Sometimes, it’s the things moms hear: What are you going to do all day now that you’re a stay-at-home mom? How can you stand to be away from them so many hours a day now that you’re back to work? Have you tried … attachment parenting? Babywise? The Ferber method? Cutting out gluten? Cutting out sugar? Cutting his hair? And you know you should … breastfeed for a year and not allow more than one hour of screen time and have her tested for speech delay and make sure you find a church and a sport they really like – it’s so important!
And sometimes, it’s the things moms see: Family face-vacations to exotic beaches (you know, vacation photos on Facebook), brand-new (or just clean!) homes, moms with ... really awesome, flexible careers and who volunteer daily in the class and actually play with their kids and decorate cupcakes for every occasion and have that car/purse/husband/figure.
Together or separately, moms cite many of these examples as reasons why they feel their best efforts are never good enough. “To compare is to despair,” says Samantha Parent Walravens, editor of Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood (Coffeetown Press, 2011). But then why do we do it? And why do we expect the parenting priorities of others to align with ours? “Part of the problem is there are so many expert opinions and so much information out there,” Walravens says, a mother of four from Tiburon, Calif. “I think parents tend to internalize things – and then they project that onto other mothers.”
If these pressures are left unchecked, more serious problems can arise. Michelle Karl, Arvada, Colo., licensed therapist, sees women who are feeling “exhausted, trapped, overwhelmed and guilty because they haven’t done everything … which feeds into self-doubt and a dislike of themselves.”
Similarly, Caroline Goldmacher Kern, licensed therapist in New Rochelle, N.Y., says, “By the time someone comes to me, [feelings of pressure] have manifested themselves in depression and anxiety. But it often goes back to a lack of confidence, self-esteem, or a lack of a strong family when you were a child. It absolutely impacts our parenting, until we learn how to let it go.”
But how? Like parenting, it’s easier said than done, but when you identify the source of the pressure, you can begin, in time, to strike a balance that works for your family.
Often, women and men make choices to parent a certain way based on what they experienced (or didn’t experience) as a child. “This can be wonderful, because it is the beginning piece of self-awareness,” says Karl. Another part of being self-aware, though, is looking at the outcome of a choice and making sure it works for your family. “For example, maybe your parents didn’t ever take the time to talk to you, so you say ‘we are going to sit down and talk every day.’ But your kids may be different, and there may be a time when they don’t want to do that. Or maybe you took your kid out of daycare because you didn’t like being in one. But you might have a really social kid who enjoys that more than being home.” Whatever the motivation behind your parenting choices, “Don’t just push it through because it is what you want,” Karl says.
Kern, too, suggests assessing your motivation for doing things. When it comes to enrolling your kids in a specific class or sport, she says, “Ask yourself if you are doing it to keep up with the Joneses. Or is it something your kids would actually enjoy?” If it’s the former, it might be an activity you can do without.
Westchester mom of two Hanadi Zakour (and co-founder of www.westch
In workshops on balancing motherhood that Karl leads, she coaches parents to identify what is most fulfilling to them, and then start to eliminate the things that are neither fulfilling nor necessary. For many, it is a difficult task. “Often, we feel more complete when we check tangible things off of a list instead of settling ourselves into the present moment. People always say, ‘Oh the time goes by fast,’ but we speed it up.”
For Walravens, who has been a full-time working mom, a stay-at-home mom and, currently, a part-time working mom, she believes that working from home as a writer part-time is the best balance for her. “Some people enjoy the home, but for me, writing gives me a sense of purpose, and I feel I have completed something.”
Experts and many parents agree that the pressures are a mix of expectations/comments from others, in addition to pressure they put on themselves. Often, the impact of what someone says, “depends on how vulnerable you feel when you hear it,” says Kern. “Some people just like to talk, and that can make others anxious around them.” And it’s also important to remember that parents who talk a lot don’t necessarily know more about parenting. “It’s not true about everyone, but in general, when you feel you are getting a lot of judgment from another person, it is often because that person feels insecure about something,” says Karl.
When it comes to putting pressure on yourself, “[All of my clients] struggle with some sort of insecurity because they love their kids so much,” Karl says. “Both working and stay-at-home moms worry about what they are not doing well, it is just different things. Moms want to protect their kids, and one way they do that is by trying to control things.”
But it’s not all bad. Pressure from others can sometimes help us change for the better or learn something new about ourselves. Lici McCuistion, a mom of two from Arvada, Colo., discovered this when she made the choice to be a stay-at-home mom. “I saw other moms volunteering, so I decided to try it, and I found my niche,” McCuistion says. “I know more about the school, I feel I am a part of something bigger and feel more connected to my community.” She began volunteering in her school library, and says it gave her confidence to become involved in other ways, like becoming a Girl Scout leader. “I’ve learned to deal with different personality types, work as a team, balance when to listen and when to suggest an idea. It is fulfilling to me, and I’ll be able to adapt these skills when I start a career later.”
When it comes to behavior, be open to the idea that others might have a positive way of parenting that you want to adopt. “If you hang out with a mom that is really calm with her kids, and it makes you want to be calmer, that’s good,” says Kern, “as long as it is on your terms.”
When Walravens was busy finishing her book, a friend told her she’d overheard neighborhood ladies saying that they never see Walravens with her children, and that it seemed they were always with a babysitter. “I was so hurt, and I felt really judged,” she remembers. “I called one of the women, told her what I had heard, and said, ‘I am doing the best that I can.’ Women from my generation were told we should be able to do it all. But we have to prioritize. I’m no superwoman, and I tell my kids this every day.”
Likewise, Kern urges mothers to remember that what we see as “failings” in ourselves can actually help our children develop different strengths as they grow. “The goal is not to be perfect,” she says. “Kids are extremely resilient. They need love, safety, food, shelter and the rest is up for grabs. Our goal is to be good enough, and if there is something that we are not doing for our kids, they will learn to do it for themselves.”
Lydia Rueger is a freelance journalist.
A Good Enough Parent: A Book on Child-Rearing, by Bruno Bettelheim, Vintage, 1988. Written by a child psychologist, this book is the result of his lifelong effort to determine what is most crucial in successful child-rearing.
Good Enough is the New Perfect, by Becky Beaupre Gillespie and Hollee Schwartz Temple, Harlequin, 2011. Firsthand accounts and research of working mothers that shows a shift from a “Never Enough” attitude to a “Good Enough” attitude as a path to creating balance.
Mommy Wars, edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner, Random House, 2007. A collection of 26 essays by writers who are either working moms or stay-at-home moms.
Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood, edited by Samantha Parent Walravens, Coffeetown Press, 2011. A collection of real life stories about striking the right balance between career and motherhood.
Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Karyl McBride, Ph.D., Atria Books, 2009. Advice and guidance specifically for daughters who were raised by narcissistic mothers.