Perfection Pursuit: When Parenting Becomes Self-Tyranny

I’ll try not to rant in this article; I really will.  I get riled up about about the perfectionistic expectations that many parents place on themselves, helped along be a society only too keen to tell them to be the best that they can be, in every way.

Full disclosure: I think I may be one of the world’s laziest parents.  While I feel like I’m constantly busy, I’m often scheming about how to get as much done as possible with as little amount of effort.  “Sure,” I (more than once) said to one of my children, “If you really want to wear that stained shirt, you can spot-clean it.”  One less thing for the laundry, at least for now.  On top of all of this, I have never relished domesticity, drawn more to intellectual or quasi-intellectual things, like completing paperwork or paying bills.  I’ll take that over mopping a floor, hands down.

I had 33 years of living before children.  During this time I was blissfully unaware of things like the hierarchy of strollers, competition among mothers and how the quest for perfection in parenting could feel like a very lonely endeavour.

Options, Options…

Speaking of so-called perfection, if we believed the western social messages about the role of parent, we might, for example, be the kind of parent who:

  • Ensures that everyone is on schedule; Has an efficient family routine in place
  • Offers 3 healthy meals a day and three nutritional snacks
  • Organizes and plans all extracurricular activities; activities should be balanced to include exposure to a breadth of experiences
  • Engages in meaningful leisure with their children
  • Ensures that the family receives adequate exercise
  • Reads regularly to their children and also models reading behaviour
  • Disallows television or puts strict limits on it
  • Prohibits or limits sweets and ensures that any treats are home-made.
  • Chooses whole grains over refined ones
  • Volunteers at their children’s school
  • Works outside of the home, at least part-time
  • Is a stay-at-home parent who does e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g
  • Puts effort into their relationship if they are partnered; schedules regular date nights
  • Maintains a calm appearance and handles all parenting dilemmas with equanimity and fairness, using current parenting techniques
  • Stimulates their children’s minds with brain-boosting activities
  • Has children who sleep well and nap regularly
  • Supervises children’s dental and physical hygiene
  • Ensures that all laundry is done, folded – matches all socks
  • Keeps a clean and organized house
  • Has their own hair cut regularly and are stylishly dressed
  • Is eco-friendly, has a compost and teaches these values to the children
  • Helps with homework and acquires extra help as needed
  • Purchases coordinating outfits for their children, which they dutifully wear
  • Maintains a smile, an illusion of control and reports that their children are brilliant in every way, or at least have a ‘specialty’; they do not share their own or their children’s struggles, unless it gets really bad.

Despite what you may be thinking, I’m not dissing any of the above choices; families have the right to make the choices that are best for them and some of them can be pretty wonderful. Things can get problematic when parents put pressure on themselves to accomplish as much of the above as possible, or a constellation of perfectionistic ideals that they have set for themselves. Because when these standards aren’t met, some dangerous thinking can potentially come knocking at the door: you don’t just think you’re a bad parent, but worse, a bad person.

A Vicious Cycle

I liken perfect parenting to dieting.  You “slip” by yelling at your kids and then resolve in your mind that you’ll go back on that perfect parenting diet. You’ll never do it again, you’ll follow the parenting plan 100 per cent and whew, not only will everything be all right forever, you will be alright as a person.  Just stick to the plan.

But, like the research on dieting, perfect parenting isn’t realistic or achievable long-term.  (Unless I have robot potential and don’t know it.) Although I’ve met a lot of closeted imperfect parents, I only know imperfect ones, myself included.  And — this is not to say — that most of the parents I’ve ever met try their hardest to put their children’s needs front and centre and want them to be successful human beings.  Of course, there are exceptions to this. While these exceptions cannot and should not be denied, this article is not about judgement.

Now, I made a confession about being the world’s laziest parent.  It sounds perhaps funny, or that it’s something I totally accept.  Truth is, I sometimes worry that I’m not perfect enough and it is this worry which maintains perfectionism as an ideal that must be attained and maintained, because the alternative is despair–resigning ourselves to badness.  But, sometimes after many years of “dieting,” the mind rebels with “no more.” Time to end the tyranny.  There is no inherent badness.

But does perfectionistic parenting just end?  In my experience, it’s a process and we haven’t “failed” at celebrating imperfection if we have occasional fantasies about perfection, maybe even thoughts about going on a parenting ‘diet’ again.  That’s all part of recovery.

Breaking the Chains

It takes guts to parent in a way that is genuine for you personally while also living in a world where the concept of “supermom” is celebrated – the concept of the parent who can “do it all” and somehow manage to be whole all at the same time.

What’s an aspiring unperfectionist to do?

  • Be ‘Good Enough.’ – I talk about this a lot with clients.  It’s not my idea; it comes from the work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. My take on this is that we express our love to our children in a way that is responsive, yet real.
  • Let Go – One of my favourite topics.  When the mind starts to get squirrelly with worry thoughts, bringing oneself back to the present moment is always a good plan.
  • Accept When You’re At – Insecurity is hard not to feel in this society! Acceptance comes from letting go of perfectionistic cravings – watching them arise and pass in the mind, not attaching to them.
  • Find Likeminded People – If you can find friends who are willing to talk honestly about their experiences this can be extremely validating, not to mention humanizing.
  • Be Real – focus on what is important to you and your family, not society.
  • Self Affirm When you Encounter Resistance – “I’m doing this to be true to myself and my family!”
  • Have a Life Outside of Your Children – things that have nothing to do with them. This helps guard against having ‘all your eggs in one basket.’
  • Create Wiggle Room / Avoid Overscheduling – Make time to do things you enjoy, or even nothing at all!
  • Unperfectionism Does Not Equal Neglect.  It is about finding a realistic balance that both honours and paves the way for a sane way of living for yourself and your family.
  • Keep An Open Mind – Otherwise, unperfectionism too can become just another rigid identity.