I’m a perfectionist by nature. As such, I apply a lot of pressure on myself to be the perfect parent.
My desire to perform optimally applies a lot of unneeded pressure on me. The perfect parent doesn’t exist. It’s likened to the abominable snowman or Bigfoot. To be a perfect parent is an unattainable, unrealistic goal, and, well, crazy-making. I have to let go of this. It’s not serving me and it will certainly not serve my son down the road when he tries to be the perfect child and perfect teen and perfect adult.
In my efforts to be perfect, when I’ve messed up, I really get down on myself. I end up evaluating my entire ability to mother on this one typically insignificant failure. We each have our own definitions of what it means to mess up as a parent. For the purposes of this post, I’ll use the example of losing my patience as this is one thing I struggle with the most. It’s certainly not the only thing, but it’s my most persistent problem and the one I’ve identified for myself that I most want to improve. When I lose my patience and end up yelling, grunting, muttering a cuss word under my breath, slamming a door, or simply, just not choosing my words kindly, I spiral. I doubt myself as a mom. I feel guilty. Sometimes, I replay the moment in my mind and criticize myself for having not thought to say or do ‘x’ instead.
Sometimes, I reach out to a friend to vent. They often tell me life is not about being a perfect parent. Life is about progress. They encourage me to value progress over perfection.
The moment has passed. I can do better the next time. Likely, my son won’t even remember a few moments later what happened. I suppose since my son is only 3 this is true. That very point was made evident recently by the following anecdote:
We pulled into the daycare provider’s driveway. The moments leading up to getting there were particularly difficult. He was challenging. I lost my temper. The car ride there was silent even though it’s usually filled with singing and chit chat about the traffic lights. Instead, I had spent the morning commute mentally beating myself up for my failures over the last hour. Berating myself for how I’ve clearly made no progress over the year in the category of patience even though I purposely set it as an intention a year ago. Clearly ,no progress could have been made if I hadn’t perfected this particular virtue. Before I unbuckled him from his carseat, I kissed him on the forehead.
I love you. I’m sorry I was such a grouch this morning.
Can you forgive me?
“You’re not the grouch. You’re Mommy,” he says cheerily with an expression that says it’s awfully silly for you to think you’re a Sesame Street character.
I giggled and my guilt waned. I kissed him again. He hadn’t held on to the moments of our prior hour like I had. He hadn’t kept a grudge. He hadn’t deemed me a horrible mother, inferior, or lesser than.
I’m his mommy and he adores me. For him, it’s as simple as that. He’s not concerned whether I’m the perfect parent. Neither should I be. I need to flip my own script and look at my parenting the same way I look at myself as a human being: as one that is continuously evolving and always looking for growth.
Rather than working towards being a perfect parent, I am a parent in-progress.
While there was some comfort in knowing he had already moved on from our imperfect moments (and may have even already forgotten them altogether), I know that this won’t always be the case. Eventually, he’ll be older, his memory stronger, his communication better, too. I fear that if I don’t improve upon the patterned behaviors that I can self-identify as flawed (again, using impatience as an example), it will result in him seeing me differently, responding to me in a particular way, or affecting our relationship in a detrimental way, etc.
As a result, I’m constantly checking myself. Trying to do everything perfectly, based, of course, on my own idea of ‘perfect parent’ which is as much self-inflicted and defined as it is based on cultural expectations or what all the books say.
While it is great to be able to reflect and hold self awareness, what those checks fails to do is focus on anything positive. In fixating on having raised my voice too loudly, or not responded kingly, or left the room in a huff, I forget about any (or all) of the positive actions or words I used the rest of the time. I fixate on my error only.
My son won’t be able to tell me for quite some time whether I’ve been the mom that I’ve set out to be. If and when he does, it shouldn’t even matter, really. I should feel comfortable in how I’ve behaved as a parent regardless of his validation. I should feel confident in the decisions I’ve made along the way. And I should know that I’m always doing the best I can even if I’m not the perfect parent every single moment. Or a whole string of moments together. Or for an entire day.
Even in knowing I can’t and shouldn’t rely on my son’s validation of my parenting at any point, it is difficult to constantly fly solo and a little blind.
As a divorcee, my time with my son means it’s just the two of us. Certainly, there are times we visit grandparents or friends, but largely, our time is ours. I am the only adult. There is no one to tag in when I need a break to just step into the other room and collect myself. There is no one to stop me or give me a check when they can see that maybe my impatience is starting to creep in. Once my son is in bed, there is no one to debrief to review scenarios, expectations, behaviors (mine or my son’s) related to what occurred in the hours just before bedtime, or even that morning.
His father and I talk, but these are broad strokes and recaps, not present-moment dialogues. I utilize friends and family as sounding boards, but again, in the past-tense. In real-time, I’m on my own. Perhaps that also drives my ‘perfect parent’ mindset. I’m the only one right now. So, don’t mess it up. He’s counting on you and only you.
Recently, I was under the weather and with family and totally at my wits end trying to manage my son, whose energy level and needs were far surpassing what I could offer given how sick I was. I ended up in tears at the family dinner table, whimpering about what a failure I felt like all the time as a mom. Not a shining moment, by any means, but it was the place I was in right then. My older sister said to me something that a friend had once said to her:
Don’t focus on every little thing you feel you did wrong. Instead, pick a moment of the day, where both you and he were at your best and remember that.
It was hard to hear this advice in the moment. I was sick, foggy-brained, and emotional. But in the days that followed, as the head cold fog lifted, I was able to really think about what she said. I thought, too, about that consistent advice my friend always gives me: “progress over perfection.” What did these mean to me? How I could apply them? Could they help me re-frame that perfect parent ridiculousness somehow to a vantage point that was more about progress and the positive moments instead?
Yes. These things could help me transition from the perfect parent script to a parent-in-progress narrative.
The next time that I found myself starting to beat myself up about what I had failed to do and inevitably did wrong, I stopped and asked myself two questions:
1) But what DID you do that was positive before ‘x’ happened?
2) What moment stands out as one where you both were at your best?
Followed by this little mantra:
3) You’re human. You love him. Forgive yourself and try again.
Surprisingly, I was able to list far more things that I was proud of having done more than what was absent. I was also able to find far more greater moments of the day, than ‘failed’ ones. Best of all, I was able to see by identifying how the positive moments outweighed the the imperfect ones that I am not be a perfect parent, but I’m a pretty damn good one, all things considered.
While I know I’ve got plenty to work on, I need to spend as much time focusing on what I am succeeding at than what needs improvement. I need to strip away the perfect parent myth, and allow myself to be a parent in-progress, learning as I go, trying my hardest, and feeling unashamed of my failures. In short, I need to cut myself some serious slack rather than cut myself down.
What’s your take on being the ‘perfect parent’?