[Editor's note: When we shared 'Self-care' is not enough to fix how much moms are burnt out, the response was overwhelming. It hit a nerve, as mothers from across the globe expressed their collective burnout. We heard two things: 1). I feel that way too, and 2). How do we fix this? In response, Motherly introduces our new editorial franchise offering expert-based solutions that address the very real burnout that mothers are facing. It is not going to be easy to make this better, but if we take small steps and work together, we can impact serious change.]
I saw a mom on Instagram with her daughter at the beach. She's a smiling, fit blonde with a perfect 3-year-old girl sporting a matching bathing suit. The mom looked at ease, and I filled in the gaps before and after the picture taken with a leisurely, fun-filled afternoon where they laughed and splashed together without conflict.
I did not imagine the child ate sand, pooped in that pretty bathing suit or threw a 15-minute shrieking tantrum when another kid borrowed her shovel.
Why did I dream up such a perfect day for her?
There's something elusive and irresistibly attractive about becoming that "perfect" mom. This is evidenced by the sharp rise in the popularity of glamorous mommy bloggers, Instagrammers and Pinteresters creating and sharing collections of idealized images. Women are spending lots of time and money on curating a particular life image because it sells.
This has been met more recently by the beginnings of a backlash at the other end of the spectrum with moms openly meme-ing their personal requirements for alcohol and Xanax required to relax alongside their "monstrous" children at the end of the day.
Can we find a healthy balance?
We may know rationally that perfection is not achievable. But some subconscious part of us habitually feels the distance between here and perfect like an anxious gnawing, or a deep ache in the belly of not-enoughness.
When we are constantly exposed to the evidence that somehow perfection is achievable through images of other moms nailing perfection (if only for the split second when the photo was taken) we may start to believe in the fairy tale. We may also unconsciously strive for that impossible goal and then beat ourselves up when we can't achieve it.
Just like even though we knew the models in Teen Vogue were airbrushed, we still internalized their bodies as the ideal and punished ourselves for lacking the genes or "discipline" to achieve it.
A perfectionist's response to that gnawing ache would be to buckle down and try harder to control all the factors that stand in the way of perfect. "Because," we tell ourselves, "maybe when I'm perfect, then I can relax and be happy."
When we practice perfectionism, we feed a hungry beast that needs a constant supply of validation but is impossible to satisfy. We have an economic system that feeds directly off of these insecurities, encouraging us to look outside of ourselves for something that will satisfy that aching hunger of validation. It's draining, expensive and can cost you your happiness and sanity. It's an all-or-nothing game, and you're set up to lose.
I like blog articles that tell you to stop over-cleaning your house, throw your hair in a bun, and invite you to relax with spontaneous dance parties with your kids. It's good advice, but it's temporary at best.
We need to look deeper and ask ourselves the more meaningful questions about why we are striving for perfectionism in the first place.
We need to talk about regaining our sense of self within motherhood, prioritizing our mental health and our personal growth, and releasing our compulsion towards perfectionism at the root.
And we have got to stop comparing ourselves to other moms.
We are all trying our hardest to be good moms with the tools we've been given.
Parenthood has a way of magnifying our inevitable deficits under a critical social microscope, as many feel compelled to push their personal views, judgments and methods on mothers. They see the wellbeing of children as their shared responsibility. Everyone seems to have the "right answers," which unfortunately often comes out as unsolicited advice.
The message becomes, "You could be better," rather than, "You are doing well."
Compassion does not come easy for many—perhaps because they've never received any themselves. Perhaps because guilt, shame and judgment were deeply woven into the fabric of their family or upbringing. Judgment and criticism are not the most excellent catalysts for change, although they're the invisible default programming for so many.
Like me, I'm sure you've felt the strong desire to scream this truth in the face of those strangers doling suggestions on how to do your job better. "You really ought to spank them when they talk back to teach them respect." Thanks but no thanks Mr.
Then I remind myself to have compassion for them—they can't understand.
We never know the depth of someone else's struggle. Any struggle present prior to parenthood multiplies in complexity when kids are thrown into the mix. Our shortcomings are dragged into broad daylight when we are stressed out to the max, sleep deprived, sucked dry of our reserves, and left alone in our struggle (or worse, gaslighted about it).
If our compulsive response to struggle is to try to chart our course towards perfectionism, the cycle just repeats itself. It's exhausting. I'm intimately familiar with this loop. But we can't just switch off the habit of perfectionism one day because we feel like it.
The real you is not perfect. She's better. She's honest. She's great at some things and terrible at others. She's been through the trenches, and she has the battle scars and capability to prove it.
Life and traumas have crusted over her beautiful, imperfect core, in an effort to protect what is most precious.
Becoming a parent can be one of life's most profound and powerful experiences as a catalyst for growth if we let it. It cracks us open, forever changing us by forcing us to question ourselves.
Who are we in the face of parenthood?
There's something distinctly magnetic about young children: their ability to be their full, unabashed, joyful selves. It's the very precious thing we learn to cover up as we age and internalize the social expectations, judgments, criticisms, failures and rejections woven into adolescence and growing up.
These things are just layers that we can peel back and release.
Personal growth, in a nutshell, is a process of unfolding and removing those layers and returning to our naked, true selves. It is shifting our awareness to illuminate and embrace our unique gifts. It is reminding ourselves, every day, that we are already "there."
We are inherently lopsided in our awareness—fully aware of some things and entirely blind to others. Personal growth is meant to be done in communion with other human beings who see us more fully. We need others to hold up a mirror so we can see our own dark corners more clearly, in a safe space where the insight has been invited.
When we internalize some ideal of how we "should" be, we unconsciously measure ourselves and our experiences against it all the time. The gap between here and there is painful. We set ourselves up for massive disappointment because real life isn't picture perfect. It's not meant to be. Real life is messy, complicated and marked by callouses, stretch marks, unpredictability and change. In real life, we make mistakes so that we can shift and grow.
Can we shift from emulating those who seem to have it all buttoned up to accepting that we're just fabulous as we are, flaws and all?
Can we wrap our minds around the paradox of being perfectly imperfect?
Can we be brave enough to surrender and practice the vulnerability required to be our true, messy selves?
I'm pretty sure you are.
From one imperfect mom to another, I see you. And you rock.