Mothers Shouldn't Try For Perfection
by Linda Perlman Gordon and Susan Morris Shaffer
I grew up hearing the story of my mother riding on the train from Brooklyn to Long Island. She was pregnant with me while holding my sister on her lap, who, for the entire train ride wouldn't stop screeching. When we were teenagers, my mother told my sister and me that she was so humiliated at not being able to quiet her child that she fantasized throwing my sister out of the train. Her fantasy even included her feigned shock at the baby 'falling out the window.' My mother ended the story by saying that she imagined screaming 'my baby, my baby' to cover up her crime. She told us the story without shame--it just was what it was--her honest unsanitized, experience.
While uncomfortable and sometimes outrageous thoughts can go through your head, mental health professionals have always said what separates the healthy from the non-healthy is whether you act on those thoughts. If it stays in your head, you're just human and can still be a wonderful mother.
Talking to so many mothers and listening to their self-recriminations formed our creation of what we call the perfectly imperfect mother. We use the word Perfect with irony. She is perfect because she isn't perfect. She is our perfectly imperfect mother, a real person with plenty of confusion, positive and negative feelings and contradictions, allowing daughters to relate to their mothers as human beings.
The Perfectly Imperfect Mother meets almost all of her daughter's needs when she is a baby, and as she grows, slowly frustrates some of her daughter's needs to give her the ability to deal with failure. The Perfectly Imperfect Mother gives her daughter the message that she wants her daughter to be moral and responsible, to have the strength to make her own choices and appreciate her own abilities and talents. The Perfectly Imperfect Mother doesn't see her daughter's struggles or frustrations as proof that she isn't a good mother. Instead, she sees these behaviors as appropriate individuation. She understands that her daughter may make very different choices in life from the ones she made and doesn't interpret this as a rejection or as a failure of her mothering.
The Perfectly Imperfect Mother acknowledges that, by being imperfect, she is helping her daughter learn to face the complexities of life. Her role is to help her daughter adjust, cope, and persevere. Mothers shouldn't try for perfection because perfection creates an impossible ideal, one that no daughter can either emulate or live up to.
Women are bombarded with so many unrealistic images that don't really occur in real life. As a national morning show co-host told her viewers, "In order to juggle my job and be a good mother, I require a staff of good people helping me juggle all my roles including looking this good. I have a nanny, a trainer, a hairstylist, and a makeup expert." While we all know that nobody is perfect, it doesn't stop our inner voice from critiquing ourselves and setting unrealistic expectations.
What is most important to know is, if you are empathic, responsive, and respect boundaries, a lifelong close relationship with your daughter is probable. Children are very resilient and can accept imperfections when their mother exhibits the above qualities. This goes both ways; you will be more forgiving of your daughter's flaws if she can demonstrate empathy. Empathy is the foundation for mature relationships; it promotes connection by inviting intimacy. We define empathy as an awareness of the impact of one's behavior on others and a sense of responsibility for this. Empathy is also associated with sympathy, warmth, and compassion.
Mothers shouldn't try for perfection because it's a set up for failure. Perfection creates an impossible ideal. By being imperfect, a mother helps her daughter learn to face the challenges and disappointments of life, which inevitably happen.
Characteristics of the Perfectly Imperfect Mother:
- Meets a daughter's needs as a baby, and can meet her daughter's needs as an adult, but not necessarily immediately
- Understands that her daughter's failures can build resiliency (Permits her daughter to fail in order for her to become resilient)
- Is empathic
- Is responsive
- Respects boundaries
- Permits her daughter to make her own choices
- Refrains from stepping in to fix things her daughter can do for herself
- Doesn't take her daughter's failure or imperfections personally
- Helps her daughter adjust, cope, and persevere
About the Author:
Linda Perlman Gordon, MSW, and Susan Morris Shaffer, MA, are the authors of Too Close for Comfort? Questioning the Intimacy of Today's New Mother-Daughter Relationship, now available in paperback from Berkley Books in bookstores and online. They are available to speak to parents, educators, and mental health professionals. To get more information and proven strategies for staying connected with your children visit www.parentingroadmaps.com.
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