Debunking the Myth of the Perfect Mom

I get a lot of comments about the fact that I have five kids. Trust me, I’ve heard it all, from “how are you going to pay for college?” to “it must be so hard to devote enough quality time to each of them.” What I get most often, though, is some variation of “I don’t know how you do it.”

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I usually come up with a lighthearted response, but sometimes I feel like telling the truth: I don’t know how I do it either. I don’t feel like I’m doing it all that well a lot of the time. As enamored of my kids as I am, I sometimes feel like I’m losing it more than I feel that I’m doing it. I’m not managing perfectly well — I’m overwhelmed, anxious and stressed and, even though I’m lucky enough to have babysitters, I struggle to get my kids where they need to be and oftentimes I could use a helping hand from a fellow mom!  Many times I’ve wanted to ask another mom for help, but been too embarrassed to do so.

One of the biggest challenges about raising children these days – whether you have one kid or five – is that we feel this pressure to look happy and in control all the time and we don’t ask for help often enough. We also don’t offer it. This is a very common issue for women, and one that was crystallized in a piece last week by Debora L. Spar, the president of Barnard College, called, “Why Women Should Stop Trying to Be Perfect.”

As Janice D’Arcy summarized in The Washington Post, “At the heart of the problem, [Spar] argues, are mothers’ unrealistic expectations of themselves… Asking for help from each other is a skill many of us need to learn from scratch.”

I think part of this reluctance to band together and help each other is because we have this idea that other mothers are managing perfectly on their own, working and cooking and crafting and juggling and thriving every moment of every day. We put other mothers up on pedestals and spend our time trying to climb up there ourselves.

And when others put US on pedestals, it’s too easy to take the bait and try to live the fiction.  It’s much easier to smile and wave off the “how do you do it all?” than it is to get down and dirty and start complaining about how often you feel like you might fall to pieces.

I have to think, too, that this desire to appear perfect, to attempt to do it all, stems from a deep-rooted association many of us women grew up with between motherhood and happiness. As a single woman in my late 20’s and early 30’s, I looked with envy on women my age who had already married and were having kids.  They seemed to be wrapped in a velvet cloak of comfort, security and contentment, while I was on the phone with girlfriends into the late hours trying to figure out whether my boyfriend at the time would become “The One.”

I couldn’t wait for my own “happily ever after” of marriage and motherhood, and this ideal starts when we’re quite young, from playing with Barbie dolls and baby dolls to dressing up as brides on Halloween.

Once you grow up, you’re flooded with images of these seemingly “perfect” mothers: in the pediatricians’ offices, in hospital leaflets, and in the pages of parenting magazines.  You think you see them in real life too, leisurely pushing carriages in the park or cradling their sleeping darlings in their arms.

It’s like shattering a porcelain doll to admit to yourself that this whole mythology of motherhood isn’t, um, working for you and you’re actually not that perfect or that happy all the time.

When I had my first baby, I also had a rude awakening. One of the hardest things for me as a new mother was confronting the harsh, sudden realization that those perfect mother images bore almost no resemblance to my daily reality! Of course, my baby was gorgeous, but he was pooping, splitting up all over me whenever I dared to get dressed, crying for what seemed like endless hours, and waking up as soon as I’d put him down at the crib. Why didn’t anyone tell me that every night I’d be scrubbing stain remover into an orange poop-stained onesie?

Glennon Melton of “Momastery” cut to the heart of this issue in her blog “Don’t Carpe Diem” that resonated with so many women and she recently featured a letter from another new mom that echoed these sentiments.

“I always feel guilty for having feelings of complete misery,” this mom wrote. “I always wonder, when do we get to the FUN part of having kids? … The GUILT I feel for not being HAPPY every moment is immense.”

I know most new parents feel the same way. And in addition to being too embarrassed to admit that things weren’t perfect, what I didn’t do with my first baby is ask for enough help. Part of what Spar seems to be saying is that whatever your situation is, whether you work and have childcare, stay at home, have family nearby or an involved partner, what we have lost is the “village” it takes to raise children. We’ve stopped reaching out to our neighbors and fellow parents to ask for a helping hand, and to offer one whether it seems someone needs it or not.  We all try to pretend that we’re happy and have it covered, and this makes the whole task of parenting harder than it needs to be.

It might be too late for us. I hope not, and I’m going to try to implement some of this in my own life. But I know it’s not too late for my daughters, and if nothing else, I’d like to offer them a different ideal to aspire to.  There’s no such thing as a perfect mom, and no, mommy’s not happy all the time, but she loves you and she knows how to reach out to others, and how to be a friend.