Perfection and Motherhood


We were at a party, having a glass of wine and talking loudly to compete with the din when she told me she admired my parenting. I wasn't sure I'd heard her correctly so I responded with the articulate, "Huh?" She repeated her comment and I said, "For all you know, I could beat my children…" and then launched into an intellectual rant about curated lives in blogging and the cult of personality. She shifted her weight, looked at me and said, "Can you stop? Can you just say 'Thank you'?" I've thought about this conversation a lot recently, thought about all the factors that led me to so quickly dismiss the compliment. Our friendship is one that began online and has grown through stolen moments at conferences and glasses of wine shared while passing through each other's cities. She hasn't met my kids or seen me parent so - yes - we can talk about careful curation in blogging but she knows enough to judge my authenticity. I think about the difficulty most women have in accepting a compliment so that played a part too. How often do we dismiss them, turn conversation away from them, make jokes at our own expense to avoid the discomfort of small kindnesses? And why do we do that? I can't answer those questions but know that I'm not alone in doing it.

But more than anything, I keep returning to the conversation from that  night because I can't help wondering when perfection became the standard by which I judge my parenting.

When I reflect on my time in high school, I don't think about my accomplishments. I rarely talk about the fact that I spoke at graduation or lettered in Debate but I will tell you about the B I received in Geometry and the fact that it ruined my 4.0 GPA.

When I talk about my time at Grinnell College, I will spin tales of receiving my first F on a Chemistry test and tell you that I spent way too much time writing music, playing the guitar and drinking with the rugby team. I think of college as the time when I learned about failure  yet I graduated with a B average.

Have I ever told you that I worked nights to put myself through graduate school and had a 4.0 GPA? Of course not…unless I also tell you that it was an easy program and I somehow got lucky.

When I think about my 15 years as a county Adult Protection investigator, I remember the first time a supervisor told me that I had not done an adequate job on an investigation and the burnout that marked the end of my time there. I don't think about the people I helped or the fact that I was instrumental in sending an appellate court judge to prison.

Even putting those accomplishments on the page makes me uncomfortable, qualified as they are by framing in the context of failure and falling short. This is beyond an irritating tendency towards pessimism, beyond self-deprecation. This is the legacy of perfectionism - that sense that one can never do enough - and it has crept into my parenting which should come as no surprise. Somewhere along the line, wanting to do better than my parents wasn't enough. Being a good mother wasn't enough. I had to be the perfect mother and I know that I'm not alone in my struggle with this ideal.

I know that part of this is that we know more about children these days, know more about how our actions impact them later in life. Did you interact with your baby enough, show them all those picture books with black and white images? Did you breast feed and introduce solids at the right time? Do you encourage but not pressure? Are you patient at all times, never raising your voice? Did you do enough crafts with your kids, teach them to properly grip a crayon and pencil? Do you read to them? Do you read so they see that behavior modeled? Do you limit their media time? Are you on your phone too much? I could list a million more things that we mothers of privilege think about on a regular basis and yes - there is privilege (education and economic to name only two) inherent in these questions. My own mother used to remark on my angst about motherhood regularly, "You think too much. When I raised you kids…" and then she'd launch into some story about independence with a little pro-spanking commentary thrown into the mix. As she spoke, I'd often think, "Yeah…you could have thought a little bit more about your parenting…" and, of course, there is truth in that too. But my mother grew up poor and raised me as a working class single mother. I am a middle class woman with a graduate degree and a partner of 21 years. I have the luxury of analysis and intellectualization that she never had and increasingly, that luxury feels like a curse as well.

I write so much about motherhood and think I write the truth - the moments when I am exactly the mother my children need and those when I am not. Lately, I think I've written more about those good moments, the ones when the words come easily and I say the right things to my kids or don't but make amends. Maybe I need to write more about the struggles, the days when I raise my voice or use sarcasm to comment on their less than stellar behavior. There are those moments too. Or maybe, I should just stop for a moment and say "I am a good mother" and sit with the discomfort of that declaration knowing that "good" doesn't have to be "perfect."

I am a good mother.

How many of us can say that without giving in to the temptation to qualify the statement?

I am a good mother.

I'm saying it today and resisting the urge to say more, knowing that I might not be able to say it tomorrow.