, too. It’s “being kind to ourselves when we’re struggling,” Bosson says. “It’s much easier to handle criticism or judgment from others when we’re not judging ourselves.”
So let’s banish that mom guilt. Yes, it’s easy to say it, but we can keep practicing putting it down until we develop that emotional muscle memory.
Dove is launching a #RealMoms campaign to counter this perfectionist culture, similar to “Real Simple” magazine’s #Womenirl campaign, which includes a hilarious Instagram feed peppered with dropped birthday cakes, dishes being washed in a bathroom sink, a toddler covered in her mom’s makeup and many Pinterest fails. My favorite #womenirl moment: A picture of a greeting card that says, “Nothing you do as a parent will ever be good enough for the people on the Internet.”
Lindsey Roberts is a freelance writer. She can be reached at lindseymroberts.com and she tweets @lindseymroberts.
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