We know it all too well, don’t we? The pressure to be that perfect mother. The one who is smiling in the grocery store, who looks like she has it all together? The one who is a full-time stay-at-home mother or a full-time working mom and all of the posts on Instagram are of smiling children or “thankful for” posts, who looks like they can juggle it all and smile while doing it. The truth is that this isn’t reality. We compete with ourselves to be the best mom that we can, because everyone else appears to have it all together. We compete with the expectations that we had before we had children. In fact, most of us struggle every day with decisions made that we could have done “better” or “differently.”
We all are hard on ourselves. We want to be the best we can be. The best we can is just that. The best YOU Can. It doesn’t have anything to do with the things that we are being flooded with on Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest. It doesn’t have anything to do with the latest post on Facebook about when to stop breastfeeding or how long to co-sleep with your baby. It doesn’t have anything to do with having a fussy baby that you feel like a failure for not being able to console to sleep, or working and juggling a household. It has to do with letting go of the “should haves” and “I could have dones” and doing what is right for you.
In my work as a therapist, I have come to realize that there are some interesting trends when working with new parents…actually any parent, but mothers in particular. Behind closed doors, questions and insecurities come up. Many new parents struggle with a number of myths of perfectionism. For some, the beliefs that come up are:
“Everyone else has it together. Why am I messing up?” The answer? You aren’t. Everyone else is pretending to have it together, because it is hard to be vulnerable right now. In today’s world, one of social media and expectations of perfection with pictures and posts, it is hard to be real. New moms are already questioning themselves; why would we post a picture of ourselves in the same pajamas as yesterday with no makeup and hair with snarls and bags under our eyes? So, we are already judging ourselves for not being like all the “other moms who have it all together”; we are now expecting to be judged by other moms or just others in general. The fact is that everyone is struggling in his or her own way. Just no one wants to talk about it. It seems that it is easier to pretend that everything is fine than to talk about the reality of parenthood and motherhood and how hard it is. We have seen this in the areas of perinatal depression and anxiety as well as miscarriage. If we could talk about the hard stuff, we might feel better and not so alone in the journey.
“I am so lonely. How do all of these other moms have friends and get out? I can’t even get out of the house some days.” This is a hard one. Having babies at home can be an isolating and difficult time for a lot of parents. Living in the Northwest, those of us who have babies in the winter can struggle with the opportunities to get out and about. Also, in the Northwest, we have a huge population of military families that may not have community connections. Sometimes it takes work to find groups to join in, and feeling like you fit in can add another layer. Remember, that most moms meet other moms in places where there are activities. Many moms who are friends are “new friends.” Even though you may be feeling like your baby has taken you away from your “old friends,” your baby can be a connection for you to develop new relationships. Look for groups at the local libraries, churches, and gyms, like the YMCA. Doing things with your baby where you may bump into another mom doing the same thing takes the pressure off of having to make new mom friends and–BONUS–you get to have new experiences with your little one at the same time.
“I should have my body back by now…” This too is a typical expectation that we have for ourselves. We forget that our bodies, especially after having a baby, have a LOT of work to do because they have done a lot of work to grow a baby inside of us for the past 10 months! Breastfeeding, your stage of the healing process after birth, as well as the type of pregnancy you had all play a role in where you are in the process of “getting your body back.” And let me also remind you that our new bodies will never be the same as our old bodies. Don’t play the comparison game either. Most women, no matter how others perceive them, are struggling with something. So focusing on being healthy and appreciating the journey that your own body is on is priority #1.
“My friend’s baby is sleeping through the night….Mine is awake all night long. Crying.” And other myths about other peoples’ babies sleeping: where they should sleep; sleep training; co-sleeping. Everyone has opinions. Everyone has different experiences. Everyone else’s baby is not your baby. You are the expert on your baby. The need for perfection in this area in particular makes my heart go out to so many of my clients. Not just because they are tired and sleep deprived, but because they are so worried that they are going to make the wrong choice. So paralyzed, in fact, that they are almost frozen in fear to make any choice at all. We want to do it right the first time and without any judgment. The truth is that babies who sleep perfectly all night long are a rarity. The truth is that there is a lot of trial and error. Do what feels right. If you don’t know what options you have and you have heard from every relative and well-meaning friend what you need to do and none of it feels right? Get help. There are therapists and infant sleep support professionals who are more than happy to help you find something that will feel good and be the right choice for you.
So how do we do it? How do we just accept that this is where we are at today and embrace it? To do that, we have to be okay letting go of the expectations that we get bombarded with every single day. Not only do we have to let go of the outside noise, but we also have to let go of some of our own expectations. Here are a few easy tips for getting through.
Mindfulness has made its way back into the limelight, mainly, in my opinion, because today we are living in a world of instant gratification and multitasking. We can look ahead on calendars, and we can check our emails on our phones; we don’t have to be present in the moment like we used to. Especially with our children. Mindfulness is the practice of being able to be present in the moment while at the same time, being aware and recognizing thoughts, feelings, senses, and body. We all know that as parents, we frequently are thinking about the future, the what if’s, busy with the things that really most of the time don’t really matter.
Take time to yourself. It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic and it looks different for everyone. Some may step into a pantry (or yes, closet) to breathe for a few moments. Some may wake up before the household stirs in the morning. How it’s done doesn’t matter sometimes as long as it is done. If you can, ask a partner or friend to support you in this. Let them know that you are asking for support to slip away to regroup, focus, and let go of the expectations of the day.
Breathe. Stress can change how we breathe. Stress can make us hold our breath, or begin to breathe quickly and rapidly, making it hard to catch our breath and can make us feel panicky or trapped. Take a moment each day to focus on your breathing. Be mindful about HOW you are breathing. Feel how your body inhales and exhales. How it feels when you can take long slow breaths and breathe out. Listen to the sounds around you. Feel the surrounding air. Walking alone or with your child can be a particularly mindful exercise. What senses can you use to be present in the moment? What do you hear, what do you see, what do you feel? How are you present in the environment? What do your feet feel like on the ground? Sitting down for tea or coffee in the mornings? Try it then too. Instead of the smells and sounds of the outdoors, notice the smells of your tea or lack of sound in the quiet morning. This exercise can be useful in a variety of ways and places. Find a time that works for you. Practice makes perfect!
Being present. Being in the moment with kids can be hard. There are so many things that need to get done and usually not enough time. Just like it is important to take time for yourself, it is important to try to take a moment to be present with your child. Stop. Look at your child and see if you can really see them. Turn down the distractions of the day in that moment and look at their face. Try and take in the moment. Talk with them if they can talk. Smile at them if they can’t. Have their eyes changed color? Are there changes to their features that you haven’t noticed? Are they getting taller? Funnier? Are there developmental things that you didn’t notice or have time to sit with until now? How does their voice sound? What do they smell like? Sometimes during hard times, this can be the most grounding exercise that a parent can do. And other days, it is easier done when you tiptoe to their room at night to watch them as they sleep. Try to be present with your child in the best way you can. The benefits are mutual and can deepen a sense of belonging and can at times hit a “redo” button in our day.
We don’t have to be the perfect Pinterest moms with pictures of our smiling babies, talking about how wonderfully they [insert: breastfeed, co-sleep, sleep in crib, nap, eat solids, are growing, weighing, etc.] with the entire world. We just have to be okay in the moment. Letting go of the expectations that we put on ourselves, that the outside world puts on us, and that we put on each other can be emotionally and physically freeing. Appreciate the little things. Be present in the moment and accept that the choices you are making are the best choices for you. And if you are feeling like you aren’t the most perfect, “got it all together” parent? You’re probably doing better than you think. And if you feel like you need help? You’re not alone. There is help out there and don’t be ashamed to ask. You’ve got this.
Teresa M. Eltrich-Auvil, MS, LMHC.
Picket Fence Therapy & Consulting, LLC, Puyallup WA