Parenting: The struggle to be the perfect Mum will only stress you out

There’s a growing legion of mums who’ve given up trying to be perfect, and they are not afraid to talk about it online, says Andrea Mara, who discovers that striving for excellence is not only stressful for parents but also for their children.

Andrea Mara and her daughters.
Andrea Mara and her daughters.

MOTHERS: You need to get up an hour before everyone else in the family, plan chores around the school run, and don’t even think about giving up your job. 

I’m paraphrasing, but this is some of the advice given by author Samantha Ettus in her newly published book The Pie Life

Is this what stressed and stretched mothers need to hear? 

What about real mums — the ones who struggle to get up in the morning, often forget which child has PE today, and sometimes dish up beans on toast for dinner?

When I first started blogging, I planned to write “honestly” about parenting — to confess the failures and to avoid the sugar-coating. 

I thought I was being original at the time, but three years later, I’ve realised that a huge number of blogs give honest accounts of parenting, and they’re very popular with readers, because, of course, most of us are failing at least some of the time, and we all feel better knowing we’re not alone.

It’s not just bloggers who are talking about it. Friends often compare stories of upturned bowls of pasta, potty training gone wrong, and mortifying supermarket meltdowns. 

It was also on our cinema screens recently, in Bad Moms, a film about mothers who are fed up with trying to be perfect. 

There’s a scene in which mums confess their shortcomings: One says her kids haven’t washed for three weeks and another admits she can’t tell her twins apart. 

There’s something very cathartic about confessing to our failings, or even just witnessing others do it.

When we think of competitive parents, we think of the stereotype, the mum who brags about making kelp and goji berry smoothies, while teaching French to her toddler who has never seen a cartoon in his life.

However, in real life, it’s unlikely there is much of that going on. 

For as long as I’ve been a parent, my friends and I have been sharing stories of our (perceived) shortcomings, and coming away feeling all the better for it. It’s a new type of parental competitiveness: Who is doing it worst?

Aisling Özdemir, the Irish blogger behind Fazed and Confused, says people feel better after seeing the less pretty side of parenting.

“I love to hear about other people’s imperfections — it’s a heady drug and makes me feel smug and perfect for all of three seconds. 

Who didn’t love to see Jo Frost enter someone’s home and tear their parenting skills to strips; it was car crash TV and I tutted along with everyone else about how I would never make those mistakes. 

Ten years later and I’ll plead the Fifth on that.”

The mum of three says she doesn’t know how to be anything but honest.

“I have been told many times that I have no filter. I feel that it’s important, as women, to be seen to be human; it is immensely scary to bring a new baby home from the hospital without being bombarded with people telling you that their kid slept through the night from day one or that their toddler cannot get enough of kale.”

No sleep-deprived mother wants to hear about how amazing anyone else is doing. 

I have blurred memories of those early days, crying on any available shoulder. 

I needed sympathy, listening ears, and coffee, not stories of babies who were sleeping better than mine. 

Incidentally, what you don’t need is your confidante to reply with her own story and then steal the floor. 

Sometimes, you just need to be heard, without having to compete about who has it worse.

But where imperfect parenting comes into its own is not so much about the tough sleepless nights, but our shortcuts and shortcomings on foot of those sleepless nights, or, indeed, whatever prevents us from making a home-cooked dinner or switching off the cartoons.

Last week, I confessed to a friend that I’d left the TV on for three hours on Sunday morning so that I could meet a work deadline.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I didn’t even have a deadline. Mine were on the iPad all morning because I was wrecked after a night out.” See? Better already.

Laura Moran, mum of two and blogger at Confessions of an Irish Mammy finds that, generally, people don’t want airbrushing.

“I think people like to hear what really goes on in your home and how you take the easy, less-healthy option sometimes, because it’s real. 

“I don’t feel particularly good about my parenting skills when I go onto Instagram and people are showing pictures of their immaculately clean, well-behaved kids doing fancy arts and crafts while they eat hummus and carrot sticks, and, meanwhile, mine are seeing who can fart louder and eating a box of Frubes.

“When I share a story on my blog, I hit ‘post’ and every single time I think ‘oh God, people are going to think I’m a weirdo’, and, instead, I get comments about how they’re so glad they’re not the only one having a bad day.”

Sinéad Fox (bumblesofRice.com) runs a “real dinners” interview series on her blog to show most people eat normal food.

“We have this idea that others eat fancy food every day while the reality is very different; I’ve found people love the reassurance that what they eat is normal,” says the mum of three.

“Most families have ‘beige dinners’ or quick pasta meals that would not be considered Instagram-worthy, but keep everyone fed between getting in from school or work, getting the dreaded homework done, and getting back out the door to training or swimming lessons. Sharing our everyday real-life meals shows that we’re all in the same boat, and lessens the guilt for parents who can’t produce a roast dinner on a Tuesday afternoon.

“Real parents feed their kids what they know they’ll eat, and seeing other families having waffles or pasta and cheese is reassuring when that’s all you had time to prepare today.”

The mother of them all, so to speak, is Scary Mommy, a US parent blog turned content site with an incredible 2.3 million Facebook followers. Founder Jill Smokler says she started it out of loneliness and desperation.

“I was in a new neighbourhood with two little kids and an infant and didn’t know a soul. Everyone I met seemed to be effortless, skipping through motherhood, while I was falling apart. 

“The blog allowed me to vent and connect with moms who were actually like me. For years it truly was a lifeline and a way to cope with the chaos and insanity of motherhood.”

Parent coach Aoife Lee (parentsupport.ie) sees it in practice all the time.

“When parents get together, it’s very natural for them to talk about their children, whether it’s the stages they’re at, or the challenges they’re trying to work through. It’s a comfort and a healthy release. 

“The one common piece of feedback I get after these group discussions is that parents feel a sense of relief that they’re ‘not the only one’.”

Here’s the question, though: Are we all fooling ourselves, gaining comfort from our shared confessions at the expense of our fish-finger eating, iPad-watching kids? What do children really need from their mothers?

“Children who experience their mothers as warm, affectionate and sensitive to their physical and emotional needs, and know they will be available to them for emotional support, protection or comfort when needed, tend to develop good self-esteem and feel confident about their place in the world,” says clinical psychologist Dr Katherine O’Hanlon.

“They also develop higher levels of empathy, resilience, and emotional intelligence, which have a life-long positive impact on their behaviour, relationships, and ability to cope with stress and adversity. 

“Children whose mothers also place reasonable and consistent boundaries around their behaviour feel safe and secure and are able to try new things, test limits and develop self-control within a safe environment.”

Indeed, research consistently shows that this style of parenting (often called ‘authoritative’) has the best outcomes for children. Authoritative parents are nurturing and responsive, and show respect for children as independent beings.

They have high standards for behaviour, but also emphasise the reasons for rules, rather than expecting children to comply just because they are children.

“If you’re doing your best to show and tell your children on a daily basis that you love them, respect them and are trying to understand them, and you’re helping them to develop their own capacity to understand and regulate their emotions and behaviour, then you’re doing great,” says O’Hanlon.

What, though, if we slip up? Actually, that’s OK and, in fact, trying to be perfect is not only stressful for parents, but sends the wrong message to children.

“If someone is really perfectionistic, a lot of the time their compassion for themselves is very low — they might have a zero tolerance for anything but perfection,” says counselling psychologist Sinéad Benn.

“People who are self-compassionate are actually more responsible for their actions because they’re not shut down by shame, so, as a parent, being a perfectionist is modelling a lack of self-compassion. 

“If you have the ability to be imperfect and, if your children see you striving for understanding and compassion, that’s a great gift, because it allows them to have compassion for themselves.”

So what do they need most in order to thrive?

“It’s all about connection; it’s important that they’re heard, that they’re held, and that their feelings are validated,” says Benn.

“It’s also important that they can make mistakes and make amends afterwards. If you help your child recognise their own emotions and put them in words, and help them manage them in healthy ways, you’ve done huge work.”

It’s time mums cut themselves some slack. 

We may not dish up a home-cooked dinner every night, but tuning into our children, offering hugs when needed, is worth more than all kelp and goji berry smoothies in the world.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

Email Updates

Receive our lunchtime briefing straight to your inbox

More in this Section

The horrors of WWII through the eyes of an Irishman

Is there room to be authentic in a world full of selfies and filters?

Technology in school is about collaboration and ideas - not passively swiping at a screen

Are left-handed people in their right minds?


Lifestyle

Genesis of rivalry is still there says guitarist Steve Hackett

Is there room to be authentic in a world full of selfies and filters?

The horrors of WWII through the eyes of an Irishman

Technology in school is about collaboration and ideas - not passively swiping at a screen

More From The Irish Examiner