Motherhood climbs back on the pedestal
Many women feel heavy pressure - from peers, church, themselves - to be 'perfect' moms
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"They're giving their kids all these great opportunities, and here I am, working," says Boone, a writer. At the same time, she knows that even great opportunities have limits. One mother proudly explained that her young daughter is taking a Japanese language class and a ski class. Soon she'll even begin a Japanese ski class, where all the instruction is in Japanese. "This girl is only 4 years old!" sputters Boone.Skip to next paragraph
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Maternal overreaching also troubles Faulkner Fox, author of "Dispatches From a Not-So-Perfect Life." She calls herself "very concerned" about the stereotypes of perfection that lead some mothers to think that "a child should speak Portuguese at 18 months.
Beyond the subtle messages delivered by religion and popular culture, ideals of perfection have roots in other sources as well. "A lot of this pressure for some women is to impress their man," says Amy Quinn, a supervisor in an advertising agency in Providence, R.I. "There are men who have expectations for their wives, and they communicate that."
But for her, as for many women, much of the pressure is self-imposed. Mrs. Quinn enjoys a weekly playgroup with five other mothers and babies. When it's her turn to host the group, she frets about the menu.
"Lunch has become this competitive thing, although it's not spoken about," Quinn says. "You wouldn't dare go to the market and buy something already prepared." When she used canned soup - shhh, don't tell - she added chicken and spinach to give it a homemade flavor.
As mothers become more involved in managing children's daily lives than they used to be, even the best intentions can have unintended consequences. The pressure to help offspring achieve and succeed is wearing mothers down, Boone finds.
Yet women press on because they think it's the only way to help their children get into their dream college, says Lisa Jacobson, CEO of Inspirica, a New York company that specializes in tutoring. "But in reality these children are never really taught the life skills they need to manage their own lives. In the end, many kids report that the strategy backfires. Overmanaging sends a message that the parents don't believe the kids can do it themselves. The kids are ill-prepared to go out on their own."
To begin changing the culture of perfection, Barnhill would like to see an end to the silence that keeps mothers from talking honestly about their concerns. Within churches, she says, "We hold motherhood up as the most important thing you'll ever do with your life, but you're not allowed to complain about it, struggle with it, have questions about it, talk about it. We don't acknowledge the complexity and difficulty of it in church."
In evangelical culture, she continues, "we don't want to talk about the things that happen in our lives. We're afraid of the judgment we might get from our fellow Christians. If we share a problem, we may be met with something that doesn't feel compassionate. Someone might say, 'Well, you'll have to pray harder,' or 'You need to get your act together.' That creates a certain amount of shame for us."
Some churches, Barnhill says, also send messages from the pulpit that the perfect mother should home-school her children. "Home schooling is a great thing to do if you think it's the best thing. But there are people who have gone into it not because they think it's the best thing for their child, but because it's what they think they should do."
Whatever choices mothers make, Rosemary Forrest of Aiken, S.C., favors what she calls the "good enough" model. Like every parent, she says she sometimes "blew it" in raising her two daughters. But, she adds, "I was good enough, which is no easy thing. No one can live up to 'perfect.' It communicates something wrong to the kids as well."
Proposing a truce among mothers, Boone urges women to determine their priorities and be at peace with that. "When you hear someone say, 'My daughter is taking a Japanese ski class,' you can think, well, good for them, but that doesn't fit with where our family's priorities are."