Imperfect Motherhood

November is the month when I became a mother. Twice. Both girls have their birthdays this month. It makes for a fair amount of craziness, with parties, presents, and the December holidays right around the corner.

My friend Amie always sends a greeting to her mom friends for the occasion: “Happy birth day to you!” It’s so true — the occasion of your child turning a year older is a milestone for you, as well. You think about the events surrounding their entry into the world: how you felt, how it went, how long it took, the funny moments, the scary moments. Every year I remind each of them of the time of day they were born, and when we get to that hour and minute of the day, we acknowledge it. I do that on my own birthday, as well.

I think about how I handled motherhood then, and how I manage it now. How far I’ve come.

My girls are 8 and (almost) 6, and being a mother feels much, much better now than it did, say, six years ago. With a newborn and a 2-year-old, I was the very picture of a complete wreck. I was wracked with guilt over not being able to be 100 percent there for each daughter 100 percent of the time. That’s impossible, of course. Nevertheless, I flogged myself emotionally because I could not attain that level of perfection. I felt like I was barely keeping my head above water. Sometimes I’d go under, anger and despair flooding my lungs. When I emerged again, I’d be exhausted. I’d sleep (for as long as I could in those days with very young kids) and just desperately hope for the best the next day.

I crashed and burned, hit my own personal rock bottom. And then I started the careful climb back up. Yoga has been a huge part of that for me. It helped me find my center again — or maybe truly find it for the very first time. It helped me to learn balance, and acceptance, and to practice being in the present moment. It helped me to create a container for my emotions, a way to process them from a safe and strong place. It helped me to feel more certain when things are uncertain.

Today in class, my teacher Lisa’s words really resonated with my thoughts about motherhood. There is no perfection in the universe, she said; if everything was perfectly balanced, all we’d have would be stasis. And that’s impossible, because there’s always movement, always a pulsation, or spanda, starting with our own breath.

In nature, in the world, there’s never absolute perfection. Everything is always slightly off, slightly crooked or uneven. That doesn’t mean there can’t be balance; it means that in any given situation, the balancing point is different. We’re always trying to achieve that balance. But if we start from the assumption of perfection, we’ll never get there. Perfection is rigid, and rigidity doesn’t offer stability. We need a bit of leeway in order to find the balancing point. We need to be self-aware enough to know how much energy to apply to bring something into balance. Sometimes it’ll be more, and sometimes less. There’s no one thing we can do to nail it every single time. That concept doesn’t even truly exist.

As mothers we are constantly fighting against our need to be perfect, our need to compare ourselves to other women and the job they’re doing, and to beat ourselves up whenever we make a mistake or a misstep. We don’t always trust our instincts, even though with time and experience every mother realizes that her instinct about her own children is the truest and wisest voice she can listen to. What’s more important than striving for perfection is striving to know ourselves well enough that we can decide in each situation, in each moment, how much energy and exertion to apply in order to bring something that’s a little off into balance.

We’ve got everything we need. The one thing we really don’t need, that we should let go of with joy and relief, is the need to be perfect.

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9 Comments on “Imperfect Motherhood”

  1. Rita says:

    If you haven’t already, connect with Lucila McElroy. She’s a coach for moms who want to let go of the need for perfection. You’ve definitely gotten over a lot of that stuff and inspire so many.

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  2. Lisa Smith says:

    What a beautiful column, Tracy. I appreciate your taking the time to write it. I’m also sincerely happy for you that you have found so many benefits/life lessons from doing yoga. Happy birthdays!

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  3. Rbk says:

    Here’s the great thing – when I see you I feel calm and balaced!!!!

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  4. lisa danbrot says:

    Tracy, this is such an important and powerful contemplation. Thank you as a mother, and as a woman (and, yeah, as a human too). Consider this “other” definition of the word perfect: complete or whole, lacking nothing. I like this definition because it references Purna (fullness). instead of us trying to fit in to someone else’s predetermined ideal (or even more daunting–the one we create ourselves out of fear of our own deficiency), we actually ARE perfect. You said it mama, we have everything we need and we need everything we have! Since we really do have it all, (somewhere in there) it becomes a practice of invoking, uncovering, revealing, and awakening to what ingredient we can add or subtract in order to enhance and support the beauty of our lives in their continually unfoldng state.

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  5. kmaslp says:

    I love this post! Especially the part about being self-aware enough to know how much energy to apply to bring things back into balance. That resonated with me. Happy to say I am heading back to yoga this month to find that energy…and my center again. thanks Tracy for your insight 🙂

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  6. Aviva Lucas Gutnick says:

    Have you read the new book, “Good Enough is the New Perfect?” By Hollee Schwartz Temple and Becky Beaupre Gillespie (both Medill grads and friends of mine). it’s a meditation on modern motherhood and how we are our own worst enemies in terms of trying to do everything and of course, falling short. this book was a huge relief. read it and tell me what you think.

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