The Perfect Parent Myth Is Zapping Our Joy

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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When my first child was a toddler, I started following a few crafting blogs. I will tell you that I can’t craft for shit, but these blogs made it sound so easy to just knit up a few pair of adorable mittens, or throw together a papier-mâché basket with my 2-year-old. And it seemed to me that these crafty mamas had it all: beautiful kids making beautiful things in their beautiful homes.

As a parent, I wasn’t constantly feeling the #bliss that I was sure I was meant to be feeling, and I thought somehow that crafting my ass off like these picture-perfect moms would be the thing that would make me feel whole and happy.

So for a few months, I would open my computer every morning to read up on the newest creations these women had concocted, all while parenting their gorgeous kids who were photographed frolicking through the woods in handmade sweaters, and licking homemade jam off homemade bread on their repurposed weathered oak farmhouse dining tables.

And let’s not forget that these women seemed to do all this while somehow hustling a living wage on the side. Basically, they had it all — I was sure of it — and they were the kinds of mothers who were parenting goals for me in those first few optimistic, idealistic (naive) years of parenting.

But these blogs were also among the triggers that drove me into a head-on anxiety crisis the summer my son turned 2 1/2. I am not saying they were the sole thing that drove me over the edge, but it was this painful need for everything about my parenting to be perfect (at least to me) and for me to be able to do it all while maintaining my sanity, and clean home, and making a living wage that broke me.

Because absolutely no mom can do it all, do it well, and stay sane — and the idea that this kind of thing might be in reach is not only bullshit, but can create or exacerbate very serious problems like the panic and anxiety I was experiencing, as well as other mental health issues like depression, OCD, or PTSD.

Not only that, but striving for perfection can totally rob you of any ounce of contentment that parenting might offer. Remember: Your kids don’t care about what your parenting looks like. As in, they don’t care if the jam is homemade, or the dining room table looks good in photographs. They care how it feels to be in your care. Is there happiness, love, warmth, and fun? Then they’re set.

After that panic-inducing summer (and several years of therapy later), my anxiety is in a much better place. I have fully embraced the fact that I will never have a picture-perfect life as a mom, and that I should pretty much never look at someone else’s life and think it’s perfect either.

I’m sure those crafting mama bloggers had their fair share of pain, but they could pick and choose what they wanted to share with the world. And the same is true of pretty much all the parents that you encounter — either on social media or otherwise.

No one knows what it’s like to be you but you. And no one knows what you need as a parent or even what your children need. After the summer I cracked under the pressure of trying to be a perfect parent, I adopted a new parenting philosophy: I call it the “whatever works” philosophy of parenting — or when I am feeling sassy, the “I don’t give a fuck” method of parenting.

Here’s what this particular parenting “method” looks like.

It means that sometimes your kids spend pretty much all day in their pajamas playing video games, and other days you go out as a family and have non-stop fun from dusk till dawn.

It means that your decision whether to breastfeed/formula-feed, co-sleep/cry-it-out, school/homeschool, work/stay home is based on what works best for your family at that moment in your journey, and not based on what anyone else does with their family or says you should do.

It means that you get to change up how you do things sometimes when something isn’t working. Why? Just because you’ve learned a better way, and you’re going to go with that.

It means you get to say yes only to the parenting obligations that suit your personality and the personality of your kids, recognizing that we all have different needs and temperaments.

It means recognizing that all decisions parents make can only be understood if you literally stand in their shoes — in their kitchens at the “witching hour,” or in their bedrooms at 2 a.m. when the baby is up again.

It means that you strive not to judge other parents on the choices they make and realize that it takes all kind of families and styles to make this world a beautiful, interesting place.

And it means not judging yourself too harshly for mistakes you may have made in one of your endless attempts to find happiness and balance in your often chaotic, full life.

Maybe most importantly, it means that we all must take our mental health seriously, and that of our kids, recognizing that the best way for us to feel good is to nurture our health, well-being, and inner balance — which has little to do with what our lives may look like from the outside.

Let me tell you: Once you stop rushing around striving for some unattainable ideal, you will start to feel that emotion that led you to become a parent in the first place. It’s called joy, and it’s in abundance if you take some time to just be as a parent.

So that one last work email can wait. You can leave the dishes in the sink tonight. And don’t feel bad about your third trip to the McDonald’s drive-thru this week. Take some time to be as imperfect as you wish. Snuggle your kids. Talk to them. Laugh with them.

If you let go of perfection, the joy is right there, for the taking.

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