The perfect mother doesn't exist, full stop. As a therapist for over 20 years, one of the most common recurring themes that comes up in therapy is moms who are battling their desire for desire for perfectionism and wondering how to be a good mom. I take it on as a clinical mission to help moms let go of this notion of being a 'perfect mother,' how to work through the instincts behind perfectionism and instead start to embrace imperfection.
Simply stated, there is no such thing as a perfect mother.
The definition of 'perfect' is to be flawless, complete in all aspects and demonstrating excellent skills. When we are 'perfect,' we have no need to grow or advance any further.
When we strive to be 'perfect,' and let our knee-jerk perfectionism win, we let our children down.
Why? Because we begin to show our children, model through our beliefs and behaviors, that anything less than perfect is a failure.
Our children need to learn through our example. Part of the process of growing up means making mistakes through trial and error. As a child grows up, so too does a mother, gaining wisdom and experience along the way, including making mistakes and failing.
Here's how to be a good mother in 10 steps:
1. Take care of yourself
One of the greatest gifts you can give to your family is to take care of yourself; your body, mind, feelings and spirit. So many women are used to putting themselves last on the to-do list. They become so focused on giving everything without ever having a limit that they either get sick, become resentful, or forget what it's like to nurture themselves.
By taking the time to care for yourself, you create a healthier, stronger way of being which allows you to care for the children and other people in your life more fully and with enjoyment.
2. Love and accept yourself
Mothers are amazing at being able to unconditionally love their children. But what about unconditionally loving yourself? How often do you have a critical voice in your mind, judging your efforts, putting yourself down and criticizing yourself?
Silence the critic of perfectionism and increase positive self-talk in the same way you'd talk to a friend or your child.
3. Realize that you're a mom for life
In the span of a lifetime, your child will have many relationships. Being a mother to your child is by far one of the most, if not the most, impactful relationship. Understand that mothering a child is a lifelong commitment to nurturing, teaching, caring for, guiding, loving and supporting another person's growth through the lifespan.
4. Create a life for yourself separate from your child
Your child will need you in different ways across the lifespan. A baby needs its mother to be attentive at a moment's notice to feed, change and cuddle. As the child moves into toddlerhood, childhood and the teenage years, the needs change.
Being available to your child is critical, but so is having a life of friends, interests, and activities separate from your child.
5. Learn to apologize
When you make a mistake, do something hurtful, lose your temper or forget to do something, it is important to learn the skill of apologizing. This is not to be confused with the overuse of saying "sorry" experienced by women for asserting themselves or having a thought or feeling. I'm not talking about saying sorry for just anything, rather, learn to apologize when you make a mistake or engage in behavior that hurts someone else or impacts a situation with your child.
6. Be open to your child's feedback
Children communicate many things through behavior as well as words. Listen to your child when they have something to say, focus your attention on them. You may not agree with their feedback, but giving your child the time and space to hear their thoughts goes a long way in their development and self-confidence.
Response: Why I apologize to my children
7. Spend quality time with your children
Parents are busier than ever these days. As mothers, we are pulled in different directions to support our children that have little to do with spending quality time with them. Your child needs regular and routine quality time with you. Make this a priority every day. Ask questions and be curious. The answers they give you may just delight and surprise you.
8. Don't take your child's misbehavior personally
You've heard the expression "growing pains"—well that not only includes children. Parents also feel the growing pains in reaction to the push-pull of independence and autonomy as a child grows up.
Independence and growth often result in conflict—your agenda versus the agenda of your child. Sometimes it's easier to understand a toddler saying "no" and throwing a tantrum than when a tween or teen does similar behavior.
In moments of frustration, try to see the message your child is trying to communicate and don't take his/her behavior personally. It likely has more to do with child development than you as a person.
9. Show your feelings, but don't overwhelm your child
Modeling how to manage your emotions is an important lesson for children. When you're feeling an emotion, for example having a bad day, own your feelings if it is impacting your behavior. Saying to your child, "Mommy is feeling upset about something that happened today so I may be a little quieter, I just want you to know."
Not only does this type of dialogue and interaction help model healthy mood management, but it also allows your child to understand your behaviors and feelings are not the results of something they did. Children often like to fill in the gap to make sense of the world, and they do so by sometimes making assumptions it was their fault.
10. Allow your child to be who they are
Personality and temperament are strong characteristics of a child. Of course as mothers, we want to influence, shape and expose our children to many opportunities. Children often know who they are and what they want. Part of our job as parents is to find a balance between encouragement and influence, exposure and independence.
Allow your child to be who they are with guidance, love and support from you.
Motherhood is an individual journey with many universal shared experiences and feelings: moments of worry, fear, anger, frustration, annoyance, sadness, exhaustion heartache, embarrassment, joy, gratitude, happiness and contentment.
When we buy into perfectionism, we lose an opportunity to understand how challenging emotions— the ones that stretch us and push us—are the feelings where we learn the most about ourselves.
The more moms are willing to share how they feel, what they need, or what may be going on beneath the picture perfect surface, the closer they'll gets to improving their well-being and happiness.
A healthy mom is the foundation for creating good moms. And remember: Your child needs you—a healthy version of you—not a perfect you.
A version of this story was originally published on October 25, 2021. It has been updated.