Perfect Parenting

Dr. Corinne Masur

After I mentioned in a recent post that it is OK for parents to allow themselves and their children to eat pizza four nights in a row, one mother responded by saying, “We are in a never ending battle with being too hard on ourselves” and she admitted to letting her children eat french fries for their dinner while sitting on the couch.

Why do moms in particular feel the need to be perfect as parents?

Why do we put THAT much pressure on ourselves??

Just today a mom was telling me how guilty she felt for getting more babysitting help.  And this was not because she wanted more time for herself – it was because she needed to work more and thus needed more coverage at home.  But she still wondered, “Is it OK?” And she still worried that her children would miss her too much and that these missing feelings would damage them in some way.

At some point in evolution, mothers started to feel like they had to be perfect in order to bring up decent children.  

Moms started to feel like they HAD to make ALL their baby’s baby food; they HAD to do one on one play on the floor with their babies and children multiple times a day; they felt like they HAD to be really present in the moment with their children; they felt like they HAD to read to their babies every day starting at birth; they felt like they HAD to give their children healthy food at all times, organic if possible, farm fresh whenever available, often gluten free and no sugar EVER. And, more recently they have felt like they HAD to provide interesting projects for their children and COVID safe play dates and virtual music lessons and outdoor tennis lessons and online language lessons and some kind of religious education and and and and…..

But – – – -what if we do allow our children to get bored? Or eat some cookies? Or pizza? Or heaven forbid, french fries on the couch? 

We have to feel guilty.

But now I have something to say.  I have said it before and I am sure I will say it again: It’s too much.  In normal times it’s too much.  And right how? It’s a pandemic.  Parents are being asked to make decisions about their children’s health and safety every minute of every day.  Parents are being asked to be their children’s distance learning aids.  They are being asked to keep track of work sheets and pass codes and log in codes.  They are having to figure out how to get a 3-year-old to wear a mask and how to get a 15-year-old off their video games. And when I say parents, I mean mothers.  It is mostly mothers who carry the guilt of not being perfect.

AND IT IS TOO MUCH. 

In 1953 the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott coined the term, “the good enough mother”. And this is what he meant: mothers do not have to be perfect to raise their children well. They just have to be good enough.  

Winnicott took care of thousands of babies during his career and what he observed is this: it does not benefit babies or children if their mothers are perfect – if their mothers are always there and if they always fulfil every need, this is actually not optimal for the child’s development. Newborns of course require immediate care and feeding.  But as the infant gets older, they can tolerate a little delay of gratification, they can wait a few minutes for a feeding.  And as they turn into toddlers and then children, Winnicott observed that it was actually helpful to them to have their mothers fail them in small ways at times. This built up their frustration tolerance and their ability to delay gratification.  It prepared them for the inevitable disappointments they would experience in the real world.

So, mothers – stop putting so much pressure on yourselves!  If you say you will do something for your child and then you cannot, if you promise something for dessert and then you find you’re all out, if you say you’ll be there in a minute and it takes you 10, if you can’t find the log in code or today’s work sheet, if you fail to be on time for a class your child attends – online or in the real world – your child will survive.

These experiences of small failures on your part and small disappointments for your child are opportunities for repair.  You apologize to your child and your child learns that you are not perfect but that you still love him or her. 

You do not need to be perfect, moms.  Your child does not need you to be perfect.  In fact, putting this much pressure on yourself just isn’t helpful. It is likely to make you LESS happy as a mom, less playful and less able to cope with the multitude of pressures we cannot change in this crazy pandemic time!

So, take a few minutes to take this in. Give yourself a break psychologically…and go ahead, face it, there will be days when you need to let your children eat some french fries on the couch…and you may even need to join them.