The Tyranny of The Perfect Mother
Having children is like living in a surveillance state. They see EVERYTHING. All the time. They watch and watch and watch.
And, of course, they never see the things we want them to see.
How hard we’re trying.
How much we worry.
The joy we take in them.
Instead they always seem to laser focus in on us when we make a mistake, when we break down, when we screw up. They see every cookie we sneak after we’ve told them to wait for dinner. They hear every mean comment we make about our bodies - any anyone else’s. Every time we lose control of our tempers or break a rule or are brought to our knees by this life - their eyes are on us.
We feel the weight of those eyes. We feel the pressure to lead and that can be so heavy - especially when we’re not sure of our own path. Or when we’re exhausted. Or when we’re activated by past traumas. Or when we’re struggling to heal ourselves.
And so we strive for perfection because we think that’s what they need from us. We want so desperately to give our children The Perfect Childhood ™ with The Perfect Mother ™ that we forget that those don’t exist. The trademarks are held by patriarchy and capitalism, not by any mother who has ever parented in the real world.
And what’s more - if your children actually had The Perfect Mother ™ they would not learn from her all that they learn from you. I’m not kidding. Picture her. Think of all the places that you supposedly fall short and are somehow letting your children down.
TPM never yells. Always makes a delicious and nutritious dinner. Does not struggle with her weight. Or mental health. Or emotional health. Doesn’t cry (except for that one perfect tear in reaction to a Mother’s Day card). Creates beautiful, magazine worthy holidays. Comes to every school function, but does not hover.
I’m sure you could play this game with me all day. But if that mother existed their children would not be at all ready for the real world. They would be confused by it, overwhelmed by it, and unable to navigate it or to be true partners to others in it.
Our children are watching us. And they are learning from us. They don’t simply learn from our successes, they learn from our mistakes and from our failures.
They learn from our humanity.
Our household is tense right now. We’re putting our house on the market to sell in preparation for a move that will take us halfway across the country. For months our lives have been a mess of contractors, plans, budgets, questions, pressures, fears, and change. The kids are picking up on the stress and pushing boundaries and acting out because they are 2.5 and (almost) 5 and that’s just how it goes.
And there has been so much yelling lately. So much. They run, I yell, they yell, it sucks. And eventually the running and playing in the house led to spilling and breaking on a day when I had spent hours cleaning and prepping and I didn’t just yell - I screamed. I screamed and stomped and then I sat and cried. And they stopped and stood and stared at me.
It felt horrible.
It felt like utter failure. What kind of mother does that? They deserved so much better than me.
And that’s where I stopped myself. That’s where I thought NO.
I took a deep breath. I looked them each in the eye and told them that I would be okay, that everything would be okay, but that mommy needed a minute. I got them settled at the table with some juice and a snack and then I walked into the bathroom and shut the door.
Wash my face.
Make a decision.
I could lead with my feelings of shame and the judgment of The Perfect Mother ™ or I could just be human. I could just be the mom they actually had instead of the mom I wanted them to have (or that I wished I’d had).
And so we all cleaned up together and then we sat on the floor and talked. Well, the 2 year old ran around us and randomly hugged us or tried to tickle us, but my son and I talked. We talked about how many changes are happening and how that can be really hard. We talked about how we’re all tired. We talked about how mommy messed up and screamed really loud. I asked him what he thought I should do. He said I should apologize and give him a hug and buy him a puppy. He got the apology and the hug.
And then I told him the hardest truth - that I would probably screw up again. I told him that no matter how angry I got that he would always be safe with me. I told him that he could always ask for an apology from me and remind me of how we treat each other in this family. I told him we are in this together.
I don’t know if I did the right thing. Parenting is a series of best guesses and the hope for grace. But I know for damn sure that The Perfect Mother ™ wouldn’t have done any of that. She would never have screamed in the first place.
And so she would have never have needed to make amends. But my kids learned so much that day. They learned that mommy is human and if you keep pushing her she will break. They learned that even when I do break, they are safe. They learned that it’s okay to walk away and pull yourself together when you need to. They learned that we clean up our messes. They learned that we apologize. They learned that our family is a team and we can all hold each other accountable - and hold each other.
I really wish I’d been able to teach these lessons in a different way that day. I’m really proud that I’ve been able to teach them in different ways before and since. But I will not beat myself up over my humanity.
I refuse to live under the tyranny of The Perfect Mother ™.