As mothers, we often have a knack for making it seem like everything is okay. But in the last two years, with the added pressures of the pandemic, I’ve spoken to more moms who have experienced outbursts of anger than ever before.
Too often, anger is the culmination of unmet needs and unexpressed feelings, two things that build up if you’re trying to be “the perfect mom.” I have come to realize that anger is a natural reaction to feeling chronically ignored. Unfulfilled needs and feelings do not go away when they are ignored. Instead, they build and build in silence, until finally making themselves known like a pan of spaghetti thrown against the kitchen wall.
With three children ages three, five, and seven, I’ve experienced that adrenaline-fueled rage plenty of times and it really feels horrible. It adds a shadowy layer of guilt and self-loathing to the exhaustion you’re already suffering from, and sends that “not good enough” voice into overdrive.
When I recovered from postpartum depression, I actively decided that I would accept help and lower my standards. I was big on self-pity. In other words, I took a breather, from asking my husband to come back and be with me when the baby cried at 2 am to stocking up on microwave meals for days I felt drained.
I began to be open with my friends about what was difficult for me and accepted that mentoring people for a living does not mean that I am immune from difficulties. For months, I felt like I should be able to get better, but then I reasoned, a heart surgeon can’t operate on himself. So why would he be able to fix me?
Our culture seems to value self-sufficiency and a lot of what I do is help other mothers see that there is no weakness in accepting help. There is nothing wrong with saying: “I am a person, I have limits, and when I reach them, I need to walk away and rebuild myself”.
If anything, it’s healthy to be the mother who isn’t good enough. Famed pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott was the first to articulate, back in the 1950s, that children actually benefit from imperfect parenting. His research found that children need tolerable failure from their mothers in order to function well as adults.
Why? Because being “not good enough” shows our children how to survive in an imperfect world that will inevitably let them down at times. It demonstrates the importance of perspective: failing at something small like forgetting a birthday or being in a bad mood doesn’t make you a failure. It shows that not everything is under our control, a sentiment you have to get comfortable with, especially as children become teenagers and adults.
On top of that, letting your kids see you do the things that recharge you, whether it’s quietly reading a book in the yard or hanging out with friends, sets an example that you respect yourself and that boundaries and self-care are important. important. Doing something you enjoy is a shot at burnout, and yet it’s something we mothers often deny ourselves.
I sometimes wonder how we got to the point where moms (I never hear of dads doing this) talk about taking a shower and stopping for “a quick glass of water” as indulgences. Those things are essential: they have to do with self-respect, not self-care. We wouldn’t deny them to anyone else, so why do we deny them to ourselves?
We are mothers through illness, ups and downs, fluctuating hormones and lack of sleep. We need to have compassion for ourselves, otherwise we will constantly embarrass ourselves for missing the impossible bar.
When you respect your needs and bounce back from the brink of burnout, your family brings out the best in you.
When the penny drops among the “perfectionist” moms I see on my therapy couch, it’s an amazing, truly life-changing moment, especially if it’s someone who has told herself for many years “that’s life.” .
However, it can take time. Culturally, we are fed the narrative that women are natural multitaskers who can absorb whatever life throws their way. Having to accept that this is not the case can be difficult. I have seen women mourn the loss of the perfect mother they had always hoped to be.
It’s also true that when you start setting boundaries, and by that I mean prioritizing yourself, some people may not like it. Having no limits may have served you well, especially if you have sacrificed your own needs for many years.
But ultimately, once all that happens, everyone around you benefits. We need energy to breed well and cope with the curves of life. We also need energy to enjoy. When you respect your needs and bounce back from the brink of burnout, your family brings out the best in you.
So how do you spot a “not good enough” mom? For starters, she doesn’t hide the chaos of home life from her, whether it’s on Instagram or an impromptu playdate. You won’t hear her talk about her latest parenting failure and she doesn’t mind admitting that she’s tired or needs a break from her kids. If you offer to take them off her hands for a while, she’ll happily nod her head “Yes please!” And she will often hear you say “no,” especially if someone is asking for something that will take up her time.
All those little things that can make you not seem good enough actually mean that when you’re with your kids, you’re more likely to be relaxed and content. Also, when she offers to babysit her kids, she means it. She has capacity. She is no longer on the edge of it because not being good enough has set her free.