The Snare of Perfectionism
By Julie Bogart on April 16, 2013
Trends happen for a reason. The sudden spate of books and conferences exposing the myth of "the perfect mother" is a cultural admission that women feel a lot of pressure to both be mothers (you are less of a woman if you choose not to be a mother), and then to do that task "perfectly" however that is defined. When women admit that being "a perfect mother" is not possible, a collective sigh of relief follows. Moms make mistakes and have legitimate worries:
- forget doctors' appointments,
- don't wash their children's hair often enough,
- feed the children sugary treats to stop the crying,
- yell when they are frustrated,
- are especially anxious when one of their children throws a punch or steals a toy.
Children become an extension of the mother's body and identity— a beyond-my-control extension of me that tells me (and others) about me.
Perfection, as it is defined for women, often includes non-motherly tasks as well, like being well coiffed, or keeping an organized and tidy home. Mothering doesn't depend on either of these, though. Perhaps the "perfection" label is more about trying to be a woman who matches culturally-assigned stereotypes of female married+children adulthood. Reading these discussions has left me a little cold. While I've had my share of guilt about motherly missteps (lecturing a child rather than hearing her, switching curriculum too swiftly without proper preparation, letting one child's vocal needs drown out another child's quieter ones) I don't think I ever worried about having the right haircut while my children were young. Getting to go for a haircut once in a while was treat enough! And even though stepping on a cluster of Legos in the middle of the night with a baby in my tired arms drove me to the brink of swearing on more than one occasion, I didn't feel a lot of pressure to keep a perfectly neat home, nor did I feel particularly embarrassed by evidence of children strewn throughout the living spaces. The pressure I felt (and still feel!) had less to do with my external presentation (how I appeared as a woman, mother, wife) and more to do with significance:
- Am I mattering?
- Am I making the ultimate difference?
- Am I doing the right things to ensure the right results?
The pressure in mothering as a home educator is even more insidious. Not only do you feel it matters that your children eat healthy lunches (that are hot, predictable, and require clean-up midday), but you must also make "healthy" curriculum choices and adopt the "right-est" educational philosophy. You scour the Internet for the Magic List of principles and practices that ensure your children will be well-socialized, well-educated, and well-behaved people.
The danger of perfectionism kicks in not because you are trying to convey an image of success.
You actually want to be successful.
Measuring success is a huge part of our culture—and that measurement is usually exacted by others who are in the same soup, trying to get to the same place. When we feel "measured against a criteria" (in other words, "judged"), that's when we move ourselves toward the impossible standard of perfectionism. We double down and try harder to apply the methods and madnesses of a system. We stop hearing our own voices inside and we lose perspective. What frees us isn't simply agreeing that none of us is perfect (oh well) so let's just do the best we can and hope for the best. Hey, let's be kinder to each other and share our stories of all the mistakes we make every day. And let's laugh about it (ha ha). Certainly there is some therapy to be had in those exchanges. For sure! But for me, comic relief never freed me. I had high expectations for my family and my efforts. I wasn't about to give those up just because of the snare of perfectionism or the judgment of others. And occasionally, some of the examples of
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