parent opinion

'When my daughter was getting married, I tried to be the perfect mum. I ruined everything.'

Most mothers I know — myself included — see our parenting mistakes in stark relief against a backdrop of feelings of inadequacy. 

We feel like we have to make up for the ways we have failed, for the times we were less than patient and kind, for our inability to always be what our children needed us to be. 

At times we try to make up for that lack by overcompensating. This can look like a lot of different things, but I will give you an example from my own life.

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When my older daughter was getting married, it brought up all kinds of feelings in me, but the feeling that I could not express (but was right under the surface) was my need to make up for the ways I had failed her. 

I wanted to make her day amazing. Our family had gone through times of crisis when I was unable to steer the boat to calmer seas, the consequence of which made me temporarily unable to meet my children’s needs. 

This was my opportunity, I thought, to make up for all those times I wasn’t — or couldn’t be — the mother I had always hoped to be.

In essence, I was trying to earn my ‘good mother’ badge back. (It was only in my head that I had lost it, but that wasn’t even the point. I was convinced that I had been less than a good mother because I had not been able to do it perfectly.)

A Perfect Storm

My daughter was a thousand miles away, and the wedding was taking place near my home. 

My daughter had given me the reins to take charge and plan her wedding. Only she didn’t really mean it. However, I was already in supermum-mode, taking charge and making things happen. 

She was mostly in ambivalent-mode, unable to express what she really wanted, driving me crazy because she couldn’t. 

I didn’t have time to wait around for her to figure it out, so I pressed ahead, knowing that I could make this a fabulous day. I exhausted myself taking care of all the details.

In the end, my daughter did have a beautiful wedding day. 

I worked as hard as I have ever worked to make it perfect in every way. But all my work, all my overcompensating for my failures, came back to bite me in the end. 

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By the end of her wedding day, my daughter was stressed, disappointed and exhausted.

When she let me know this, I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. I had worked so hard to make up for my failures as a mother that I took my eyes off the ball. 

I was aiming for perfection, and she just wanted a relaxed, laid back affair with a calm, happy mother.

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It took months for me to process what had happened. 

I was so ashamed for making a mess of things. 

You don’t get a do-over of your wedding, and it was a heavy burden to bear that in her memories of that day she would always remember how my overcompensating made the day so stressful. 

We got past it, but for a long time it was the elephant in the room. Neither of us knew how to truly resolve it. I had apologised of course, she had forgiven me, but I was still carrying a heavy load of guilt and shame. It didn’t feel finished.

With time, I began to see that what went wrong is that I used her wedding day to serve my need to feel better about myself as a mother. 

I was hoping to redeem myself from all the mistakes I had made, and instead, I made one of the biggest mistakes I have ever made. It has taken a lot of inner work for me to own my motives, my behaviour, and my selfishness.

If you had asked me if I were being selfish in the midst of the planning and work of pulling off a practically perfect day, I would have been offended. 

I was working my arse off for my daughter. I was being selfless, not selfish. I could not have seen my motives if they were dressed in wedding finery and joined me on the dance floor. 

I was blind to my pain — my sense of failure — that was driving me to make her wedding my redemption.

It has taken us several years to process all our feelings around that day.

We have had several conversations that started with a comment about something else and opened the door for us to be honest with each other about her wedding day. 

We have been able to see where we both blew it — me with my need to make it perfect, to make her see I am a good mother, and her with her inability to speak her truth and put me in my place. 

We have been able to reframe the day, and we now see it as a stepping-stone in our relationship. It has been an impetus of growth for both of us, and we have a much healthier relationship because of it.

The Overcompensation Trap

Once I did the work to realise that my own pain was driving the train, I have been able to see other times when I was overcompensating to the detriment of my children. 

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Always, my overcompensating was because I wanted my children to be happy, but it was also in the service to make up for my failures (real or perceived) as a mother.

How many mothers get caught in this same trap? I would be willing to bet a lot of us have. 

It is partly because of the expectations society has about how we should perform as mothers. Those expectations are so unrealistic as to be ludicrous, but, by god, we try to live up to them. 

When we fail, we get caught in the trap of self-loathing that rises up as overcompensating. “I may have failed that test, but I am going to get this one so right no one can ever say I am not a good mother.”

When we try to do more for our children than they need or want us to do, when we unknowingly require them to make us feel better about ourselves as a mother, when we impose our ideas and perfectionistic tendencies on them, we are negating our attempts to be good mothers. 

It is hard for a mother to look at her own behavior and admit she is to blame. We think we are doing it for our children. When the result of our behavior does not match our intent, it causes a kind of cognitive dissonance that can be nearly impossible to overcome.

This is where it gets sticky for so many of us. 

Admitting we have messed up just confirms our worst fears: we really are a miserable failure as a mother. But it is also the beginning of becoming a different kind of mother.

Perfection Is Not an Option

To face ourselves and see that we have been our own worst enemy is difficult. 

We are embarrassed at our inability to be the kind of mother we think should be. And our attempts to fix that — by overcompensating — can be the very thing that causes harm to our children.

One of the biggest problems mothers who overcompensate have is the inability to allow themselves to be human and to offer compassion and forgiveness to themselves for being so. 

When we can learn that it is ok not to be whatever our version of a “perfect” mother is, then we can relax into being authentic with our kids, and that means being able to admit to our kids that we screwed up and own the fact that we hurt them in the process. 

Saying “I messed up and I’m sorry” goes a long way toward healing our relationship with our child.

It is in looking at the truth without turning away that we can begin to recognise when we are going off course in the future. 

When you see that your need to overcompensate in a situation is taking the wheel, you can stop and course-correct. 

Then you can begin practicing embracing yourself as an imperfect mother. In the end, what our children need is a mother who can be imperfect and admit it. 

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They need to see us fail, and then pick ourselves up and try to make it right. They don’t need us to be perfect since that is not in our power. They just need us to be good enough.

Carla Naumburg, PhD, a clinical social worker wrote:

“There’s one other important point we need to remember about the good enough mother — she’s not only a gift to her children, but she’s also unavoidable. It is, quite simply, not possible to do better than good enough. Perfection is not an option.”

Relaxing Into Being a Good Enough Mum

After we finally worked through all the charged emotions of the wedding day failure, my daughter said to me that it was the moments in my life I was imperfectly human that helped her the most. 

It gave her a template for how to be a competent, albeit flawed human being herself. It taught her to pick herself back up and keep going.

The desire to be a good mother is not a bad thing. But self-awareness if the first step to freedom. 

Learning to be less than perfect opens us to allowing our children to tell us what they need instead of us imposing on them what we need them to have to make us feel better about ourselves. 

Learning to be a good enough mother will set us both free.

I have committed myself to embracing my humanness, admitting when I have screwed up and practicing self-compassion. 

I am willing to be a good-enough mother — one who has made some big mistakes, but is willing to make amends without going off the deep end trying to overcompensate.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission.

Beth Bruno wrote her first story when she was eight years old. She has been writing about life and all its complexities ever since. She keeps thinking that one day she will get it all figured out. She writes about relationships, mindfulness, mental health and things she sees out her window. She loves hanging out with her adult children and grandchildren, gardening, raising chickens and camping on uninhabited islands. You can follow her on Medium here and Facebook here.

For more of Beth, check out some of her stories below:

'There were times I would judge my mother growing up. Then I had kids of my own.'

"The pain became a part of my life. " How I healed from the loss of my estranged daughter.

"What did you do?" My friends don’t understand my estrangement from my daughter.

'I believed I was an unfit mum.' What I learned from being the mother of an estranged daughter.

Feature Image: Getty.