In preparation for my daughter’s ballet recital a few weeks ago, I was pinning up the last strands of her hair into a bun when I noticed another mom dropping off her tutu-wearing 4 year old.
“Be perfect,” I overheard the mother say to her daughter, as she scurried off with her ballet class.
I stopped in my tracks.
“Be perfect?” I asked the mama. (I couldn’t help it, the question poured out before my politeness-filter clicked in).
Thankfully the mama laughed, and said “I know – right, like any of us can be perfect”.
I laughed too, as my daughter and I caught each other’s eyes playfully. Now finished with her bun, I gave her a hug and whispered “Be imperfect!” She giggled and skipped off to dance in the Nutcracker.
As I walked to find my seat and watch the recital, I remembered the mid-winter moment I showed up at my therapist’s office with my first baby, twenty years earlier. Packing up for the visit, I made sure that I had on clean clothes (no milk stains), my hair was brushed, I had on matching shoes, and a cute baby outfit for my son. I wanted to appear like I had it together…
I probably whispered something to him like “let’s be perfect”. This was so opposite to how I was feeling on the inside. The irony was, I was meeting with my therapist – someone with whom, by nature, I had permission to be vulnerable and real, and yet I still tried to keep up a facade of perfection.
For so many of our clients, and new mamas in general, much like the ballet mama I observed, the pressure to act and strive for perfection runs deep and gets imprinted in early childhood.
Perfection and Motherhood: No pressure!
The pressure to look like we know how to do this giant task of new mothering, without sleep, without training, and often without support, is a reflection of our culture, and the antithesis of the truth. Being vulnerable in a society that expects us to know and act in the role of parent perfectly may feel unbearable.
How do we, as mothers and new parents, allow room to be imperfect and messy as we find our way through the clunky transition to parenthood and through each new turn on the path? What can we really do to make room for our experiences and to allow ourselves to be beginners?
Strategies to embrace imperfection in motherhood
There are a few strategies that seem to help ground our clients in the reality of parenthood, helping them trust that they are not alone on their imperfect journey.
1) Social Media is not an ally – it does not convey the reality of motherhood and parenthood.
Social media posts look tidy and pretty and perfect – not the truth! The antidote is to connect with other REAL mamas and parents with messy kitchens, a pile of laundry, crumbs all over the car, and spend time together. Share a simple meal of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or soup out of a box as you connect in the reality of parenthood. You will find you are not alone in the messiness and temporary chaos of this season. You can find real comfort in sharing the reality of missed nap times, late payments, messy bathrooms, and breakfast for dinner.
2) New parenthood is difficult on marriages
All of a sudden, the attention that was spent on each other is now redirected to a tiny human with tremendous needs. Everyone is exhausted, often the mama is “touched out” from feeding/breastfeeding and from holding the baby. And exhaustion or not, there is work to be done both inside and outside the household. Shifts with income, household roles, often unmet selfcare, and a whole new job of parenting can add stress to a relationship.
Once we know that the transition to parenthood can be taxing on a couple’s relationship, we can take it less personally, recognizing it is common to feel the strain. The early days, weeks, and months after a baby is born take extra work, communication, compassion, and understanding. Studies show that the year after the baby is born is truly the most difficult part of the relationship. We often tell clients (jokingly) Don’t think about getting divorced until your youngest is in Kindergarten. It will get better. So, during the challenging moments after the baby is born, have grace with each other, slow down, get support, and make a plan.
Support for the new parents is crucial. Surround yourself with non-judgmental, thoughtful supporters who make room for your real experiences as a new mama or new parents. When you spend time with these folks, or even when you think about these folks, notice if you feel at ease in your body or your shoulders tense up. Does your breath catch in your chest or can you breathe more easily?
Connect with the folks who help you feel supported, relaxed, and safe. This may include family, friends, individual therapists, couples therapists, support groups, spiritual support, or healthcare providers. Aim for those who make room for all of the messes without the unsolicited advice.
4) Notice your self talk
Sometimes, it is what we tell ourselves that feels the most powerful or damaging. Notice how you are supporting yourself with your thoughts and words. When you get stuck in a negative thought loop such as “I’m terrible at this mothering thing, I can’t make the baby stop crying or feel comfortable”. Maybe try to say out loud a neutral to positive true thought such as, “This mothering thing is super hard, and I am so tired”. “I am doing the best I can at this moment trying to soothe the baby”. “I noticed that she calmed a little when I hummed a lullaby and when I bounced on the yoga ball.”
By bringing awareness to our own thoughts and getting curious, we can recognize our own inner critic, expectations around doing this job perfectly, and find the courage to pop the perfection bubble. We can aim for, good enough in each moment.
The more we catch ourselves striving for perfection in all forms, the more we can make room for the reality of doing our best, adjusting to the temperament of the baby.
Also, when we make room for our own growth – goofs and imperfection as well as successes – we also model and offer the same for our children through our parenting. In this way, when the kids are headed off to school, or piano, or soccer, or ballet, we can remind them that they get to do their imperfect best and, above all, they are loved.
It’s that time, gather up a sticky note and jot down this Sound Bite:
Stick it on the mirror where you brush your teeth, on the fridge, on your journal or computer… anywhere that you frequent. Let the note remind you to hold grace for yourself as you navigate this new job of motherhood. May you enjoy the imperfect process of allowing room for messiness, discomfort, and growth.