After reading “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” and much of the related commentary, and then reading “Why Women Should Stop Trying to Be Perfect” yesterday, I had an epiphany about why many professional women are so hard on themselves when they become moms.
Here it is: Imagine that you’ve grown up hearing that you could be whatever you want to be, as long as you work hard. So you go through your school years figuring out how to prove that you’ve worked hard, and you go for whatever that goal is. You play well with others. You make the honor roll. You get college scholarships. You make the Dean’s List. You graduate from college with honors. If you start something, you finish it, and you finish it well, with proof.
Then you have a child.
Where’s the syllabus for “Mom”? How will you be graded, and, more importantly, how can you be the best at it? The answer is not obvious, so you look around and see what the great moms do. According to the parenting books, the parenting websites, and Facebook, these great moms sleep when their babies sleep. These great moms breastfeed for exactly one year, make their own baby food from scratch, and cook healthy, delicious meals for their spouse and older children every day. These great moms also exercise daily (and lose their baby fat immediately). These great moms never let their babies or toddlers watch TV. Instead they read books to their children and engage in creative and educational play when they’re not reading. These great moms are always consistent with discipline and never get angry with their children. Their children smile cheerfully when dropped off at daycare or school, and smile just as cheerfully when picked up. Most of all, each great mom is thrilled to be a mom every single minute.
These great moms also have wonderful relationships with their spouses. They communicate well about household responsibilities without expecting too much or too little. These great moms are also able to keep things interesting in the bedroom even after spending the day reading the same children’s stories over and over again, enforcing discipline consistently, making healthy and delicious meals, and keeping their houses spotless.
Some of these great moms also work, and they are able to do so with elegance and aplomb. Aside from the adorable family photos hanging in her corner office, you wouldn’t even know that one of these great moms has family responsibilities. It goes without saying that these great moms never bring work home with them, either.
But you know and I know that this is a complete fantasy. There is no way anyone could do all of this. Even Clair Huxtable’s kids got into trouble every once in a while. Yet many of us feel guilty or even feel like failures because we aren’t able to do all of this, and do it all well. After all, we’ve been able to do so much, and do it all so much better than most people.
I think those of us who feel like horrible moms need to spell out the impossible standards we’ve unconsciously created for ourselves. Let’s bring that secret Perfect Mom Final Exam out of the dark shadows and into the light of day, and realize that it is ridiculous and, even worse, harmful. It’s harmful because no one can do all of those things. In fact, no one expects us to do all of those things except for ourselves.
The best way to come back to reality, in my opinion, is to talk with other moms. I don’t mean share mom status updates on Facebook, or watch moms on TV, or read about celebrity moms. I mean find some mom friends in your neighborhood and talk with them. Watch them interact with their kids. Ask how they’re dealing with a problem that’s facing you. Listen to each other and learn from each other.
Also, remember that you’re not going to get an A+ in being a mom, because that just doesn’t exist. Hopefully your children will turn out to be healthy and well-adjusted, but even that is not completely up to you. All you can do is your best, whatever that might be for this moment.
Guest contributor Eileen Youens teaches and advises local governments and government contractors about public contracting, public construction, and conflicts of interest. She also puts her litigation training to good use in negotiating with her two-year-old daughter. Eileen tweets at @eyouens and blogs at youensconsulting.com.