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Perfection gives way to practicality when parenting

Cheryl-Anne Millsap The Spokesman-Review

Reading the cover story of last week’s issue of Newsweek Magazine, “The Myth of the Perfect Mother,” I found myself on the pages. Been there, done that.

When my first child was born I was determined that she would want for nothing. I would meet her needs before she was aware of them.

At her visit to the pediatrician the doctor asked me how often the baby cried.

“Oh, she doesn’t cry,” I said. “Whenever it sounds like she is about to cry I pick her up and hold her.

“So…She doesn’t cry at all…?” The doctor asked.

“No. I pick her up and cuddle her and nurse her so she doesn’t have to.”

My pediatrician gave me a long thoughtful look, chewed on her lip for a minute, and said, “Well, you know, it won’t hurt her to cry a little now and then.”

I was stunned. As I understood it, I was being told to make my baby, my first child, the child I had vowed to protect from all the wrongs in the world, suffer.

I cried all the way home.

I imagine my pediatrician just shook her head as I left the office; there goes another mother on her way to a breakdown.

My sheltered little baby grew into a firecracker; a strong-willed toddler who knew just how to work me. And why wouldn’t she? Hadn’t I shown her every button to push?

By the time she was two years old I was a wreck.

Fortunately for all of us, nascent motherhood gave way to practical, seasoned, parenting. Time, more babies, and a dawning sense that being a good mother didn’t mean it was my job to make everything perfect, or easy for my children, mellowed me out. Some.

When I got a little ornery about sacrificing my life to a child’s highly “enriched” schedule, I still felt guilty if I didn’t let everyone participate in the same activities as their friends. I was still worried I wasn’t getting it right.

Finally, at the breaking point the pediatrician could have predicted, I had to decide if I was going to continue making us all miserable by trying to be a perfect mother, or if I was ready to admit that the best I would ever achieve was being a well-intentioned, but deeply flawed, woman; a mother who was, at best, good enough.

I put away the child development how-to books, stopped listening to the perfect mothers all around me, and listened to an inner voice instead.

I didn’t push organized sports because I wanted my children to enjoy spending time with each other. I didn’t want us to turn into a family of white rabbits; always late for some important date. And, to be honest, I didn’t want to spend every Saturday shivering on the sidelines watching my children play. Don’t get me wrong, I was all for the playing, but I wanted it to be looser, less structured. And I wanted some time for myself, time to think and dream.

I limited the number of activities in which each child could participate. I said no. A lot.

As I relaxed, so did my children. My inner voice didn’t always know what it was talking about. But we all survived.

My firstborn is still a firecracker. And she still knows how to push my buttons. But in the nearly twenty years since she was born, while I was teaching her how to enjoy being a child, she taught me how to enjoy being a mother. And her younger brother and sisters benefited.

Ultimately, I want my children to learn how to make themselves into happy, productive people, satisfied with being good enough. It’s not something I can do for them. I can only show them how I got there myself.

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