Motherhood and the need for perfection

The more I read and think about stuff, I’ve decided that I have no time for the pursuit of perfection anymore, especially when it comes to motherhood.

See, it was always a joke, anyway. I wasn’t going to be perfect–I need more than both hands and feet to count the ways in which I am not. I held myself to this ridiculously high standard and then hated myself when I couldn’t reach it.

I think this is worse for women who are mothers than it is for men as fathers. I’m not one for gender stereotyping but I do think women tend to carry more responsibility for mental labor. Who needs to be where and when. What needs to be cleaned and what can be delegated and whether there’s any point to delegation when that just adds more to keep track of to make sure it gets done. When all the appointments need to be made and the bills need to be paid.

If a man does anything at all as a father (and my husband does far more than most), he gets praised for it. Not so with moms.

I have never been a perfect mother but I’ve always measured myself against what I thought the standard of a perfect mother would be. One who enjoys being around her kids so much that she doesn’t take time for herself. The mom who shows up to every school event because it’s so important to her to be there. The one who chaperones every school field trip, volunteers in the classroom, takes on the responsibility of managing her kids’ sports team.

None of that has ever been me.

Truth be told, even though I love my kids dearly and have sacrificed a lot for them, I was a pretty shitty mom during most of their elementary school years. I wasn’t a yeller or a drunk but I also wasn’t as involved as I should’ve been. I loved the baby and toddler stage and I love the teenage and young adult stage; it was what came between that was tough for me.

Truth to be told again, I don’t really relate well to little kids. I’m always awkward knowing what to say to them. Especially when they’re in the imaginative play stage of development, I have no idea how to relate to that at all. I can’t understand that world.

I am not sure if I ever went through that stage of development myself. The way I was brought up largely discouraged imaginative play and sometimes the line was blurred between when imagination was acceptable and when it was lying that would result in spankings. I think I tried very hard not to be off in another world of imagination just because it was so unclear what was safe and what was punishable.

I learned to distrust myself and skipped an essential stage of development, I think. It’s really hard for me to read fiction or watch movies that require me to immerse myself in fantasy or alternate worlds.

I had crushes on pop stars but never imagined they were my boyfriend or thought we’d get married, like some girls do. I never dreamed about my wedding or of being famous. I never even thought that any of my dolls were actually real; I always knew they were toys and I couldn’t imagine them having imaginary adventures. Maybe I was somewhere on the autism spectrum or maybe I was just a weird kid whose parents were uncomfortable with kids having imaginations.

So when I see kids in that developmental stage, I’m all like “uh huh” and nodding my head because I don’t know what else to say otherwise. For the longest time, I thought this was a fatal flaw. And for sure, I am definitely not cut out for any kind of job working with children. But I’ve also learned that this is just another “should” that I’ve placed on myself, a comparison game in which I come up empty.

According to what most people in our culture think about what a good mother is, I am not it. Both of my very smart kids who have finished high school or the equivalent have delayed college, although the door may be open for them going back later. (I didn’t graduate college until I was 33, so never say never.) I don’t have the money to buy them cars or the social connections to help them get jobs.

I go out by myself for a couple hours nearly every single Saturday. Sometimes I can talk one of the kids into going with me and we’ll stop for dinner somewhere. But mostly they don’t go. And I tell myself I’m selfish for taking that time, even though they usually don’t want to go and I’m running errands or shopping for things they’re not interested in.

In my mind, I should stay home instead, never leaving their side. I thoroughly enjoy that time alone and I wouldn’t be able to get a lot of that stuff done otherwise. But I’ve been battling this idea that if I’d been a “perfect mother,” they’d want to go with me or I’d make them or I’d choose not to go out at all.

But that’s not my strength as a mom. When they were in that age of imaginative play, I delighted in it even though I couldn’t join them there or understand it. I made costumes and sleeping bags for their favorite stuffed animals, the plushies who starred in their adventures. I baked treats for them and tried to teach them how to knit and sew even though I suck at it myself.

Now that they’re older, I thoroughly enjoy them. I love listening to them and feel honored that they open up to me, at least as much as teenagers and young adults do with parents. We talk about important issues and learn each other’s perspectives. What was once confusing about our relationship is now a source of connection. They trust me and I trust them.

So I guess I’m never going to be the perfect mother. And increasingly, I’m learning to cast off the weight of the expectations I placed on myself that I’d be anything other than exactly who I am.

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