In Cynthia Reich’s world as a mother, perfection is a far-flung chimera somewhere off on the horizon. The list of nags to self is long and relentless.
“I don’t do anything well,” she said only half-humorously. At 35, she has a doctorate in pharmacy, owns and runs two pharmacies, and, between her biological children and her husband’s, has a brood of five ranging in age from 9 to 14.
“When I am at work I feel like I should be home, and when I am home I feel like I should be at work,” she said. She can’t make cupcakes for parties, and, she wonders, do all her children get the help they need with school work?
“It is very high stress,” the Mount Pleasant mom said.
Same goes for Angel Powell. When clients of her PR firm call her to Nashville or Asheville, her 5-year-old twins cling to her and hate to see her go. Her heart aches as she drives away from their South Windermere home. She wonders, are they progressing as they should? Are they going to be happy, well-adjusted girls?
“I worry about their little feelings all the time and I want to make sure that they’re happy and healthy,” Powell said.
Across town, Kate Badger Little, mother of a 4-year-old and a 15-month baby, gets sucked into reading some post on the Internet about what a mother in Oklahoma is doing to make her child sleep better. “What am I doing wrong?” the James Island mom asks herself.
“The amount of time I spend thinking about the decisions I make is insane,” Little said. “Am I doing the right thing, being patient, making the right decisions, making the sacrifices, giving them the right opportunities, what are we spending our money on, how am I handling things ... It’s endless.”
These Charleston mothers epitomize, in one form or the other, life under the cloud of myth: the myth of the perfect mother who is also a woman and, often now, a career woman.
“I think every mother feels that way. You suffer from not being able to be the perfect mom, to be everything, to be everywhere at the same time, to be there all the time,” said Powell.
Motherhood — possibly the greatest responsibility on earth — has always been a psychological minefield for women. It’s a job about which everyone, from mothers to mothers-in-law and girlfriends, feels entitled to have an opinion, and most often to share it without restraint, creating the burdensome feeling that there is always a better way to do it.
The myth of the Super Mom grew more ensnaring once women entered the workforce and began straddling equally demanding commitments, further conflicting them between earning money, self-improvement and their obligations as mothers, said Von Bakanic, associate professor of sociology at the College of Charleston.
“Women’s roles have changed. We have picked up the provider role and all sorts of other roles, but the old expectations have not changed,” she said.
Now, she said, “The ideal makes women feel like if they don’t devote 100 percent of their time to motherhood they are doing something wrong. ... Naturally, the ideal doesn’t have anything to do with reality, and unfortunately it causes quite a bit of stress and guilt. ... This myth of the perfect mom, who is beautiful and thin, of course, and able to afford the best of things, is exhausting. It makes her feel like she has not done as well as she thought she could have.”
While in decades past women could rely on extended families to lend a hand and give trusted advice and support, the mobile nuclear family has made the burden lonelier and less forgiving. The great illusory world of the Internet has added to that, spinning a virtual world of perfection and compunction, replete with forums that are purportedly for advice but often make moms feel worse through constant and unsettling comparisons.
“The vortex of self-doubt,” Little calls it. “Try looking on Pinterest for kids’ birthday parties!”
“Not only do you have to spend quality time with your children and make everything lovely at your home, but you have to stay in shape and look good and have tons of friends to go out to dinner with and have play dates with,” said Little, who is a part-time blogger and social media specialist for a bridal business. “There’s just a lot to maintain.”
The phenomenon of image crafting, which has even irked national bloggers and celebrity watchers, has made the standard of perfection ever rarefied and made women more vulnerable to destructive juxtapositions, craving outside validation.
“It reinforces the myth that we can be better at this,” Bakanic said. “But it is an impossible ideal, except for the very affluent who are the only ones who can have at least the façade of living the ideal. For the rest, there is not even a chance of living up to the ideal.”
Powell wonders if her girls are taking enough dance lessons or have the right clothes. Mostly, though, she is concerned about the education they will receive, the complexity and competitiveness of which have made parenting all the more challenging. Should they be reading already? Will they get into the right school?
“It will drive you crazy. Women are so competitive ... the shaming and one-upmanship are a true pressure. There is much more competition than support out there,” Powell said.
“I like that my working and owning my business and being successful is normalized for them and they have that as a model,” Powell said. “That said, my mother stayed home and I couldn’t have had a better childhood ... It’s a trade-off.”
Reich feels the tug of conscience when she pulls up from work — she works as many as 75 hours a week — and sees moms in the neighborhood hanging out with their kids; or when her children tell her that so-and-so’s mom had lunch with them at school.
“It is devastating because when they ask me, 99 percent of the time the answer is no,” Reich said.
Torn by guilt, Reich ended up hiring what she calls a “domestic assistant” to escort her children to their various activities and help them through the day (her husband also works full-time). It’s assuaged her feelings and helped her children’s busy calendars coexist with her professional life.
“I’m trying to teach my children work ethic and to show them hands-on parenting, but it’s hard to do both ... I question my priorities sometimes and whether I can keep up with everything,” she said.
But, she believes her work will contribute to her children’s success in life.
“What is important to me is to have successful children who are confident and happy and can get as much out of life as I did,” she said.
Others, like Powell, whose husbands are self-employed, juggle duties and rearrange schedules to patch and cover. But what to do with the inner battles?
Dr. Connie Guille, a reproductive psychiatrist at the Medical University of South Carolina and director of its Women’s Reproductive Behavioral Health Clinic, invites moms to step away from the computer and stay resolved in their inner convictions and sense of self. Living under a myth of perfection, she said, “is a missed opportunity to enjoy your life.”
“What feels good is when we know we are doing well in the roles that are most important to us in our lives,” said Guille, who treats mental health issues in women during and after pregnancy. “I would invite them to celebrate their achievements and internalize their successes.”
“You have to believe in what you are doing,” said Powell. “When I am getting ready to go on a trip and I am feeling bad, I have to know that I am doing the best I can do for my kids.”
Little suggests a little sense of humor and humility, too.
“I make my own cupcakes and they are not perfect... and at the end of the day the kids don’t care about any of this,” she said.
She contemplated for a moment what means the most to her.
“If I bring into the world two people who will contribute to society and who are good people,” she said, “that is the most important thing I can do.” LCP