Why Trying To Be a Perfect Mom Does More Harm Than Good

Mar 26, 2018Ask A Counsellor, Mental Health, Transitioning To Parenthood0 comments

Hey new mama, do you feel like you need to be a perfect mother? Do you get stressed out when you can’t keep everything in your house perfect, or if things don’t go according to plan with your new baby? Do you believe that a good mother doesn’t ask for help? Do you put pressure on yourself to appear as if you have it all together?

If you do, you are not alone. Many new moms struggle with the need for perfection. These feelings can cause a mama to blame herself for the messiness of motherhood, and feel like a failure as a new mother. This topic is one that is not often publicly talked about, which causes many women to struggle in silence. In order to give you more information on perfectionism in new motherhood, we interviewed Dr. Kimberly Thompson. Dr. Kimberly is a psychologist and the author of the book ‘Perfect Mothers Get Depressed’. 


What Is Perfectionism In Motherhood?

It is not the pursuit of excellence. The pursuit of excellence means you get satisfactions from providing attention to detail and don’t mind working hard, long and intensely to achieve a high-level win. The pursuit of excellence is a desirable trait to have and brings joy!

Perfectionism also doesn’t mean you are a relentless taskmaster that expects others to be perfect. That is truly a form of perfectionism, but it doesn’t usually bother you – it bothers your family, friends and colleagues.

When we talk about perfectionism, it means the deep sense that other people expect you to be perfect.

This causes a lot of distress because it means you have a significant belief that you will never be good enough.

No matter what you do or achieve, you pick them apart, finding ways that you are lacking. When you have this type of perfectionism, you have put yourself in a double bind: to avoid being rejected, you must be perfect – yet you are extremely aware of your own imperfections because you focus on them all the time. So really, in the perfectionist person’s mind, rejection is almost inevitable.

During pregnancy, a perfectionist woman can entertain a lot of idealized fantasies about her baby, herself as a mother, and what her life is going to be like. She may not realize the pictures in her head are idealized.

She may also go the opposite way and imagine she is going to mess her baby up because she is unable to meet some lofty ideal. Whether it is before birth or after, everyone comes to realize that motherhood is really messy (metaphorically AND literally).


What strategies do you suggest for mothers who struggle with the need to be perfect?

A perfectionist mother usually blames herself for the messiness of motherhood. In psychology we call it “ruminating” when somebody dwells excessively on every little fault and failing.

Intense guilt, self-criticism and other forms of self-directed negativity is a symptom of depression. For many women, I believe that this is where depression begins – when it seems there is no way out from under this intense self-criticism and shame.

I would say, if you know you tend to be this way, you need to become more aware of your own thoughts and attitudes while you are pregnant.

Journal about what you think motherhood will be and don’t censor yourself.

Here are some idea’s of what you can journal about to help make you more self aware:

  1. Draw the pictures you see in your mind in your journal.
  2. Answer the questions: “How do I expect to be as a mother?” “How do I think good mothers act?” and “How close do I expect to come to be an ideal mother?”
  3. Ask yourself “What do I think will happen if I don’t do this [motherhood thing] according to other people’s expectations?”


How can dysfunctional attitudes about motherhood, such as perfectionism, lead to Postpartum Depression?

Perfectionism in motherhood often leads to postpartum anxiety

Well, what I don’t mean is that depressed mothers don’t love their babies as much as non-depressed ones.

What I do mean is that expecting yourself to live up to some idealized fantasy is a recipe for depression. Moms who are either prone to depression, or already experience depression, believe things like “a good mother will always want to be with her baby,” or “a good mother doesn’t have to ask for help,” or “a good mother always feels warm and cuddly when she thinks of her baby.”

Sometimes a mom will take it personally when her baby cries or can’t be comforted. Or she will feel personally responsible because her baby has a medical condition – colic is especially hard on moms that are prone to depression.


What do you look for when assessing Postpartum Depression in a new mother?

The main thought pattern that we look for is inappropriate guilt. Does this mother feel responsible for things that really aren’t her fault, or does she feel bad about having needs of her own?

Other things I ask about are how is she sleeping, how is she eating, what does she enjoy doing, is she either sad or irritable a lot, is her sense of humour intact?


What advice do you have for mothers who have experienced significant challenges prior to or during their pregnancy?

The phrase “significant challenges” can mean a lot of things. It can range from childhood abuse or domestic violence, to infertility and prior pregnancy losses. I do think that adverse experiences can cause a sensitive person to become anxious, and if the anxiety is bad enough, most people will burn out and become depressed.

For women struggling with anxiety, I ask them to think of themselves in four aspects: spirit, mind, body, and relationships. Then, to be mindful of reducing anxiety by caring for each aspect. For example, caring for the body by weaning off caffeine so that the nervous system is not always on overdrive.


How do you support women nervous about getting pregnant because of previous mental health challenges?

We know that avoidance coping (essentially, trying to cope with life by avoiding challenge) is associated with depression. As a result, someone already feeling depressed might be tempted to avoid child bearing because they know it’s going to be a challenge. If that is the case, I support them by assuring them that if they really want to have children, they will grow and learn and become stronger through the experience. They will learn how to flex and roll with the punches better.

There are some mental health challenges where it probably is better if they don’t have children – but I’m talking about chronic psychotic disorders and problems where the woman can’t take care of herself without help or will become unable to care for herself if she gets off her psychotropic medications for pregnancy.


Final Thoughts:

There are qualities within some women that may be worrisome for them during pregnancy and after childbirth. Perfectionism can allow us to get things done to a high quality and allow us to feel accomplished! However, perfectionism can become problematic when it leads to unrealistic expectations of ourselves, especially in the messy world of motherhood.

Thank you so much to Dr. Kimberly for sharing your wisdom on perfectionism in motherhood with us. Learn more about the amazing work Dr. Kimberly is doing for mothers on her website here. 


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