Humor me for a moment while I paint a picture of this insidious affliction: I call her the Prancing Lioness. She is the woman who wears the skin-tight spandex exercise attire, fully made up with cosmetics and hairdo, Starbucks decaf latte with nonfat soy milk in recently French-manicured hands. Every highlighted hair in place, fully liposuctioned curves, Botoxed forehead and lips, and don’t forget the Coach bag gently draped over the other arm, which also clutches beloved Junior (her fully decked-out son in head-to-toe labels, not a stain on his clothes nor a smudge on his face). Protective, yes she is, marching her son to the best school in town. After Junior is sufficiently transitioned into his class, she will gather with her clan of sashaying, posturing, gossiping, and competitive mamas. They will compare which advanced music class their child enrolled in, brag of international travel planned over spring break, contrast siblings’ developmental milestones. This banter occurs in mommy-and-me groups, at school with the prancing clan, in the grocery store when the woman in line lectures a new mother to breastfeed ’til her child is 3 and shames her for bottle-feeding, at the park where Suzie only eats organic/homemade baby food grown in the backyard garden, on Facebook, and it goes on and on and on …
I am both appalled and a witness to the phenomenon called “competitive mothering.” This uniquely Western cultural trait afflicts specifically suburban/urban women (and sometimes men) in largely middle/upper-middle class/affluent neighborhoods. A largely bourgeois manifestation announces itself through the facade of “perfect mothering.”
I have a unique angle from which to observe and participate in the travails and wonders that comprise motherhood. You see, I am a therapist specializing in maternal mental health, and I am a mother of two boys, one of which has special needs. I am also no stranger to the subtle and not-so-covert jockeying for position as Alpha Mom—in the schoolyard, in the grocery store, at the park, and among friends and neighbors. This vibe of destructive competition permeates nearly every aspect of suburbia.
Cringe you may, as such a topic oozes through the hush-hush of barely-below-the-surface taboo in white-picket central. But this idea of motherhood needing to be something remotely approaching perfection is a falsehood. And I am here today, along with my colleagues in the field, to bust that myth to smithereens.
Nearly all experts in the maternal mental health field teach their clients about “good enough mothering,” a concept coined by the late British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott. This phrase refers to taking the pressure off oneself as a mother and giving oneself credit where it is due—that more than likely you are doing a fabulous job of raising your child, even when you feel at your wit’s end. We live in a culture in which nothing but perfect will do, and so often it is essential to remind oneself that children thrive when their basic needs (food, clothing, shelter, safety) are provided for, along with a dash of discipline, belonging, nurturance, and love. All mothers (and fathers) need to remind themselves of this reality (therapists included), as the myth of perfection is so intrinsically ingrained in the collective parenting psyche.
In my work as a therapist, I also have the task of simultaneously reminding myself, as I do my clients, of the essential nature of self-care. This concept encompasses living life authentically from the standpoint of prioritizing, letting go of perfectionism and competition, befriending authentic friends and social supports, positively affirming progress and “good enough” mothering/parenting, and activities for stress reduction (exercise, yoga, good nutrition, good sleep hygiene, etc.). Psychotherapy may address maternal guilt, a woman’s relationship with her mother/caregivers, grief aspects of motherhood (identity/role change), balancing work/family, transitioning to parenthood, and perinatal mood/anxiety issues if present. I also do a lot of myth busting with women/caregivers to address deeply held fears and insecurities stemming from cultural myths and expectations imposed upon parents by society as a whole. From my standpoint as a licensed clinical social worker, I am tasked with lending my wisdom from a biopsychosocial perspective, which I find to be deeply fascinating, as my work blends psychology, social work, medicine, anthropology, sociology, and political advocacy.
In terms of my own life wisdom, I am far from perfect in this practice of mothering, and yet I am OK with that now that I am a seasoned mother. It is essential to have compassion for the struggle to be a “good enough” parent and to be proud of what one has accomplished any given day. For I, too, have weathered a storm or two (or 500) and survived, and most importantly, my children are alive and well, although they may have a few stains on their shirt from breakfast, and I think my son went to school with mismatched socks this morning. Pass that Starbucks over here, will you?
Some wonderful works that assist moms with mindful, authentic parenting:
- Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juice Box: Cut Yourself Some Slack (and Still Raise Great Kids) in the Age of Extreme Parenting by Ann Dunnewold, PhD
- Life Will Never Be the Same: The Real Mom’s Postpartum Survival Guideby Ann Dunnewold, PhD, and Diane Sanford, PhD
- Mindful Woman by Sue Patton Thoele
- The Courage to Be Yourself by Sue Patton Thoele
- The Journey to Parenthood: Myths, Reality, and What Really Matters by Diana Lynn Barnes and Leigh Balber
- Self-Nurture: Learning to Care for Yourself as Effectively as You Care for Everyone Else by Alice Domar
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