The Pressure to Get It Right - Happy as a Mother

The Pressure to Get It Right

with Psychologist Dr. Jen Douglas


  • Moms Always Have To Do The “Right” Thing
  • Defining What The “Right” Thing Is
  • Productive Ways To Manage The Need For Control
  • Intergenerational Perfectionism
  • Focusing On Values
  • Internal Markers To Determine If You’re On The Right Path

Have you ever felt like a simple parenting decision was going to have a lifelong impact? Have you been paralyzed with indecision because you don’t know what is best and don’t want to make the wrong choice? Parenting this way is suffocating and erodes your trust in your own intuition.  Psychologist and Stanford clinical assistant professor Dr. Jen Douglas is back to help us break free from this pressure of perfectionism and learn to trust ourselves more.

Moms Always Have To Do The “Right” Thing

This is something most if not all moms will struggle with, but it can be so much harder for first-time moms. “We don’t have that confidence and don’t trust ourselves when it’s the first time in quite the same way as say a third time mom might,” Dr. Jen said.

Perfectionism was something I struggled with anyhow, and I had to Google if it was okay for my first son to have a pacifier, or if it would lead to nipple confusion and cause problems during feeding. The need to always do the right thing eased up some with my second son. During my third postpartum experience, I had to throw perfectionism out the window. You can’t manage three kids and keep up a facade of “everything is perfect.”

Some people—like me—may already have a touch of anxiety and those perfectionist tendencies are already there. Other people may never worry about things being perfect before motherhood, and this drive to be a perfect parent can really catch them off guard. It’s because the stakes couldn’t be higher. A defenseless human is dependent on everything you do.

Defining What The “Right” Thing Is

As a new mother, one of our biggest struggles can be determining what’s realistic as a mother versus what may be too idealistic. Ideals are good things. They give us something to aspire to, but they can’t be used as a yardstick for how well we’re doing. It’s not realistic for anything to be perfect.

If we don’t recognize the gap between our ideals and what’s attainable, motherhood hits us really hard. “For many folks who turn to perfectionism subconsciously, they tend to have had a relationship with high achievement their whole lives. The expectation is if I put in more effort, if I work harder, if I think more about this I can figure it out, and I can perform perfectly. And nowhere is it more impossible to perform perfectly than in motherhood,” Dr. Jen explained.

“It’s not like at work or at school where you can study really hard and get the good grade and be done with it. Motherhood is ever-evolving, ever-changing, and no one can do it perfectly 24 hours a day,” she said.

There is no one “right” way. What works for another person may not work for you or your child. In motherhood, the nature of the role is that it’s in relation to our child, and we can’t control and predict their side of the equation. If I measure my success as a mother in terms of tantrums or no tantrums, I’m going to fail most days.

“A lot of perfectionism has to do with the intersection of achievement and control,” Dr. Jen said. Not being able to control things can be daunting for a perfectionist. With all the things we can’t control, over researching or overcommitting to a schedule can be almost soothing. It gives us a sense of control.

Sometimes things that seem important to us have been handed down from our parents or older relatives, the media, or the culture we live in. If you’re really struggling to know what is worth focusing on and what isn’t, it may be that you haven’t separated what’s important to you from everything you’ve been told. The motherhood roadmap can help with this. 

Productive Ways To Manage The Need For Control

“I don’t want people to feel like this is daunting or something they can’t overcome,” Dr. Jen said. She would find herself over researching things and would have to remind herself of why she was doing it.

The answer was always that she wanted what was best for her children, but she would often find spending hours conducting research was actually getting in the way of bonding with her kids. If perfectionism is a pattern that we want to break in our lives, some good questions are: 1) What is my goal? 2) Is this action getting me closer to my goal?

But reevaluating these expectations we have for ourselves can be really hard. “It’s also really important to take a look at where these expectations are coming from,” she explained.

Are we taking advice from people who view parenting as a monolith? No child is the same. It’s hard to get the same response out of any two kids. 

Intergenerational Perfectionism

Perfectionism spans generations. If our kids grow up watching us go through cycles where we’re overworking to get something right and then spiraling into a cycle of guilt when we can’t, it becomes normal to them. 

The lesson is “I have to do things perfect to be loved,” and they’ll try to. So it’s important to become aware of our own behaviour patterns and make the attempt at changing that pattern is better for our children too. “That’s what interrupting perfectionism can really do is interrupt some of those patterns,” Dr. Jen said.

“Our relationship with perfectionism can change. Motherhood is one of those examples when perfectionism doesn’t serve us,” she explained. Motherhood requires flexibility, and perfectionism doesn’t allow for that.

Focusing On Values

“Perfectionism in motherhood means not only do I have to get it right, but I have to get it right the first time,” Dr. Jen explained. Perfectionism doesn’t allow for room to grow, make mistakes, or model apologizing.

“We have a lot of data that people who live according to their values are the most satisfied,” she said. Tapping into our values helps us focus on what’s important to us. 

It’s also important to realize most things we do aren’t either values or being perceived as perfect, “good,” or “correct.” I want to have a beautifully themed Christmas tree this year because I love decorating and conceptualising the design. But I also want my kids to be able to enjoy it. This is a mix of values and perfectionism.

If I assumed I’d fail my children and my family would have a horrible Christmas without the perfect tree that would be purely perfectionism. It would go further to say that now this ruined Christmas has left a permanent mark on my worth as a mother or parent. 

Internal Markers To Determine If You’re On The Right Path

“When we’re saying what’s the best in a situation, how are we measuring the best?” Dr. Jen asked. Are we using external factors to judge what’s best, like a news report, consumer review, or someone’s social media post? Or are we defining “best” as what works out for ourselves, our family, and our children in our current situation? Making the right decision based on our own situation and not tying it to our worth as a parent allows us to be flexible with our choices.

“The two big things I like to talk to folks about who are working on this is, what would I want if no one else was looking, and no one else even knew,” Dr. Jen explained. “What do I want to look back on this time and remember?” 

Some questions I like to ask myself are: 

Did I attune today? 

Did I spend 10 to 15 minutes of intentional time with my kids? 

Did I regulate during a tantrum? 

If I didn’t, what can I do to regulate better during the next tantrum? 

Another problem with perfectionism is that if we’re doing everything right as parents, we can’t apologize. But secure attachment comes from the ability to apologize and repair when we’ve made a mistake and also being able to model that ability.

After reading this if you’re still struggling with what matters and what you can let go of, use the motherhood roadmap. This tool will help you get clear on what’s important to you versus what people have told you should be important to you.

Jen Douglas, PhD is a mom, partner, licensed psychologist, executive coach, and Stanford clinical assistant professor. She specializes in helping high-achieving women overcome their own perfectionism to reach their fullest potential. Dr. Jen facilitates anti-burnout workshops and provides speaking engagements for such as Facebook Inc. and Vox Media.

The center of Dr. Jen’s passion is marrying psychological theory with real-life societal pressures. It is harder to overcome perfectionism when these patterns are rooted in societal expectations. This is never more true than in the endless tasks and sacrifices of motherhood Dr. Jen brings a holistic approach to overcoming perfectionism and anxiety from an empowerment lens.





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