Postpartum Life: Perfectionism and Motherhood
“I’m beginning to realize that being real is so much better for everyone than trying to be perfect.”
Striving for perfection is a common trait I’ve seen throughout the years with many of my clients. This striving has also been the source of significant suffering and pain, as clients realize that obtaining perfection is an impossible feat that leaves them feeling constantly disappointed in themselves. In working with new moms, this theme often comes up as well. Many moms may have felt that they were able to maintain a certain degree of control and perfectionism in their lives prior to having babies, and that this standard now feels impossible to maintain, leaving some new moms feeling inadequate, shameful, and deficient. Today, I’d like to talk about some of the ways in which we expect ourselves to be perfect as moms, the consequences of expecting perfectionism in motherhood and postpartum life, and some approaches to take in order to shift away from some of the perfectionistic standards you may be experiencing for yourself as a mom.
Expecting yourself to be perfect in your parenting: You may notice yourself holding an impossibly high standard for yourself as a mom. You may have established rules for yourself about things you will never do: you will never yell at your kids, you will never let them watch TV, you will never let them eat sugar, etc. These are just some examples of ways in which you may place certain expectations on yourself as a mom that could cause major disappointment if and when you deviate from your expectations and standards of perfectionism. We each have a breakdown point where our limits are tested and because of that you may have a day where you end up yelling at your children or reacting towards them in a way that you later regret. You may be so tired one day that you let your child watch TV for an hour in order to have some alone time...When we hold perfectionistic standards for ourselves as moms, we can then judge ourselves for these human reactions, telling ourselves we are “bad mothers,” “ruining our children forever,” and “not worthy of being a mom.”
Expecting yourself to be able to do it all: This may look like being able to do everything perfectly, including keeping your home neat and orderly, cooking several homecooked, well-balanced meals a day, working out and maintaining a certain weight/body type, maintaining a perfect relationship with your partner, friends, and family, and/or maintaining the same output at work. If you find yourself expecting all of these areas to look a certain way and you end up falling short in some or all of these areas, you may find yourself in a place of deep self-criticism, negative self-talk, and inadequacy.
If the examples above sound like you, then some of the consequences of perfectionism I’m about to mention may sound familiar to you, too. High expectations of yourself as a mom can lead to:
Constant disappointment in yourself: You may find you are constantly disappointed in yourself when you notice the house is messier than you’d like, when you’ve ordered takeout three days in a row because you’re tired and overextended, or when you just can’t produce the same level of work at your job as you used to.
What do do: Try to hold self-compassion for yourself. This season of life in motherhood is so tough! What was once attainable may look drastically different from what you’re capable of now, and that is okay. There is now a little human with very significant needs who is going to divert your attention from all kinds of other things, and to expect yourself to function at the level you did before can be a recipe for severe disappointment in yourself. Remind yourself of everything you HAVE accomplished. It is incredibly likely that there is so much you HAVE done and handled throughout the course of the day, and that you may not be giving yourself enough credit for.
Rigidity: When we hold perfectionistic standards for ourselves, we can fall into the trap of developing rigid patterns or all or nothing thinking. We may expect that things “have to” be a certain way or certain things should “never” happen. It can feel suffocating to live within such a limited paradigm, and does not allow moms to accept their humanity.
What to do: In DBT, there is an assumption that clients are doing the best they can at any given moment and depending on their circumstances. Take a look at how you’re coping and how this may be the best you can do right now. Take a look at how certain factors, like lack of sleep or stress at work, may be influencing your emotions and behaviors, and that as a result, you may need to take it easier on yourself on some days. It is much harder to maintain a perfect household and be a perfect mom and partner on days when you’re going on three hours of sleep or have to meet a certain deadline at work. Acknowledge that because of this, it’s okay for your “best” to look different from day to day, or even from hour to hour, sometimes.
Notice your “nevers” and “have to’s”: Start taking inventory of how often these statements run through your thoughts. When you make “never” and “have to” statements, you are setting up a rigid expectation for yourself which does not allow for deviating from that path. Instead, you may want to replace a statement like, “The house has to be impeccable,” with “I’d love for my house to be spotless right now, and I’m really tired and need to rest. I will fold the laundry and run the dishwasher tomorrow when I have more energy.” Take note of how the second statement allows room for you to acknowledge your needs and also allows room for you to eventually take care of the things you want to accomplish, without feeling like you HAVE to force yourself to keep your home perfect right now as a result of a painful expectation you may be holding for yourself.
I hope that the suggestions above are helpful! Remember that you are a perfectly imperfect human being and mom. Remember that your value does not lie in how clean your house is or what the scale reads back to you. Remember that your children and your family love you and that you taking care of yourself will reflect back to those you love. Remember to take it easy on yourself as much as you can; this stage of life is hard!