Perfectionistic Motherhood: What To Do When You Hit Your Breaking Point

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“Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s preventing us from taking flight.”

– Brene Brown

After three weeks of cleaning snot, waking up to screams every hour, and administering medicine injections to a kicking and screaming toddler, I started to feel like I was vigorously treading water in the middle of the ocean. My head was barely above the surface, and I was gasping for what seemed like my last breaths. At some point in situations like this you surrender, stop treading, and let the ocean pull you into in its grip so it can swallow you whole. This is because you finally realize, “What’s the point of treading? I’m not going to make it out of this alive anyway.” Just then, when you decide to surrender, an amazing thing happens: fear no longer exists. You’ve made a decision to move with the ocean instead of against it, and finally you’re at peace with what is.

Sometimes life can feel so overwhelming, like you’re drowning, and you wonder how you’ll make it to the other side alive. You might even try to be upbeat and accepting for a little while, until it’s just too much and you break.

Listen, I get it. I hit my breaking point this week. Most of the time it takes me a while to break, but when I do, it isn’t pretty. It’s easy to beat yourself up about it and wonder, “Why can’t I just handle it without breaking?” It’s natural to think that other people deal with it better than you do—that there must be something wrong with you, or maybe you’re just weak.

I’ve gone through my share of struggles, as most people do. I went to school and worked for what seemed like a million years. I wrote a long, trying, and challenging quantitative dissertation. I survived full reconstructive jaw surgery and years of bullying, and I’ve lost important people in my life. But nothing, I mean nothing, could have prepared me for the struggles of motherhood—especially the parts that involve taking care of a sick toddler. “Maybe it’s just me,” I think often. Some people have multiple children! I just have one and my life has never been so unpredictable, scary, or stressful. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a snow globe that keeps getting shaken up for no apparent reason.

I often wonder, “Will my life ever be predictable again?” And “Was it ever really predictable anyway?” Maybe my problem isn’t that my life is no longer predictable but that I’m expecting it to be predictable in the first place. I’ve always had schedules, deadlines, and to-do lists that I’d hit on point every time. As long as I made my life as predictable as possible, I felt carefree and easygoing. Now that isn’t the case. I’m lucky if I have time to even write a to-do list, and when I do, it’s never complete like it used to be. This confuses me, because I always identified myself as the kind of person who gets things done—someone reliable who has her sh** together, meets deadlines, and has a pretty predictable life. Sometimes I look around and wonder if this is even my life, or if I was shoved into some alternate universe with no way to make it back to my once orderly existence.

The other day my father told me, “I thought you would be different as a mom. It seems like you’d rather be working.” He might have gotten that impression after I finally got my daughter to take her midday nap, performed a happy dance, and ran to my computer. It’s not just my dad who’s surprised by the type of mother I am; I’m surprised too. There are some things about my mothering approach that are predictable based on who I am: like the fact that my toddler is on a consistent schedule for food, naps, and bedtime (well, most the time if she isn’t sick); the fact that she always makes it to school on time (well, if rivers of snot aren’t flowing out of her nose); and the fact that we’re very affectionate and loving with each other (even with all those boogers between us). But as someone who’s always been praised for being patient, I find myself worn thin at times. Honestly, I might have had more mini tantrums than my daughter has. You can only repeat, “Don’t climb that. No, don’t touch that. Oh no, don’t eat that,” so many times before you want to crawl into a small closet and take a seat for the sake of sitting. I thought I was going to be the type of mom who loved everything about motherhood. I assumed I’d want to be with my child 24 hours a day, selflessly nurturing her around the clock (even on an hour of sleep).

Creating a New Life

“There’s no need to be perfect to inspire others. Let people get inspired by how you deal with your imperfections.”

–Robert Tew

I can’t help but be amazed by how challenging motherhood has been for me, a lifelong perfectionist. What an interesting lesson from the Universe; as soon as I thought I had my life in order, something happened to shake me to my core. This probably happens to everyone at some point. We’re forced to evaluate who we are apart from how much we can do, how many deadlines we can make, and how many tasks we can accomplish. We’re forced to be present with what needs to be attended to now. Nothing has made that more real for me than when my baby calls for me when she’s sick, awake, hurt, or hungry. I have to stop what I’m doing and attend to what’s happening in the now. That little person needs me regardless of my deadlines, plans for the day, or needed bathroom breaks.

I used to have my schedule written out perfectly in my agenda, usually knowing how my weeks would go before they would happen, when and how things would be completed before they were completed. That might sound constraining to some, but it afforded me freedom. I knew what needed to be done, I did it, and then on the weekends I could sleep in until whatever time I wanted and do what I felt like doing without a care in the world. But things don’t quite go that way anymore. I can’t just go and do what I please at any moment. I can’t sleep when I want to sleep, watch TV when I want to watch TV, or even take a shower when I want to shower.

This shows itself to me the most when my little girl is sick. After three weeks of no sleep I finally broke. With the excitement of having a family and bringing home the sweetest baby girl, I forgot everything I was losing. I never said goodbye. I didn’t want to except that my life would change forever, or at least for 18 years. So without that acceptance I was fighting what is, and not accepting it. I wanted things to be what I thought they should be, instead of what they actually were.

So I’ve decided to say goodbye to the type of mother I thought I would be and the idea that I need to do everything I set out to do in a given day. I’ve decided to accept my new life and be more present. After all, if I could go back in time I would make the same decision. Now I just realize that when something shakes my globe, things will calm down again on their own time; I can’t force it. I realize that my daughter is the perfect gift to teach me even more patience and unconditional love, and it’s okay to live off the cuff. Just as it is with my clients and students, I think I’m learning more from my daughter than she’s learning from me.

The occasional agonies of motherhood become more intense when you approach the job as a perfectionist. It’s okay to get frustrated, be tired, and sometimes dream about your old life—as long as at some point you bring yourself back to today, realize that it will all be okay, and remind yourself that you’ve got this. Give yourself permission to enjoy the good times with your family, but also allow yourself to throw your hands up and say, “This is overwhelming today. I need to breathe!” Admitting when it’s too much doesn’t make you a bad parent; it makes you human.

Just remember, there will never be a time when life is simple. There will always be time to practice accepting that. Every moment is a chance to let go and feel peaceful.

Talk soon,

Dr. Ilene

Article edited by Dr. Denise Fournier


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