“Don’t you feel guilty leaving her while we just go hang out?” I asked my husband. We had taken the day off to celebrate our anniversary, and our daughter was going to daycare, just like any other weekday. He replied, “Not one teeny tiny iota. Not at all. Why, do you?” My automatic thought was, good moms don’t have fun without their kids around.
As a psychologist, I know very well that this thought isn’t true, nor is it helpful. So, where does it come from?
Mom guilt. That pernicious feeling that comes from not doing things a certain way, or doing them too much, or doing them wrong according to some unknowable and ever-changing rule book. We know that guilt (as well as shame, guilt’s rude sister) is considered an emotion of self-assessment and that it disproportionately impacts women.
Mom guilt is one of those things that all mothers are very familiar with, but it hasn’t quite made it into our research literature yet in a way that reflects how pervasive it is. A paper from Finland suggests that five basic situations tended to induce guilt in mothers:
- Actual or imagined aggression
- Wanting to leave in some way
- Being gone in some way
- Favoring one child over the other
- Not corresponding to your own or other’s ideas of a good mother
Mothers tend to feel as though they must fully devote themselves to their children, feel completely responsible for how their children develop, and frequently fail to live up to either their own or societal expectations for how a mother should be. Guilt then results when we feel something we think the perfect mother wouldn’t feel. We feel angry, resentful, and the desire to escape — all things a normal mother would feel, though it seems like the perfect mother wouldn’t. The problem is, the standards we set are often unattainable; they set us up for failure, and they’re often not even actually all that beneficial for our children’s development. Guilt is the byproduct of striving for perfect parenting.
Is the goal of perfect parenting to have the perfect child, or a child that’s never lonely, or one that’s always happy? Let’s try this goal: to help a child to develop the trust that she can count on a loved one to try to be there for her. Relationships are where we live. They’re the fiber of our families, our communities, our careers. Perfect doesn’t work in relationships. What works is flexible, responsive sensitivity and availability. What works is not avoiding mistakes but acknowledging them, doing what we can to make up for them and learning from them. This way, we teach our children that even the most empathic of us will have lapses and disconnects and those can be repaired. When we aim for perfect, mistake-free parenting, we’re sending a message that performance is more important than meeting needs.
A relationship that expects perfection is doomed to fail, while a relationship where two individuals use their understanding of the imperfection of people to get to know their similarities and differences has limitless potential for growth and fulfillment.
To reiterate: modeling perfection and the pursuit of it does not promote healthy development. It’s well-intentioned—we don’t want our child to feel any of the pain that we might have experienced growing up. We may even understand that they can’t be perfect, so if we aim for perfection and fall short, then at least it’ll still be great, right? The problem is that the constant pursuit of perfection leads to an anxiety about the relationship that children can feel. It feels to them as though the relationship is conditional upon things going perfectly. We are teaching them that there’s no room in a loving relationship for pain, or sadness, or distress. Moving away from perfection and toward good-enough parenting allows for the love in your family to be messy and real.
Finally, good-enough shifts as our environment does. What may have been good-enough parenting before might feel close to impossible now, and that’s okay. Parenting now will look different and it should look different, whether you worked outside of the home before or not. Not being able to go places with your children, not being able to have play dates or see friends in person, not sending them to school—these all lead to a completely novel and very uncomfortable parenting experience. That isn’t going to change regardless of how guilty you feel about it. Focusing on what you can control will get you through this, and that’s reducing the effort you put towards perfect parenting and letting yourself model how to suffer, be angry, be sad, and be lonely while still loving your family fiercely.
Letting go of perfectionism and its unpleasant friend guilt can only bring good things to you and your kids. Instead, focus on what’s important right now—identifying ways in which you are being a good-enough mom and finding satisfaction in that.
This post was written by guest author Dr. Jessica Combs Rohr, an expert in women’s mental health and serious mental illness who is a staff psychologist at Menninger and an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine. She also serves as a research mentor for psychology and social work fellows and interns.