Growing up, many of us were taught to do as we were told, don’t disrupt the norm, and don’t disappoint others. This leads to a perfectionist mindset where we can never do anything right or never be good enough. There will always be someone who is let down, disagrees, or finds something unacceptable. Even if we were happy with our decision, and it was the right decision for us, we are made to feel guilty because it wasn’t the right decision for others.
We become so focused on doing things the “right” way to please others, that it becomes our main objective. Pleasing others, doing things “right”, and not upsetting anyone becomes more important than what is truly right for us. We become perfectionists for everyone else, but to what end? What are we trying to achieve? Who are we trying to make happy?
Perfectionism in parenting is usually deeply rooted in guilt. If I don’t do X with my child, they will end up like Y, and never be able to Z. Fill in X, Y, and Z with any number of fears. I hear fears from parents about breastfeeding, developmental milestones, manners, picky eating, and the list goes on and on. Parents think they have a duty to groom or mold their children into who they want them to be, and if it doesn’t work they’ve failed as parents.
“I have to breastfeed or my child won’t be healthy.”
What about the babies that are bottle fed or formula fed? Are they unhealthy? Will they have worse outcomes as adults because of this? What path, in your mind, is a child on that breastfeeds vs formula feeds? Are these ideas fact based or are they unrealistic fears? Where did you get these ideas? Ask yourself these questions for any number of fears or misconceptions you may have.
“I have to co-sleep or my baby won’t bond with me.”
“I have to keep my toddler happy or they will throw a tantrum and embarrass me.”
“My child has to play sports or they won’t fit in.”
“My child has to get good grades or they won’t get into college and they’ll never find a job.”
When you find yourself having this narrative in your head, ask yourself where it came from. Who told you that? Why do you think that? Is it true, or is it an assumption you’ve made? Personally, I find that it comes from guilt I received from my own parents as a child. I don’t even believe in the shame or have those fears any longer, but somehow that pattern of thinking is hard-wired in me. It’s been a slow and steady process of rewiring over the past couple of years. As a recovering perfectionist, I know first-hand the struggle parents (especially mothers) go through on a daily basis with their children. It takes a conscious effort to rewire your brain. Finding a good therapist can be extremely helpful.
Parents today have a strong desire to be accepted by others and society. They are constantly striving to do their best when in actuality it isn’t their best, it’s what they perceive as the socially accepted definition of best. Instead of worrying about what others think is best for you, work on internalizing that narrative. If you make a decision that’s right for you but may disappoint someone else, is that ok? Can you look at that potential disappointment objectively and weigh your options to make the best decision for you? Instead of worrying about how something made someone else feel, look inward and ask if it aligns with your values and needs. Do you feel like you did your best?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be good or do good things. We all want to be good parents. But when we strive for perfection, we expect perfection from our children, and then we create discord. We have unrealistic expectations of our children, they will learn that they cannot rely on us to support them unconditionally, and we harm our relationship with them.
Our children are their own people. They’ve chosen their own paths and are on their own journeys. I don’t even consider myself a guide anymore. My daughter is already on her path. Perfectionism makes me believe I need to guide, or pave, or clear a way for her. That implies that I know where her path should lead and I will try to push her toward that goal. Instead, I am on this journey with her, walking alongside her. I don’t need to point out every turn and tell her which way to go. She needs to make those choices herself, knowing that if/when she needs me I am here.
I see parents struggling with perfectionism in many forms, especially when talking to mothers about sleep. They have an idea of what’s “best” even though they may not have looked at all the options or thought through what they really want. I see it when parents have an idea of what’s “best” that clearly does not align with their child’s temperament. I see it when a child struggles and parents assume that the child just doesn’t listen, can’t do it, will fail, or end up missing out on something in the future. Typically these are fears the parents have that they are projecting onto their child with no regard to how that fear affects their child.
Each day I will continue to work on my departure from perfectionism. I will remind myself that there is no one right answer. That my way may not be the best way for my child. That I do not need to guide her, push her, or sway her toward a certain goal. She will figure it out, with my love and support, knowing that whatever decision she makes I’ve got her back. And I also need to show the same love and support to myself when I make mistakes or don’t do it right.
Alyssa is a Certified Elite Postpartum & Infant Care Doula, Newborn Care Specialist, and Certified Infant & Child Sleep Consultant. She teaches Newborn Survival, Tired As a Mother, and The Becoming a Mother Course.