Mother's Day is a great time to explore and unwind some of the myths and expectations that put moms under pressure. Not all of them come from the finger-waggers on the playground: Moms are often the victims of self-inflicted friendly fire.
The Perfect Mother Myth, Busted
Those of us in psychological circles have a long history of placing the onus of successful child-rearing squarely on mothers' shoulders. Early theorists such as Sigmund Freud believed that fathers played only a minor, secondary role in childhood development, while one or two missteps on the mother's part were enough to scar Junior forever.
We now know that a perfect mother isn't necessary for a child to be well-adjusted. All parents should provide certain things to foster their child's healthy development, including emotional and physical attunement to the child's needs, and support for independent exploration of their world while providing a safe home base.
But children aren't as fragile as we once thought, and a mistake here or there doesn't spell disaster. We also know that while the primary caregiver (of either gender) is the most important figure for a child, both parents have a great deal of influence. So moms, the hook isn't all yours. Still, well established myths don't die easily.
As social animals, we naturally compare ourselves to the mythical "perfect" mother—and to each other. Whether or not we admit it, most of us care how others perceive us. (In fact, people who genuinely do not care what any other person thinks of them are in dangerous territory.) Not only do we compare our self-perceptions to our perception of others, but we also tend to broadcast a self-image that is likely to draw favorable reviews. This "impression management" can be useful: It has us wearing clean clothes to a business meeting instead of tattered sweatpants.
But our comparing and broadcasting tendencies also create problems, because we compare ourselves to largely fictional perceptions. It is likely that our perceptions are highly fictional, and yet, when we don't measure up, we feel inadequate. Even as we project an image of perfect competence, it saps our energy when the image doesn't match what we really feel.
As deeply rooted in our social nature as these phenomena are, they aren't easy to change. Sometimes, my clients find it helpful to understand that comparison and impression management are natural to all of us; they're not the only ones doing it. But there are ways to feel more comfortable in your "good enough"-ness.
Your Fact-Finding Mission
Your negative self-assessments probably take the form of thoughts, and it would be good for you to make a list of them. Let's use this example: "I'm always screwing up with my son. I'll never be a good mother." Now, let's separate fact from opinion.
If you recently committed a parenting error—let's say you forgot to pick up your child from daycare—then that's a fact. But are you "always screwing up" and will you "never be a good mother"? Well, the first clue that these are opinions are the words "always" and "never." People are rarely always or never anything.
You can cross-examine those statements yourself. The human brain has a tendency to emphasize the negative, so you need to make effort to flesh out the full picture. Think of (or list) the times when you were a Class A parent, such as the numerous times that you did remember to pick up your child.
Once you've done that, restate the original thought with the new perspective and evidence. For instance: "I forgot Johnny at daycare today—the second time I've done that. It's not like me, because the vast majority of the time I'm on the ball and a loving and responsible mother. Still, I feel terrible about what happened. I'm going to make an extra effort so this never happens again."
See what we did there? We produced a statement that acknowledges the negative and the positive, using solid evidence on both sides to express the reality of what is going on. It's not a hollow, feel-good affirmation. Let the opinions go and bank on the objective facts, and you'll feel much better about yourself.
Speaking of feeling better, Mother's Day is an occasion to honor the important role mothers play in the world, and it is a good excuse to pamper yourself. I encourage you to take the opportunity to have your nails done or buy yourself something new. But I also encourage you to consider pampering the parts of yourself that you can't see.
Our social nature means that a deeply felt interpersonal connection with others is a crucial ingredient for thriving, whether we're infants or mothers; therefore, one example of intangible self-care could be as simple as a good conversation with a close friend or family member. Others would include clearing your schedule for a long walk in a pretty place, taking an interesting class or trying out a new hobby. You could also take some time to create a personal mission statement for the next year of your life. It doesn't need to be hard or boring. Instead, it can be empowering and refreshing. Just let your mind run free to see an ideal vision of your life, and then identify the things that are important to get closer to your vision.
Above all, take some time to cultivate appreciation for yourself—for all the good work you do as a mom and all your good intentions. Let it soak in and enjoy it. Sure, you could probably use some improvement—who couldn't? But you're also probably pretty great just the way you are.
Jim Hjort, LCSW, is a psychotherapist, life coach and mindfulness meditation instructor. He founded the RightLifeProject to help people understand how to handle the dimensions of their lives (psychological, social, physical and vocational) in ways that enable them to be happier, more fulfilled and able to reach their full potential. Learn more at RightLifeProject.com.
Here are a few things moms can do to practice self-care this Mother's Day.
- Get a manicure.
- Get a massage.
- Go shopping.
- Treat yourself to a nice meal.
- Read a good book.
- Do more yoga.
- Eat healthier.
- Drink more water.