Perfectionism pushes mothers to breaking point

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As moms, we’re often adept at making everything seem okay. But in the past two years, with the added strain of the pandemic, I’ve spoken to more mothers who have experienced tantrums than ever before.

So often anger is a culmination of unmet needs and unspoken feelings — two things that pile up when you’re trying to be “the perfect mom.” Anger, I’ve realized, is a natural response to feeling chronically overlooked. Unmet needs and feelings don’t dwindle when ignored. Instead, they built and built in silence, until they finally revealed themselves as a pan of spaghetti slammed against the kitchen wall.

With three kids ages three, five and seven, I’ve experienced that adrenaline rushing rage on numerous occasions and the truth is, it feels awful. It adds a stark layer of guilt and self-loathing to the exhaustion you’re already suffering from, and it sends that “not good enough” voice into overdrive.

When I was recovering from postpartum depression, I actively decided that I would accept help and lower my standards. I grew up in self-compassion. In other words, I’ve given myself some slack — from asking my husband to come back and be with me when the baby screamed at 2 a.m. to stocking up on microwaved meals for the days when I felt exhausted.

I started being open with friends about what I found difficult and accepted that mentoring people for a living doesn’t mean I’m immune to wrestling. For months I had felt that I should be able to make myself better, but then I reasoned: A cardiac surgeon cannot operate on himself. So why could I fix myself?

Our culture seems to value self-sufficiency and a lot of what I do is help other mothers see that accepting help is not weak. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I’m one person, I have limits, and when I reach them, I need to step back and rebuild myself.”

If anything, it’s healthy to be the not-good-enough mom. The famous pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott was the first to state in the 1950s that children actually benefit from imperfect parenting. His research found that children need their mothers to abandon them in an acceptable way in order to function properly as adults.

Why? Being ‘not good enough’ shows our children how to survive in an imperfect world that will inevitably disappoint them at times. It proves the importance of perspective – that failing at one little thing, like forgetting a birthday or being in a bad mood, doesn’t make you a failure. It shows that we can’t control everything – a feeling you should feel comfortable with, especially as children turn into adolescents and adults.

In addition, your children are setting an example that you respect yourself, and that boundaries and self-care are important. Doing something you enjoy is a burnout vaccine, and yet it’s something we mothers often deny ourselves.

I sometimes wonder how we got to the stage where moms (I never hear of dads doing this) talk about showering and stopping for “a quick glass of water” as indulgences. Those things are essential — they’re about self-esteem, not self-care. We wouldn’t deny them to anyone else, so why deny them to ourselves?

We mother through illness, highs and lows, fluctuating hormones and lack of sleep. We must have compassion for ourselves, otherwise we will constantly shame ourselves for missing the impossible bar.

When you respect your needs and bring yourself back from the brink of burnout, your family will get you at your best.

When the penny drops among the “perfectionist” moms I see on my therapy couch, that’s an incredible, truly life-changing moment, especially if it’s someone who’s been telling themselves for years, “This is just how life is.”

However, it can take time. Culturally, we are fed the story that women are natural multi-taskers who can absorb whatever life throws their way. Having to accept that this is not the case can be difficult. I’ve seen women mourn the loss of the perfect mother they always hoped she would be.

It’s also true that some people may not like it when you start setting boundaries – and by that I mean prioritizing yourself. The fact that you had no limits might have served them very well, especially if you’ve been sacrificing your own needs for years.

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But eventually, when that’s all over, everyone around you benefits. We need energy to properly educate and deal with the curveballs of life. We also need energy to enjoy. When you respect your needs and bring yourself back from the brink of burnout, your family will get you at your best.

So, how do you recognize a co-mom who is “not good enough”? For starters, she doesn’t hide the chaos of her home life, whether that be on Instagram or an impromptu play date. You won’t hear her talk about her latest #parenting failure and she won’t mind admitting she’s tired or needs a break from her kids. If you offer to take them off your hands for a while, she will happily nod “Yes please!” And you’ll often hear her say “no,” especially when someone asks for something that takes her time.

All those little things that might make her not seem good enough actually mean that when she’s with her kids, she’s more likely to be relaxed and content. And when she offers to take care of your kids, she means it. She has capacity. She is no longer at her limit, because not being good enough has set her free.

The little book of rest for new mothers (Penguin) by Anna Mathur is out now.

StellaThe Sunday Telegraph (UK)

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