Motherhood is a blessing. It was a long and difficult journey for me to become a mother and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to mother my three not-so-little-ones.
But being a mother is hard. Really hard. And we make it harder by setting impossibly high standards for ourselves.
In May we celebrate Mother’s Day in the United States. May is also Mental Health Awareness Month and Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week. It seems like the perfect time to remind all of my fellow mothers that you matter. Your mental health matters and you can start to take care of it my being kinder to yourself.
Moms expect themselves to be perfect
Moms, do you feel overwhelmed by expectations and responsibilities? I know I do. We put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect mothers, wives, daughters, employees, and so on. Like most of us, you probably think you should attend to your child’s every need and give him every opportunity, keep an immaculate house, cook wholesome meals, make adorable crafts, volunteer at your child’s school, hold down a job outside the home, stay fit and attractive – and make it all look effortless. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted just thinking about all that!
High expectations can be a good thing, but when you have unrealistic expectations you set yourself up to feel like a failure, erode your self-esteem, and constantly feel disappointed and angry with yourself.
When you expect yourself to be a perfect mother, you’re making note of all the ways you’re imperfect. And it’s not just that you feel bad about your messy house and feeding your kids too much processed food. On some level, we all know those things don’t matter a whole lot.
You also get down on yourself for yelling at your kids — after you promised yourself for the millionth time that you’d stop. Or maybe you feel guilty because you’ve been too distracted by your own problems to tune into what’s going on with your kids. Or you drink too much and worry that you’re setting a bad example. Or, perhaps you’re too strict (or not strict enough), or you’re too tired, or you live in a bad neighborhood, and so on.
There are endless things that you can beat yourself up over. But being self-critical and focusing on your mistakes isn’t good for moms or kids.
Everyone has struggles
All moms struggle. We don’t struggle because we’re inadequate. We struggle because we’re human, but we’re expecting ourselves to be super-human.
Life doesn’t go as planned for anybody. Some of it’s wonderful beyond belief and some of it’s pretty sh*tty. We work hard and try to do right by our children. We do the best we can, but we all inevitably mess up sometimes. None of us are perfect and it’s time for us to stop expecting that we’ll always do just the right thing.
And we shouldn’t have to pretend we’ve mastered motherhood. It’s important to acknowledge when we’re struggling because then we can give ourselves what we need, whether it’s rest or compassion or forgiveness.
Being hard on yourself doesn’t help you or your children
Sure, there are lots of images of perfect mothers on Instagram and in women’s magazines. It’s easy to get caught up in the comparison trap – and when you do, you inevitably feel like you’re not measuring up. But how does being hard on yourself help anyone?
Does being self-critical make you a better mother?
Does denying your feelings teach your kids how to manage their own feelings?
Does putting yourself last give you the patience and energy you need to parent?
No, beating yourself up doesn’t serve you or your children well. Kids need to know that perfection isn’t our goal. Kids need to learn to set realistic expectations. They need to understand the importance of self-care. They need to see that mistakes are normal and part of growing and learning. Kids need to learn how to acknowledge their mistakes, forgive themselves, and move forward. We can model all of these things when we practice self-compassion.
Choose self-compassion over self-criticism
You have choices. You can choose to reject unrealistic expectations of motherhood and set more realistic ones. You can choose to give yourself grace when you make a mistake and you can choose to say “I’m enough. I don’t have to be perfect.” You can choose to give yourself compassion when you’re struggling.
How moms can be kinder to themselves
- Notice and challenge negative self-talk. Do you say hurtful, mean, and critical things to yourself? Negative self-talk is rooted in the negative messages we got as children and they form the beliefs we have about ourselves. Some examples of these beliefs are: I’m disorganized. I’m selfish. I’m stupid. I’m damaged. I make bad choices. We then reinforce these negative beliefs with our self-talk. Try to notice what you say to yourself; question whether it’s fair and accurate or whether it’s a remnant of other people’s expectations and false beliefs about you.
- Don’t expect yourself to be perfect or to do it all. At this point, I think our expectations are so far out of whack that it’s going to take some time for us to dial back our expectations to something reasonable. We should be able to routinely meet our expectations, which helps us feel accomplished and successful. And our expectations should also reflect our values – what’s most important to us. We have to intentionally reject all the messages we’ve gotten (and internalized) about what it means to be a good mother and redefine it according to what matters most to us and what’s reasonable given our circumstances.
- Set boundaries and say no to things you don’t want to do or don’t have time for. Since we all have limited amounts of time, energy, and money, we have to pick and choose how to use our resources. Remember that saying yes to organizing the school fundraiser means saying no to something else. The school fundraiser is no doubt a worthy and necessary endeavor, but before you agree, consider what you’re giving up in order to do it (possibly sleep, time with your own kids or spouse, or a hobby).
- Look for what you’re doing right. When we strive for perfection, we tend to focus on everything we’re doing wrong and notice all the ways we’re imperfect. Instead, we can make an intentional practice of looking for things we do right. They don’t have to be big things. Simply acknowledging that you juggled the carpool and your work deadline without a meltdown, deserves a virtual high-five.
- Apologize for your mistakes and work on self-forgiveness. We all screw up. Sometimes these mistakes are pretty benign, like when you’re late picking up your child or you accidentally threw away her favorite toy. But sometimes we make big mistakes – we fail to keep our kids safe, we weren’t there for our kids when they needed us, we rejected or criticized our child. These kinds of mistakes are tough to accept. I think it’s important for Moms (and everyone else) to acknowledge, take responsibility for, and make amends for what we do wrong. (Just be careful that you’re not taking responsibility for things you didn’t cause and couldn’t control. Often, we feel guilty about bad things that happened even when we had no power to control them. You can read more about appropriate vs. inappropriate guilt here.) Working towards self-forgiveness means you stop beating yourself up over past mistakes, are learning to make better choices, and can focus on the present not just on the past.
- Ask for help and seek support. Most of us are very isolated, which makes motherhood even harder. Sometimes it helps to remember that in generations past, mothering was done in an extended family or community; women had help. We can support each other by offering a helping hand, some respite, or a kind word. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and look for groups of supportive mothers to join.
- Prioritize your mental and physical health. Don’t wait until you have the time or money – just do it! Put exercise, going to bed early, coffee with a friend, or time to journal on your calendar and don’t break this commitment to yourself. We all know that we can’t effectively care for others when we don’t take care of ourselves.
We can make motherhood just a little bit easier when we acknowledge our struggles and offer ourselves the same comfort and compassion that we give to others. We don’t have to be so hard on ourselves and feel like we’re not measuring up to a fantasy of a perfect mother. We can set realistic expectations and accept that who we are and what we give our families is enough. I hope you’ll start by saying something kind to yourself today and begin to let go of self-criticism and enjoy yourself and your family just as they are.
©2018 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Photo of mother and child from Unsplash. Photo of heart from Pexels.