Moms hold a variety of beliefs that stress us out and squash our joy. Beliefs about who we should be and how we should feel. Beliefs about how we should work and parent and practice self-care. Beliefs about what we should get done. Beliefs about what we must expect from ourselves.
Many of Emma Basch’s clients feel massive pressure to “lean in” in all areas of their lives. And if they don’t move up at work, be fully involved in their child’s school, manage their household and have an active social life, they feel a profound sense of failure.
One client bashed herself for buying cookies instead of baking them for her kids’ school party. Other clients viewed their decision to use flex time or work at 80 percent “as a failure rather than a valid and healthy choice,” said Basch, Psy.D, a psychologist who pens the Psych Central blog Maternity Matters.
Moms also mistakenly think that mothering is intuitive, said psychologist Julie Bindeman, Psy.D. And if it doesn’t come intuitively or naturally or automatically, they assume there’s something inherently wrong with them. Because, suddenly, there are plenty of examples of moms who make mothering look instinctive and innate and oh-so simple.
But parenting requires skills, which are sharpened with practice. Bindeman, co-director of Integrative Therapy of Greater Washington, likened parenting to driving. It’s rare for anyone to sit behind the wheel for the first time and actually drive well—or drive flawlessly on the highway. Even before turning on the car, we check the mirrors, adjust our seats and see if anyone is behind us, she said. We hesitate, and we feel awkward and apprehensive.
“So why should parenting (or any other new skill) be assumed that it will be easy just because it is something that humanity does?”
Similarly, moms think they need to be perfect parents—or they’ll damage their kids, said Elizabeth Gillette, LCSW, an attachment-focused therapist in Asheville, N.C., who specializes in working with individuals and couples as their families grow.
Today, we’re paying closer and closer attention to our parenting, and we’re more focused on our kids than generations past. Which is a good thing, but it’s also created immense pressure to always be aware and attuned to our kids’ needs, Gillette said. And this is “really damaging.”
Gillette’s clients tend to fixate on the moments they feel terribly inadequate. For instance, within several hours, moms play with their kids, talk to them and make eye contact for about 75 percent of the time. For the other time, they prepare dinner or pay the bills or fold laundry or get distracted—and think they’re failing their child by focusing on something else.
In reality, researcher and developmental and clinical psychologist Ed Tronick, Ph.D, has found that secure attachment happens when parents are attuned to their kids just 30 percent of the time. “[T]he most important piece of this is to ‘repair’ when mother and child are out of sync with each other,” Gillette said. This might look like mom getting down to her child’s level, reflecting back the emotions they’re experiencing, responding with empathy and soothing them, she said.
Moms also compare themselves to other moms, and not surprisingly, come up short. Wow, she always seems so calm with her kids. Nothing seems to rattle her. She’s always so put together. How does she have time for everything? Everything!
“As humans, we often look for proof that our beliefs about ourselves are true, so if we believe others are better mothers, we will seek out the people who seem to have it all together and compare ourselves to them.”
Gillette has found that marriage is another source of comparison-making. Some moms think: “’That couple seems so much more connected than we do,’” which creates further feelings of isolation, sadness, and feeling not-enough.”
Another belief that sparks these feelings, according to Gillette, is: “If I was doing this right, I wouldn’t feel so overwhelmed/burdened/angry/sad.” We assume that when we’re doing something right, it’s easy. But parenting is too complicated for that. It’s also made harder by the fact that many people live far away from loved ones, and “there is little support for families in our society in general.”
Bindeman and Gillette both stressed the importance of having candid, vulnerable conversations with other moms. Because whatever you’re thinking, feeling and struggling with, other moms are thinking, feeling and struggling with, too. You might talk to your closest friends or join a group of moms. For instance, in Asheville, N.C., some doula agencies, including Homegrown Babies and The Mothership, offer support groups.
Bindeman also encouraged moms to prioritize their self-care. In fact, she asks her mom clients to start early when their kids are infants: They leave the house with their baby every day, whether it’s to take a walk, run an errand or attend a play date. And they spend at least 30 minutes a week by themselves, also out of the house. They might meet up with friends, read a book at a café, browse an art gallery, or do anything else they genuinely enjoy and that connects them to their core identity.
If you feel guilty about carving out some alone time, remember that “taking care of yourself is taking care of your family,” Basch said.
And, ultimately, remember these other powerful words from Basch: “Doing your best is not the same as having to be the best.” You don’t need to be the perfect person, partner and mom who prioritizes everyone over herself, who’s closely and constantly attuned to her kids. That’s impossible. And it’s unhealthy.
You can be you, a multifaceted, multidimensional human being who messes up and makes mistakes and makes amends. Who shows her kids that you can care for yourself and accept yourself and forgive yourself and learn significant lessons when you flounder and fail and embrace your humanity. Which is so much more valuable and vital than perfection can ever provide.