May 24, 2021

Minute read

A Therapist Explains Why Trying to Be the Perfect Parent is a Trap — and How You Can Break Free From It

“Perfection is a unicorn. It doesn’t exist.”

My daughter, who is old enough to know the truth about unicorns, taught me this gem the other day. I could not agree more.

But sometimes, being a good enough parent just does not feel like enough. The drive to be the “perfect parent” is strong, but often unconscious, and it has parents striving to meet impossibly high standards.

If we know that perfection is an unattainable expectation, then what keeps us aiming for it anyway?

The answer is that the anxiety that comes with loss of control is what often drives this pursuit. Parents are largely unable to control their pregnancy or birth experiences, as natural biological processes take over the job, and this is true of parenting as well.

You lack much control over your baby or child, as each one has their own little personality with a will of their own. Perfectionist tendencies may arise as an attempt to exert some control over your life. And it can manifest itself in several ways, such controlling things like your physical appearance or the cleanliness of your home, to give some semblance of order when the chaos becomes overwhelming.

The Perfect Image 

Karen Kleinman, LCSW, who has worked with postpartum women for many years and is a prolific writer on the subject, describes the phenomenon of perfectionism in parenting as the elusive desire to be “perfectly postpartum.”

Kleinman observed that clients who appear totally together with the perfect outfit and carefully styled hair and makeup, sometimes are the ones who are struggling the most. They have adopted behaviours like excessive grooming to exercise some control over the inner and outer pandemonium that comes with the parenthood territory.

When emotions like anxiety or frustration are overwhelming, presenting oneself perfectly on the outside offers a modicum of control.

The Perfect Home 

Similarly, having a perfect home may alleviate anxiety about extensive to-do lists.

Perhaps you feel calmer or more centered when the laundry is neatly folded, the beds are made, and the kitchen is tidied after dinner. If you experience embarrassment over messiness, your self-worth might be tied into your perception of the cleanliness of your home.

Unconsciously, you are having to prove your worth over and over to show that you are actually doing okay at this parenting thing, and you view that tangle of toys on the floor as evidence of falling short. Or maybe you grew up with a parent who prided themselves on a meticulously perfect home, and this has become part of your makeup too.

The Perfect Childhood? 

Your own childhood experiences may also influence the need for perfection in parenting.

The idea that the mistakes your parents made have led to your perceived flaws drives the need to be the perfect parent, so that your children will not have to endure some of the challenges you faced.

To borrow a cognitive behavioural therapy term, this is “magical thinking,” the notion that being the perfect parent will prevent your child from experiencing adversity. While self-improvement in the parenting department is an admirable goal, parenting mistakes are inevitable, and expectations that are too high sets parents up for failure and a whole lot of guilt.

The Comparison Trap 

Comparison and the expectations of others also have a weighty effect on perfectionism in parenting.

We all know the famous adage, “comparison is the thief of joy” and this is abundantly fitting in parenthood, but we all fall into the comparison trap from time to time. Many parents feel judged or criticized by other parents, or by the dreaded in-laws, and this feeling of being under the microscope further exacerbates the drive towards perfection.

Rather than trusting their own value-driven judgement, parents strive to be the most perfect parent at the playground, simply to measure up to other parents who appear to be parenting more competently. In this age of social media as a constant source of comparison, you may have to set some boundaries for yourself around media consumption if you find you are getting sucked into the comparison trap too much.

Breaking Free from the Perfection Trap 

Developing some awareness around your perfectionist tendencies can be useful in gaining some self-insight about what is driving this striving. Notice when your inner critic shows up with negative comments about your parenting efforts. Observe if you are constantly second-guessing your parenting choices. Take note when you are frustrated or angry when your actions fall short of your high expectations.

Whether your perfectionism arises from the need for control to alleviate anxiety, your childhood experiences, or constant comparison, the reality is that mistakes happen and no parent on the face of this planet is perfect.

Using affirmations as reminders of this fact can be helpful to get you through days when you feel that you are so far from perfect and your mood is suffering.

Here are a few simple a ffirmations that can help alleviate perfectionism: 

  • I am enough. I am doing enough.
  • I am allowed to make mistakes.
  • I am not my parents. My child is not me.
  • Everyone struggles. No one has it all together all the time.    

The more candid conversations you have with other parents you know and trust, the more you might find that there is simply no such thing as the perfect parent. The illusion of the perfect parent is more akin to a mythological creature than to our perfectly imperfect human parenthood experiences.

Image credits: Eric Ljung, Allen Taylor, and Ava Sol.

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About the Author: Kate McKay, RCC

Kate McKay, MA, is a registered clinical counsellor and the owner of Coastal Calm Therapy in the Vancouver, BC area. As a counsellor and mother of two, Kate’s passion lies in helping soon-to-be, new, and seasoned parents navigate the challenging world of parenthood. Her lived experiences as a parent and counsellor allow her to offer authentic empathy and understanding to clients and to hold space to really hear their unique stories. Kate’s approach is infused with mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy, and somatic therapy to create a counselling experience designed to deepen self-awareness and invite self-compassion into the healing process. When Kate is not in therapy sessions, she can be found hiking and connecting with nature in the beautiful temperate rainforests of BC, practicing on her yoga mat, or exploring the arts with painting, singing, dancing, and crafty creations. Kate’s mission is to share her knowledge and experiences with others in hopes that we can all know the nourishing value of self-compassion and human connection. Click here to visit her website.



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