Why Perfectionism And Motherhood Is Such A Toxic Mix

by Karen Johnson
Rebecca Nelson / Getty Images

Okay, truth time. I’m living a big fat lie. Well, really just to my kids. I’m not talking about Santa, or the Tooth Fairy, or why Mommy and Daddy sometimes go “talk” behind closed doors. What I lie about is different, and frankly, a whole lot worse.

Every time I tell my kids it’s okay to fail, I’m lying. Every time I say it’s okay to not be perfect, I’m lying. Because I don’t believe it. But I say it anyway so that hopefully they don’t end up like me.

I don’t know where it came from. And to be honest, I didn’t even realize how big a part of me it was until adulthood—until motherhood kicked me in the ass and knocked me off of my pedestal of over-achieving stardom. And I’m still clawing my way back up, 10 years later.

My first pregnancy was perfect. No medical issues. Barely any morning sickness. I went to the gym every day, rocked the cute “all belly” look, and my face still looked like my face. And I had boobs for the first time in my life. My delivery was smooth (as smooth as your first time pushing out a 9-lb. human can be). So far, I was killing it at motherhood.

Until, oh, about 48 hours later. On the second day at my new job, my son wouldn’t latch, and he was hungry. Day 3 was much of the same. As were days 4, 5, and 6. In fact, for the first eight weeks of his life, I watched my fat rolly-polly baby lose those rolls. I heard him cry all day as he thrashed back and forth, refusing to eat. And I felt hot tears on my cheeks. I was failing.

And in the midst of breastfeeding struggles, his baby acne began. And spread. And stayed. For months. I later learned he was actually fighting a form of eczema that his ridiculous mom (who had her heart set on framed Anne Geddes-esque photos all over the house) was making worse by scrubbing every day.

Four years later, I can remember when he was in preschool, filling out his “Star of the Week” poster. A project all about him, to be full of things he was proud of. But he wrote his J backwards. At FOUR. The teachers had told me to not correct him. He’ll figure it out, they said. But what could it hurt to gently point it out, I thought? This poster was going on the wall in the classroom. With a giant backwards J?! I was doing him a favor, really.

Did he end up erasing it and turning his J around? Yep. Am I proud of that moment? Nope.

Am I proud of frantically washing his baby face so he’d look “cuter” for pictures and meeting family and friends for the first time? Nope.

And am I proud of cringing when he couldn’t dribble the basketball as well as other kids? Or when my daughter’s hair is a mess and I argue with her about letting me put a barrette in? Or if they help me fold laundry and the towels aren’t in symmetrical rectangles and I re-do them? Nope. Nope. And nope.

I am almost 38 years old. I am a mother to three beautiful, perfectly unique children, who were made just as they were supposed to be made. One is a bookworm and smarter than most adults he meets. He’s a little scatter-brained and is always inventing things, having at least three projects going at once. My daughter is the kindest soul I know—always showering everyone she loves with gifts and cards and hand-made treasures. She’s the messiest of the kids, but usually because she’s making a craft for Daddy or a home for her stuffed sloth so he’ll feel warm and safe. And my little guy is hilarious and unpredictable and naturally very athletic. He sneaks snacks and pushes the limits and still sleeps in our bed a few nights a week so he can snuggle up to us.

And, truthfully, I want them to fail. All of them. I want them to get used to it. I want them to embrace it and learn from it and realize that it is not a reflection on their character or work ethic. I want them to know that the happiest, most successful people in the world have only attained that ideal by trudging through failures.

I can hear myself say these words, but I still don’t believe them about myself.

Yet I know they are true. I know that when my kids are real, authentic, “normal” even, that it doesn’t mean I have failed somehow. I know objectively that if one of them has a cavity at the dentist next month that I haven’t failed by giving them too much sugar or not barking at them to floss more. I know in my mind that every grade doesn’t have to be an A, and every person we meet doesn’t need to think they are the coolest kids ever (even though they are).

But sometimes my rational brain is overcome by my insecurities. And my anxiety and need for perfection. But my kids don’t deserve that kind of mom. Because frankly, it’s an exhausting, unrealistic ideal. They’ll never get there. I’ll never get there.

So how do I do it? How do I teach my kids that there is no perfect? That being an over-achiever at the expense of your own mental health and at the expense of relationships with your loved ones is not a good life? I guess I do it by failing, myself. By putting myself out there. By letting them put themselves out there. By accepting what real looks like. And by holding hands and catching each other as we fall.

Today, I will not re-fold the towels. I will let my daughter do her own hair. I will embrace the mess they make because it means they are doing creative things. And I will be proud of my perfectly imperfect family.