"The Perfect Mother" and Self-Compassion

I would never have described myself as a perfectionist. My house is frequently cluttered. My desk is covered with projects and reminders and stray papers. My kitchen floor is filthy.

For the longest time, my desktop was giant colorful graphic proclaiming "DONE IS BETTER PERFECT." That creed is not empty words to me. I believe it. I don't let perfection slow down my desire to complete a project. Perfectionism is paralyzing, as I would often lecture other people.

No, I was not a perfectionist.


I've recently realized that perfectionism is a deep, deep river that flows far beneath my attitude towards my house's cleanliness or craft projects. Just because I'll publish a blog post with typos or slap together class treats that are far from Pinterest-worthy doesn't mean that perfectionism doesn't affect me. 

The perfectionism that haunts me is far more insidious and harmful.

I want to be the perfect mother. 

When I look back, I can see the seeds of this perfectionism take root when I decided I wanted to move back Paducah to raise a family. I was asking Nicholas to give up so much. I was pushing us to change our entire lives. I had to make my case that the stakes were high enough to justify the level of risk we were taking on.

For months, I made the same argument. We were bringing a human being in to the world. We had to do it RIGHT. This little baby wasn't being asked to be born. So, it was our duty to him to give him the best life we possibly could. 

He had to have grandparents in his life. He had to have a community. He had to have good schools. Most importantly, he had to have parents that could BE THERE for him. Parents who didn't work all the time. Parents who could come to school programs. Parents who had real weekends to read stories and play games and go to the park.

And I still believe that. 

I know moving to Paducah was the right decision for our family. However, I see now that pushing so hard for this vision of "perfect parenting" created a voice in my head that speaks loudly and clearly to this day. 

Every. Single. Day. 

I'm constantly striving to please that voice. Are the boys watching too much television? Are we reading enough books? Are they eating enough fruits and vegetables. Are they sleeping enough? Are we disciplining enough? Are we being too hard on them?

Am I doing it RIGHT?

I don't want to silence this voice completely. I firmly subscribe to the Jacqueline Onassis school of parenting. She once famously said, "If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do matters very much." I couldn't agree more.

Raising your children should be taken seriously because it is a serious thing. I will never stop reading and researching child development and parenting techniques. I will never stop trying to improve. I want to be the best possible mother I can be. My children deserve that.

However, striving for the best and striving for perfection are too different things. My perfectionism comes from a deep desire to control things. If I can control my environment, then I don't have to acknowledge the deep vulnerability at the heart of raising another human being. 

Erma Bombeck once described parenting as the decision to let your heart walk around outside your body. That is a truly scary prospect, but I can't change it or control it. I can perfectly portion my children's television consumption. I can feed them the most perfectly balanced meals ever created. I can read developmentally appropriate books while supervising mentally stimulating crafts ALL DAY LONG and it wouldn't matter. 

The journey I've chosen to take as a mother is fundamentally chaotic and beyond my control. That lesson came crashing down hard over my head earlier this year when I lost our baby. The voice in my head was loud and unapologetic.

I had ONE JOB - to carry that baby - and I had failed. I had failed as a mother. 

On a certain level, I knew how illogical I was being but the voice was crystal clear and truthfully it was only a matter of time before that voice got out of control. Since perfectionism is unattainable, I set up an unachievable standard for myself. And let me tell you, I was mean about it. I didn't realize how little self-compassion I had until I was describing these thoughts to my therapist.

"You're pretty hard on yourself, aren't you?" she replied.

I started crying, which is basically a big old fat "YEAH KIND OF."

I've also realized the harder I am on myself the harder I can be on those I love the most. After all, I'm beating the crap out of myself over here trying to be perfect so why can't you STEP IT UP!?!

But you know what? My perfectionism is NOT my husband's or my mother's or my best friend's problem. Plus, insider tip, being a judgmental nag isn't exactly the best way to motivate people... at least not in my experience. 

Beyond the adults in my life, what am I teaching my children? If the whole point is to create the best lives for my children possible, do I think they will do as I say or do as I do? It is heartbreaking to me to imagine the harsh voice in my head ever inhabiting my children's lives.

So, I'm trying to let go of the perfectionism and be kinder to myself. I recently discovered the work of Dr. Kristin Neff, who has made self-compassion her life's work. If you have a few minutes, I highly recommend her TedX Talk.

She also has a great website where you can take a self-compassion quiz. My score was NOT great but that's ok. Gotta be compassionate about it! Plus, I'm working on it. She also offers lots of great tips and advice on how to be more self-compassionate. 

One of her suggestions is to talk to yourself as you would a dear friend. I've thought a lot about that. Some of my dearest friends have suffered miscarriages or lost pregnancies. I would NEVER say to them the things I say to myself. Heck, I never even thought these things in relation to them. So, why the heck am I being so hard on myself?

For me, it all comes back to a toxic mix of perfectionism and a desire for control. I'm trying to let go of that. I've recently been reading about the Buddhist principle of detachment. It doesn't mean that you detach from action or desire. It means you detach from the results - from the things you truly can't control. 

That seems particularly relevant to parenting. 

In the end, all we can do is all we can do, then we have to let those little beings walk away ... even if they have our hearts in their hands. 

Do you struggle with perfectionism?

P.S. Grief and the choices we make it.