Carla Barnhill knows a stereotype of perfection when she sees one, especially when it involves mothers. As senior editor of Christian Parenting Today, an evangelical publication, she meets many women who are striving valiantly, and not always successfully, to fulfill their church's idealized expectations of child-rearing.
"The definition of what makes you a good Christian is: You are a good mother," says Mrs. Barnhill, who explores the subject in a new book, "The Myth of the Perfect Mother." Many evangelical churches, she explains, portray the "good" Christian mother as someone who is "always loving, always patient, always happy, always ready to serve her family."
As women's roles and responsibilities have expanded in recent decades, so has the degree to which they are judged - or judge themselves - as successful mothers. These days, social observers say, a growing religious conservatism is intensifying stereotypes of maternal perfection. At the same time, secular culture creates its own expectations of perfection. As Barnhill, who has two children, notes, magazines portray the "good mom" as someone who is "very creative and loves making smiley faces on sandwiches." This time of year, she's also expected to create perfect holidays for her family.
Call this approach to parenthood the new momism, extreme mothering, intensive mothering, or exclusive mothering. Whatever the name, this romanticized version of motherhood takes many forms, secular and sacred.
"Most of my images have come from TV shows, Hallmark greetings, Norman Rockwell, Martha Stewart, and the 'perfect' churchwoman," says Susan Wehrley, a mother in Brookfield, Wis. "They're all illusions of motherhood."
For those trying to be the "perfect churchwoman," the pressure can be subtle. "I don't think the church has intentionally gone out and said, 'A mother has to look like this,' " Barnhill says. "This has grown out of good intentions. As the church has felt more threatened by the secular culture, there's been an effort to circle the wagons around the family and create a sense of safety."
In the secular world, the quest for perfection manifests itself in other ways. When Christine Walker was expecting her first child, well-meaning friends and even strangers peppered her with guilt-producing questions: Are you exercising? Taking prenatal vitamins? Avoiding caffeine? Staying away from certain foods?
"The striving to be the perfect mom begins when you're pregnant," says Mrs. Walker, a mother of three in Winnetka, Ill. Noting that this striving continues through every stage of child-rearing, she adds, "The pressure to be Martha-Stewart-meets-June-Cleaver is really hard."
For Jamie Farrell of Revere, Mass., even bottle- feeding her baby, rather than breastfeeding, drew critical comments from others. "If you use formula, you are made to feel almost criminal," she says. "I felt I could never be a 'perfect mother' because I wasn't able to perform something that is presented as such a simple task."
Some women look to their own mothers as models - and come up short by comparison. "My mom never used a cake mix," says Mary Boone of Tacoma, Wash. "Everything was from scratch. I can't even tell you the last time I baked something from scratch."
And then there is that other beloved icon of perfection, June Cleaver. By today's standards of parenthood, she had it easy. "June Cleaver never worried about whether she breastfed long enough, if she should get sealants on her kids' teeth, or if the favors she chose for her 3-year-old's birthday party would be well received," says Stephanie Gallagher, author of "The Gallagher Guide to the Baby Years." Calling herself a "recovering perfectionist," she adds, "I've agonized over those things and more."
Debates about working or not working also produce insidious doubts. Most days, Mrs. Boone feels relatively satisfied with her ability to mother her two preschoolers. But on Thursdays, everything changes. That's the day she takes her 4-year-old daughter to ballet class. As the only working mother in the group, Boone feels a nagging inadequacy as the others talk about their children's many activities.
"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.
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."