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Examining the Myth of the Perfect Mother

It's time to rethink your definitions of success and failure and adjust your expectations of motherhood.

Even the best of mothers will blow it at times. But with a daily dependence on Him, God will shape us into the mother He’s called each of us to be.

Standing in my newborn daughter's room at 2 a.m., I felt a sense of panic. It was her second night home from the hospital, and she was crying. But as a new mother, I had no idea how to comfort her. It didn't matter that I'm usually even-tempered and fairly logical. It didn't matter that I'd read a number of books on parenting techniques. At that moment, I was lost.

The weight of the decision my husband and I made to have a baby seemed overwhelming. If I couldn't comfort my baby, then how was I ever going to tackle such hurdles as potty training, picking the right school, or teaching her to parallel park? I wanted to handle each situation perfectly, but I was already falling short of my expectations.

Great Expectations

In Christian circles, motherhood comes with additional high — and sometimes impossible — standards. We're taught that our children are mirrors of us, so we believe that we (and they) should be shining examples of Christ's love and grace at all times. To train our kids in the way they should go (according to Proverbs 22:6), we believe we must be perfect in parenting and home management. We should never be short-tempered or tired; we should have biblical storyboards of felt for our kids to play with (no television); we should feed them enough fruits and vegetables to rival the diet of Daniel and his fellow Hebrew captives (no candy); and our kids should respond to the urging of the Holy Spirit to share their toys by age 4. In the meantime, our homes should be tastefully decorated and clean, and every meal should taste like an Emeril Lagasse creation.

But since no one can possibly live up to this ideal, we often feel like failures as moms. Perhaps it's time to rethink our definitions of success and failure. Here are a few ways to adjust your expectations:

1. Recognize your need for God.

The desire to be the best mother possible isn't a selfish one. We want to provide a healthy environment for our children, to keep them from experiencing things that would stunt them physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

"Christian women in particular grow up being taught that motherhood will somehow complete us," says Carla Barnhill, mother of two and former editor of Christian Parenting Today. Many of us have come to believe that motherhood is the "sum total of who we are as women with children," she says. The problem that results from that mindset is that "women come to believe their ultimate worth is found in motherhood, not in their relationship with God."

To remedy this skewed perspective, Barnhill recommends that women view motherhood as "a practice of faith" instead of "the practice of faith." In her new book, The Myth of the Perfect Mother, Barnhill suggests that we "stop thinking of motherhood as something we do, or even as something we are, and instead envision motherhood as a [spiritual] practice through which we ourselves are formed."

Romans 3:23 reminds us that we have all sinned (mothers included) and fall short of the glory of God. Perfection is reserved for Jesus, but as we seek to grow in intimacy with Him, God will continue to shape us into His image. The love and joy and peace and patience we long for as parents will come, not as we seek perfection but as we seek God.

2. Stop comparing yourself to others.

The church can at times exacerbate the unreachable "good mom" standard. Often the role of the stay-at-home mom is idealized as the only way to effectively parent, leaving employed moms feeling guilty for leaving their children in daycare or for working when not in financial need. Conversely, many stay-at-home moms struggle with feelings of inadequacy because they don't contribute to the family's income. They may also compare themselves with "super-moms" who seem to effortlessly balance their work and home duties.

Barnhill points to Paul's "law of love" in Romans 14:15-17. "The details of how we live in Christ are less important than our efforts to love one another and live in peace together in the Spirit," she says. "So often we judge other moms over issues like homeschooling, spanking, working outside the home, and breast-feeding. These are important decisions for parents, but they don't [illustrate] the depth and validity of a person's faith. Every child and every family is unique, and God works differently in each life."

3. Seek real wisdom.

On the quest to becoming a good mother, many women turn to the overwhelming supply of expert advice available. Walk into any major bookstore, and you'll find books on everything from sleeping and eating to discipline and special needs. The experts don't always agree, but their wisdom is there for the taking.

"We know more about child development now than any generation of mothers before us," Barnhill says. But the abundance of information can actually bring added pressure.

"The more we know about how to do things ‘right,'" Barnhill says, "the more aware we are of the ways there are to do things wrong." Such awareness causes mothers to lose confidence in their God-given instincts. And while "all of this information is incredibly helpful," she notes, "it can be overwhelming."

4. Find strength in numbers.

One of the best ways for Christian mothers to let go of the image of perfection is through authentic relationships. "Get rid of the pretense of having it all together," Barnhill encourages, "and get honest with each other."

For new mothers as well as mothers who are entering a new phase of parenting, friendships and mentoring can be vital. "We need to be honest about our struggles," Barnhill says, "and let other mothers know they aren't alone in their sense of incompetence, their fears of messing up, their occasional dislike of their children. We need to help each other see God in the midst of our mothering, to guide each other down the paths God leads us on - even when our paths are different."

Keep It Real

"There is no friendship, no love, like that of the parent for the child," said 19th-century minister Henry Ward Beecher. Motherhood is a beautiful journey, but it isn't an easy one. Thankfully, it doesn't have to be a lonely one.

Even the best of mothers will blow it at times. But with a daily dependence on Him, God will shape us into the mother He's called each of us to be.

This article courtesy of HomeLife Magazine.

Gena Maselli lives in Texas with her husband and their daughter, Elliana.