The Myth of Giving 100%


Whenever I see a discussion about mom guilt, mothering choices or “good enough” mothering, invariably someone will say something like:  “As long as you do your best, you’re a great mom!”

I know, because I’ve said it myself.

But if you’re the kind of person who tends to over-analyze things, (guilty), second-guess your choices (sometimes guilty) or just pick apart truisms until they beg for mercy (almost always guilty), you might not feel completely satisfied by this platitude. What does it mean to give 100%? What does it mean to do your best? Is it really possible to do your best all the time? Is it possible for my 100% to be that different from another person’s 100%? Do I even want to give 100% effort, day in and day out?

The truth is that, like “good enough” mothering or “doing your best,” giving 100% is a pretty subjective idea and ideal.

Actually, it’s probably not even ideal. After all, if I consistently give 100%, day in and day out, then I have no reserves left over to draw on when life knocks me for a loop.

So, here’s my reality. Some days I truly excel, getting up early and hitting the day with all pistons firing. Those are the days I make it through the mornings on a sort of cheerful high octane, clearing away the dishes from the steel-cut oatmeal immediately, setting my daughter up with an art project and chattering with her from my computer as I deftly maneuver between mothering and my inbox. I make a healthy lunch and sit down with my daughter to eat it, instead of hunching over my desk.

In the afternoon, while she naps, I produce thousands of high quality words for my blogs. I greet the kids with homemade cookies when they get home, greet my husband with a kiss when he gets home, and we all sit down to dinner (homemade, naturally) together at precisely 6:30. Somehow, without my even noticing, I’ve managed to keep the house neat all day; the dishes will be clean, the leftovers neatly stored in the fridge, the homework done and tomorrow’s lunches packed long before I get sleepy (and grumpy.) The three littler kids are in bed – with a proper tuck-in, story, and kiss – by 8:00. After making sure my big kids have their homework done and maybe having a little conversation with them, I have some quality time with my husband, fold a load of laundry, read a little, and go to bed.

That is what a 100% day looks like for me. And let me tell you, they are few and far between. 

For me, the average day isn’t 100% or even close. Sure, I roll out of bed in time to get my kids off to school, but I might crawl back under the covers and snooze until Clara wakes up. I feed her cereal or cinnamon toast. The dishes linger. My first hour or two of work is sluggish. She watches Netflix while I circle around my to-do list like a vulture, picking at bits of real work, peppered by pauses to check Facebook. By the end of the day I get a burst of energy and manage to pull things together somehow, my work gets done – and usually well – and the house might even look tidy.

But I didn’t give 100%. Not even close. Many – most? – days, judging by my best, it seems I could have done better.

The reality, though, is that my “best” is not sustainable day to day. Most days, the best I feel capable of is not really “my best.” And I think that’s OK.

I believe that part of the reason I’m able to go so hard-core on the days I am feeling particularly energetic, inspired, focused, and motivated, is that I’ve let myself build up some reserves the rest of the time. 

I used to get down on myself for my rather inconsistent approach to productivity, but then I realized: It works for me. Stuff eventually gets done. My kids are parented well and my home is cared for, if not perfect. It’s just the way I am.

I don’t have to prove myself to myself – or anyone else – by going full-bore 7 days a week. In the end, the rest and reprieve I get from those slightly-slacking days are just as important to being “my best self” as my 100% days are. 

One of the biggest rules of happiness in life, I believe, is to know yourself. Some people thrive on steadiness and consistency. They benefit from gradual, regular progress. Maybe you’re one of those people.

Or maybe you’re like me, vacillating between hyper-productivity and downtime spent catching your breath. In the end – as long as we make the most of our energy when we have it, and take time out when we need it – it all evens out.

Lesson learned: “Giving 100%” doesn’t always look like giving 100%. And none of us need to do our best all the time to be “good enough” parents.

Whatever that means.

photo: AngryLambie on Flickr, via Creative Commons License

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