The Guilty Mother and the Quest for Perfectionism
Whether you are a stay at home or a working mother, it’s a fact that mothers struggle with an enormous amount of ‘mother guilt’. We are hard on ourselves. We push ourselves and expect perfection. We try hard to balance it all and a lot of times, we feel like we can’t. For some reason, we have an idea of what an ideal mother would be and we hold ourselves to that standard. The standard, most of the time, isn’t even attainable.
It seems that so much of our guilt comes out of feeling not good enough. Somehow we are failing in some way. Ask any new or veteran mom what she feels guilty about today, and she will probably have a list. Did she lose her patience? Is she giving her partner enough attention? Does she have a meal on the table? Is she exhausted and having fantasies of running away? Did she pop a frozen meal in the microwave to serve her children? The guilt usually revolves around how she didn’t show up for her children, her spouse, her boss. At times perhaps there is also a disappointment for not showing up for herself.
For some reason, I have an idea the certain mother I need to be in order to keep all my ducks in the row. The house needs to be clean, the dog walked, the husband satisfied, and the child well fed, loved enough, well rested. What comes as a reoccurring surprise to me, is that the list is endless. The irony is, being a mother, it never ends. It’s never done. It’s never tied up into a nice bow. Things are left undone, un said, un finished. When having a child, a mother also signs up for the unpredictability of not being able to control everything. This was a huge awakening and lesson for me.
I took a year off of my career as a psychotherapist. In hindsight, it was certainly the best move for me and our family. After all the time I got to spend with my little one, I started to feel it was time to reclaim the part of myself I had set aside to step into my new role as a mother. I wanted to get back to work. I finally felt more rested, more able to anticipate what was going to happen with my son, and overall less anxious about this whole parenting role. Yes, for me, it took about a whole year!
As I was searching for daycare options for my 21 month old son, I found myself dealing with a tremendous amount of guilt. The idea of sending my child away so others could watch him really tore me up inside. I do admit that one part was a little relieved to have a break but the other part was really devastated and self judging. As I researched places, quite a few in fact, I soon realized that no place was perfect. I went in looking for the problem, searching for what I could not see in order to protect my child in the best way I could. What I realized is no one is going to raise my son like I would. I needed to let go of perfectionism and also of the guilt.
Even now, as I drive away from his daycare, I still have that small pang of guilt, especially if it was a difficult drop off. I question, why can’t I do it all? Should he be raised by his mother or at least someone else in his family? When you don’t have family living close or they aren’t able to help, this is not an option.
In a recent experience, one of my worst nightmares happened. I was just finishing up with clients in my psychotherapy practice in New York City. I received a message that my son was headed to the ER in an ambulance with my husband. This was a moment I had feared would at some point come. I was miles away and could not get to my son. In my mind, he needed his mama. In reality, he was exactly where he needed to be-heading to the ER and was comforted by my husband. However in the moment, among the panic stricken parts was also a part of me that judged myself for being away. How could I not be there for him when he most needed me? I am his voice. I am his protection. At some points along this journey, I have also felt as if all the responsibility of protecting and raising our child was on me. In the first months, I was his source of nutrition and source of comfort. For me, that stuck with me. I felt fully responsible.
Being with the not knowing of becoming a mother, and being with your child, is also not knowing what may arise within us as we embark on this journey. I believe our work is to be with what is. What comes up within us? Is it feelings of guilt, shame, anger amidst feeling of love and adoration? Are there just hard feelings and no other ones at this moment? If you are able to just be with what is, to notice it like the weather, and let it pass, without judgment, we become less judgmental of ourselves.
Another piece is really honoring what it is we actually do well. Even if it’s hard at times, we got through the day. Becoming a conscious parent takes a lot of courage. If moms took a moment to truly honor all the work and care and love that is being offered and given, would we still not feel good enough? Would our harsh critic still be so vicious and attacking?
Instead of beating yourself up for what you didn’t do, what if you can focus on what you ARE doing well? Reality is you can’t be there all the time. Mothers need the break to remember themselves and children need the break to learn who they are. Learning to let go is a fine balance and can bring up a lot within us.
Some thoughts that may help you let go of the guilt.
1. Have kindness toward yourself. Remember it’s highly possible that you are doing everything you can. Give yourself a break. Babies cry for no reason sometimes and mothers don’t have to get it perfectly. When you notice the guilt come up, can you choose love?
2. Remember what you are doing to help you and your family survive and thrive. Remember it counts, even if it’s small thing.
3. Keep a gratitude journal. Asking a new mother to do one more thing already sounds silly but even if it’s for just a few minutes, write down 5 things you were grateful for today. Keep the journal next to your bed so you will be more likely to remember. If you can’t write it down, just remember them in your own mind.
4. One step at a time. Sometimes with so much happening at once and so many needs competing, it’s easy to start to feel guilt creeping in. When you start thinking about all the things you have to accomplish, take a breath, slow down, and remember to take it one step at a time.
5. Share or talk to your partner or friend about the guilt. Just sharing is sometimes enough to make us realize how hard we are being on ourselves.
“We can stop struggling with what occurs and see its true face without calling it the enemy. It helps to remember that our spiritual practice is not about accomplishing anything—not about winning or losing—but about ceasing to struggle and relaxing as it is. That is what we are doing when we sit down to meditate. That attitude spreads into the rest of our lives” Pema Chodron