Quizzes abound: What Disney princess are you? Which Downton Abbey character are you? These questionnaires are found everywhere. This new fad of quizzes tells me that we yearn for rules and definition the more we feel unclear. Books on mothering and motherhood are everywhere. As an academic (lapsed) and a haunter of libraries, there’s no better way to master a situation, I thought, than research. So, when I realized I was going to be a mother, I started reading.
I started out with What to Expect When You’re Expecting. In about 10 weeks, that book was obsolete. I was on bed rest and nothing went as “expected.” My reading also went far off the beaten path. I roamed about in fiction, poetry and mass market self-help. I have emerged 11 years now, with 5 books that are my guides. I turn to them and recommend them to others with the eagerness of a zealot or a convert:
1. Perfect Madness, by Judith Warner
2. I Don’t know How She Does It, by Allison Pearson
3. Operating Instructions, by Anne Lamott
4. The Bitch In The House, by Cathi Hanauer
5. Mothers Who Think, by Camille Peri
None of them, in fact, are self-help books. These are decidedly anti-selfhelp books. I prefer books which repeat passionately that predictable rules just won’t help in this sort of situation. These authors are the women who “get it,” get me, get the whole “wow I’ve really got this thing down … whoops, I have no idea what I’m doing” feeling, and shore me up. Thank goodness that women who write and reflect are as baffled as I was by the strange careerist role of being a mother in this time.
A friend recently confessed to me that she sent a child to school without socks and that she has occasionally offered her children pop-tarts for breakfast. “Am I a bad mother?” she asked. She feels guilty that she hasn’t signed her child up for the Young Scientist program at a local museum.
Perfect children need perfect parents—good enough won’t do. The trouble is, though, none of us is perfect.
I’m excited to be speaking on the topic of perfectionism and parenting at Lesley Ellis School in Arlington, MA on Wednesday, January 13th at 7:00 pm. The event is part of the school’s ongoing series of Parent Education talks. These talks are free and open to the public. Please call or email the school for more information.
Lesley Ellis School
41 Foster Street
Arlington, MA 02474
In our culture, social forces push children and teens to look, speak, and compose themselves perfectly—achieve the perfect grades, the BMI of 20.85, the prom queen’s tiara, the undefeated season. We weigh, rank, test, measure and chart them every which way from Apgar scores to SATs. In order that our kids can achieve perfection, parenting has become a profession.
But no one can be the perfect parent or, of course, the perfect child. The pendulum swings back and forth. As a reaction to the impossible work of ‘perfect’ parenting, parents grow demoralized and become permissive and laissez-faire. If our children aren’t perfecting themselves, we can’t figure them out. What do they want? What does he need? Why can’t she behave? Focused on gymnastics practice or math homework, we don’t help them to learn simple social graces, connect to their community, or help out around the house. They don’t feel needed or appreciated. They may never understand how to pick up after themselves, write a sincere thank you note or support a sad friend because these parts of childhood don’t lend themselves to perfecting.
The culture of perfection is as deeply embedded as the American Dream. Our children still learn the mantra: “You can have everything you want—if your work for it.” Just do it. Go for it. You’ll get it all— looks, friends, honors and college admission.
Sensible adults know that this is not true. The world is not a meritocracy and luck plays an enormous role in our lives. Work hard all your life—and still you might not get what you want. We’re afraid of telling that truth. But we must. We need to focus on helping our children build resilience and problem-solving skills. A securely attached confident child has a better chance in life than one who has been pushed and over-praised, and panics without a parent’s tight rein for guidance and reinforcement.
“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” This is a better mantra. It should be carved into the bricks at the top of every school entrance. The quest for perfection breeds envy, jealousy, and loss of connection. Love and work are what make us happy—and neither require perfection.
Photo credit: Tracy Shaun
Talking about being a mother has become mandatory—questioning and criticizing what counts as mothering, has as well.
Judith Warner, in Perfect Madness, captured the horror of this microscopic focus well. A journalist, she began by raising her children in France. Occasionally she wondered if she should feed them fewer crackers, or how polluted the public swimming pool was with waste. But, in general, she did her job of writing news and raised her kids without much fuss
When she returned to the States, she was amazed. “What’s up with all the over-parenting?” she asked. A few years later, after Sept 11th, she found herself wondering about the future of the world while also fretting that her child wouldn’t have the proper amount of “Dora the Explorer” partyware. Suddenly she realized she had been caught in the same cage she’d noticed when she stamped her passport.
I wonder if mothers are so anxious because we really want an objective rating. Maybe our children have become the grown equivalent of our weight or our grades. And, let’s not forget, materialism thrives on anxiety. We are good if we buy things for our children, especially educational things. As the main character in Shopaholic and Baby says, (and I paraphrase) “This is not shopping. This is providing for my unborn child.”
At least she bought matching sheets, 400 count, and a duvet cover for herself and her husband.
Photo credit: buttha