Mother or Martyr? 3 Steps to Beating “Perfect Mommy Syndrome”

Image via Shutterstock. Used with permission.

Image via Shutterstock. Used with permission.

I regularly read blog posts from really great moms who tell some pretty disturbing stories of the things they put themselves through to try to attend to their children. All of the stories tend to follow the “I thought the only way to be a good mom was to do X, Y, and Z until I made myself sick because some expert/my friends/my mom group/some blog told me I had to do it that way and it almost destroyed my life and my relationships”  narrative.

Inevitably, these posts end with the blogger saying, “parenting style X thinks its ‘all that’…but its not!”   And concludes that it was really  X parenting style’s fault all along for selling the genuinely well-intentioned mom a bill of goods.   Now, because of my personal interests, I usually see posts like this attacking attachment parenting as being the offending philosophy but I’ve also seen plenty of posts from moms who allowed themselves to be driven crazy from sleeplessness by trying to ferberize their babies (i.e., letting them “cry it out”), or put their baby on a feeding schedule that jeopardized the child’s health because they were adhering to it too rigidly,  or a million other problems caused, not by the chosen parenting style, per se, but something else entirely.

Mommy Enemy #1

I actually appreciate these moms sharing their journeys and I think there is much to recommend in their posts.  Their experiences are truly valuable.  But the one thing that many of these posts miss is that the underlying problem was never the parenting style that the person was adhering to, but the perfectionism driving the particular mom’s approach to applying that parenting style.

Mom’s (& Marriage) Needs Matter

I am an unapologetic advocate of attachment parenting.  I believe there is a strong case to be made from both science and theology that of all the parenting styles that are available, attachment style parenting practices, including nursing on request, co-sleeping, baby-wearing, and loving-guidance approaches to discipline are the most scientifically valid and theologically congruent (from a Catholic anthropological perspective) approaches available for parents and their babies. That said, every parent needs to use their good sense in applying any parenting approach sanely, in a manner that respects both their well-being and that of the people around them.  For instance, in Lisa’s and my book, Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood we write…

…if parents allow themselves to become burned out by doing attachment parenting practices, they don’t work nearly as well (Moran, Forbes, Evans, et al, 2008; DeWoolf & van Ijzendoom, 1997; Owen & Cox, 1997). Babies—and really, most people—seem to be wired to be more sensitive to how things are done than that they are done. If a parent neglects self-care to the point that he or she feels fried, frustrated, and fed-up with parenting or with the child, the benefit to the social brain of attachment-based approaches is actually less than if the parent employed more conventional parenting practices such as bottle feeding and crib sleeping and was able to interact with the child more contentedly. This seems to have to do with the amount of eye-contact and animation the parent expresses toward the child.   You can do all the “right things” associated with baby-centered practices, but if your heart isn’t in them, if you are just doing them because some expert told you that should in order to be a good parent then that disconnection shows on your face and in your interactions with your child. As a result, the baby senses the disconnect, becomes distressed, and his or her brain locks down. Dr. Ed Tronick’s famous “Still Face Experiment” dramatically illustrates this dynamic.  (Click to see a video demonstrating this experiment which shows a baby moving from animated and bubbly to stressed and depressed in less than 10 minutes because of his mother’s out-of-sync facial expressions.)

…Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body reminds us that we are not just spiritual creatures capable of doing all things without experiencing limitations or break-downs. We are bodily beings who must work within and acknowledge both the blessings and the limitations of our bodies. Saying that we “should” be capable of more is irrelevant if we are not, actually, physically, capable of more without jeopardizing our health and well-being. If our need for sleep, or nourishment, or intimate connection with our spouse is not just being tested—as  parenting tends to do—but stretched to its breaking point, that’s not good for mom, dad, or baby. That’s why parents need to constantly seek creative ways to get time for themselves and their marriage. Taking regular, small steps to take care of yourself and your relationship (e.g., napping when baby naps, making sure to find time as a couple to talk and pray at some point every day) will prevent you from having to take larger, more disruptive actions (e.g., an entire day for me-time, a weekend away with your spouse) to put your mental, physical, and relational health back in order. This creative balancing act is what living out the principle of the “common good” means in family life and it is the key to creating an enjoyable family life where everyone’s needs are met including yours.

The Catholic principle of “the common good” means that everyone who has needs has a right to have those needs met.  Pursuing the common good requires Catholic parents to be both sensitive to the needs-in-play today, and creative about meeting everyone’s needs in a manner that doesn’t shortchange baby but doesn’t leave the adults to fend entirely for themselves. This takes sensitivity, prayer, communication, and commitment on the part of both parents. 

Perfect Mommy Syndrome: What’s the Cause?

The fact is, the problem I call Perfect Mommy Syndrome isn’t caused by parenting style–any parenting style.  It is caused when a mom tries to get her needs for personal and emotional validation met through her particular parenting approach–whatever that approach might be.  Moms who get caught in this trap truly mean well–very well–but in reality, for “perfect mommies,” parenting isn’t really about taking care of the baby. It’s about parenting their own, inner-child through their child.  Ultimately, Perfect Mommy Syndrome is about getting the emotional validation they were lacking in their own childhood by trying to be “perfect” moms who can both win the approval of the people around them and raise a “perfect child” who will prove that they have been good-enough all along despite what their families-of-origin tried to tell them.  Perfect Mommy Syndrome is, ultimately, a mom’s own anxious/insecure attachment style being expressed through her attempts to mother.  The following is a good description of anxious-attachment style that feeds Perfect Mommy Syndrome….

As adults, [people with an anxious-attachment style] are self-critical and insecure. They seek approval and reassurance from others, yet this never relieves their self-doubt. In their relationships, deep-seated feelings that they are going to be rejected make them worried and not trusting. This drives them to act clingy and overly dependent with their partner. These people’s lives are not balanced: their insecurity leaves them turned against themselves and emotionally desperate in their relationships.  Adults with preoccupied attachment patterns are usually self-critical, insecure and desperate, often assuming the role of the “pursuer” in a relationship. They possess positive views of other people, especially their parents and their partner, and generally have a negative view of themselves. They rely heavily on their partner to validate their self-worth. Because they grew up distrustful of their inconsistent, unavailable caregivers, they are “rejection-sensitive.” They anticipate rejection or abandonment and look for signs that their partner is losing interest.   These people are often driven to engage in pre-emptive strategies (Popcak Note: such as extreme approaches to parenting) in an attempt to avoid being rejected. However, their excessive dependency, demands and possessiveness tend to backfire….  (Click here for more info on the anxious attachment style)

The Cure

So what’s a mom to do?  Three things.

1.  Choose a parenting method that makes the most sense to you and stick with it.  Don’t just do what validates your biases, really research your decision.  But having made a choice, trust your judgment. Consistency is key with parenting.  Over time, you can adjust things here and there to suit the circumstances of your life, but resist the temptation to throw an entire method of parenting out the door unless you’ve gotten professional advice to do so.  Remember that for most parenting approaches (and this doesn’t just apply to my preferred parenting methods) if you’re seeing a problem, chances are, its your mindset more than it is the method.  Small, incremental changes are best for both you and your child.

2.  Listen to your baby, your body and your relationships.  If any of these things are out-of-balance, take small steps, early on, to avoid bigger problems down the road.  Perfect Mommies never see the line that everyone else knows can’t be crossed without burning out.  They think that if they just keep pushing though, everything will get better and they will be able to prove that they really are good-enough after all.  This ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS makes things worse.  Address concerns before they become problems and problems before they become crises.

3.  Get help.  If you recognize yourself in the above description of anxious attachment, get professional help especially if you are pregnant, a new mom, or burning out on motherhood.  Yes, I know, getting help goes against everything you pride yourself on, but its that pride that will be your undoing.  Talk to a faithful counselor who can help you find healthy ways to heal your own attachment wounds so that you can parent your actual child instead of trying to parent your inner-child through your child.

The reality is no mom is a perfect mom, no child is a perfect child, and there is no perfect way to parent.   That doesn’t mean that some parenting methods aren’t objectively better than others, but it does mean that you can never prove that you are good-enough by trying to find exactly the right way to do everything just-so.   Stop looking to external sources to validate you.  Seek the help that will allow you to love yourself so that you can authentically love your children and everyone else in your life besides.  For more information on finding a healthy, graceful balance between babycare, mommy care, and marriage care, check out Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute today.


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