The Measure of a Mother

I’m about to do something very un-coach-like. I’m going to suggest that you lower your standards.

As a coach, I always encourage my clients to dream big, to set ambitious goals and not be bounded by what seems reasonably achievable. Succeed or fail, you’re usually better off aiming high than shooting for the middle and not knowing what heights might have been possible. The risk – of failure or disappointment – is vastly outweighed by the benefit of stretching beyond our comfort zone.

But what about when we set unachievable standards and then flog ourselves as unworthy? That’s not aiming high; it is self-sabotage, and we mothers are particularly prone to it. We aspire to that unattainable ideal: the Good Mother. Think June Cleaver with an advanced degree. I just Googled “good mother” and found just what you might expect: she is patient, loving, devoted to her children, sacrifices her own needs in favor of theirs, she is a good role model in her career, organized, fun, and doesn’t yell …. the lists go on. By these standards, all of us – not just the defiant Ayelet Waldman – are Bad Mothers. Isn’t it time that we let ourselves off the hook?

It’s not so simple. I recall attending a La Leche League breastfeeding support group meeting as a newly-minted mom and having the leader advocate lowering our standards of housekeeping. We should let the dishes pile up, the floor go unswept, the laundry unfolded and give ourselves over to on-demand breastfeeding around the clock, sleeping when the baby slept. But while this sounded initially like a relaxing of the standards, it simply replaced one ideal (the Good Housekeeper) with another (the utterly committed breastfeeding Good Mother). That was no help.

Maybe it’s not about lowering standards but abandoning this yardstick that we use to beat ourselves (and each other) with altogether. Perhaps the first step is acknowledging our limits – and the terrifying fact that so much of our children’s lives is out of our control. We mothers are in this game for the long haul, and we might do better to take the long view. Over the many years we share with our children, we will make many mistakes, lose our cool, make decisions we regret, cause our children pain, be frustrated and unhappy ourselves. We will also do lots of good, recover from failures, kiss thousands of boo-boos, experience great joy, and love love love our children. There is no yardstick for that.