A simple—and effective—way to lessen the mental load of motherhood

Perfectionism is the pressure we often put on ourselves to do things extremely well. True perfectionists tend to judge their performance in the starkest of terms: Either they've done things brilliantly or they're a complete disaster. In some settings—a life transition or a challenging work environment—this drive can serve us well and earn us praise.

But when applied to parenting, perfectionism can sap the joy from everything you do, lead you to work yourself to the bone, and crush your ability to be present as you obsess about whether you did or will do a good enough job in each of your endeavors. It increases your mental load and can make you feel like you're failing before you even try.

Bottom line: Unbridled perfectionism will disrupt your capacity to experience contentment and joy.

Let it go

Freeing yourself from the logistical burden and psychological paralysis of perfectionism liberates you to manage the wide scope and scale of everything you need to do and helps you stay grounded over the long haul. It prevents you from expanding an already difficult job into an impossibly ginormous one, so that you can handle the workload with more ease and agility.

Furthermore, one of the best things you can do especially as a parent, for your kids and peers, is demonstrate in your own actions that you don't have to be perfect to be good or likeable or successful. In the age of illusory social media profiles, if we were all more open about sharing the things we struggle with, we might be able to disrupt the culture of the perfect parent. Who doesn't prefer someone who's accessible and real, anyway?

How to overcome it: Think max-min-mod

As a parent, with so many things to do every day, it's easy to lose perspective and always think you have to do things par excellence. Perfection is a drive for safety, not fear of criticism or wrongdoing. MAX-MIN-MOD is a tactical handbrake that slows you down enough to ask yourself, "Before I do this, what am I trying to achieve?" Then you can consider, "What's a good enough job?"

Here's how it works. For any task or activity that threatens to swallow you whole—or that you're procrastinating about because it's so overwhelming to complete to perfection—define three levels of performance: Maximum (MAX), Moderate (MOD), and Minimum (MIN).

First, MAX. What is the maximum I can do? What does truly perfect look like? Write down, very specifically, all the actions you envision that would add up to the most stellar job.

Next, ask what is the minimum I could do? (Yes, skip moderate until the end.) Imagine you have run out of time, you can't skip out on the task, but you need to do the most basic version that will still get the job done.

Then, define MOD. What is something above the bare minimum, if you have a little more time to make it special but not go crazy? Here are a few examples.

Let's say you are going to send a cake to school for your kid's birthday.

  • MAX: Bake a cake, from scratch, in the shape of your child's favorite character, with individualized party favors for every child.
  • MIN: Buy cupcakes at the supermarket.
  • MOD: Bake cupcakes from a boxed mix with frosting from a can. Top your child's cupcake with a little figurine of his favorite character.

Plan to have friends over for dinner.

  • MAX: Cook a huge pot of yummy stew, a gorgeous salad, and your famous cornbread that everyone loves.
  • MIN: Order takeout, have everyone chip in, and serve it in pretty serving bowls.
  • MOD: Assign each of your friends a dish to bring, pot-luck style, and make a batch of your famous cornbread.

Clean up your house before friends come over for dinner.

  • MAX: Completely declutter the front hall and closet (finally!); deep clean the kitchen and bathroom; vacuum, sweep, dust, and put a pot of orange slices and cinnamon sticks on the stove to make the house smell festive.
  • MIN: Toss all the clutter in some reusable shopping bags and cart them to the back bedroom, and spray the house with cinnamon-scented potpourri.
  • MOD: Grab a few coats out of the front-hall closet to make room for guests' jackets, stash kids' toys in their assigned bins, wipe down the bathroom, and light a scented candle.

Once you've defined three levels of performance, you can choose the one that's most appropriate for the circumstances, the time you have available, and what else you have on your plate. Sometimes you'll choose MAX, sometimes MOD, sometimes MIN. The muscle is breaking the all-or-nothing thinking that leads to overwork or paralysis, and recognizing you have options.

Excerpted from TIME TO PARENT: Organizing Your Life to Bring Out the Best in Your Child and You by Julie Morgenstern published September 4, 2018 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © byJulie Morgenstern. All rights reserved.

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