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The myth of giving 100%

by Meagan Francis on February 18, 2013

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

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Vaidehi February 18, 2013 at 8:27 am

Hi Megan.. I really enjoy reading your blog.. It really helps & inspires me. Thank you very much for that. I am a work-from-home mom of a 2 year old & based far away from my homeland due to husband’s deputation here. I was used to having help back in India & now I am all on my own with no help (barring the help my husband offers). I am overwhelmed, almost in tears right now as I am struggling to manage my work commitments, and manage a clean tidy house with 3 home cooked meals each day.. Please help me! I really want to be in control but don’t know where to start. I often end up being a grumpy mom & wife too.

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Meagan Francis February 19, 2013 at 4:45 pm

Hi Vaidehi – thanks for your comment. First of all, I don’t know a single mom – not even the really excellent cooks! – who make three home-cooked meals per day, so please don’t feel pressured there. Sometimes I only make 3 home-cooked meals in a WEEK, and it was often less when I had toddlers or other challenging situations.

What helps me when I’m feeling out of control is to identify some small changes I can make to help me feel more functional and sane. So maybe it’s cleaning off the bathroom counter or straightening the sofa cushions so they aren’t doing that slumpy thing where they slide half off (huge pet peeve of mine!). Or maybe, I just really want my family to sit down at the dinner table, but I’m feeling way too overwhelmed to cook…those are the days we set the table and sit down to a frozen lasagna or something like that. The point is, things don’t have to be PERFECT to be reasonably in control, and even small changes can make a big difference in your outlook and mood.

Another thing that jumped out at me – you are isolated right now! I have a really hard time getting through a typical day without some connection with others. Do you have – or can you make – any fellow mom friends in the area? Are there playgroups, support groups or activities you can sign up for? Around here, newer moms seem to use the YMCA as a place to connect with other moms. Could something like that be an option?

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Vaidehi February 24, 2013 at 7:01 am

Hi Meagan

First of all, apologies for not spelling your name right! :-( and thank you so much for your response – it makes me feel much better.
Yes, “isolated” is the right word to describe my current situation & as you have suggested I will work on getting company (have already got some friends). Thanks a lot! :-)

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StephJ February 18, 2013 at 10:38 am

Meagan,
Thanks for this. I think that it’s important to also realize that YOUR 100% might not look the same as someone else’s 100%. I have been suffering from health problems for the last year, and it’s hard not to feel down on myself when all I see it seems is all that I HAVEN’T done. So I try to focus on the positive. I got some laundry done today. My floors are (temporarily) clean. My bedroom is vacuumed. I try to bite off things in small chunks, because inevitably, if I try to do a big day full of running around cleaning my house like a madwoman, I will run out of steam by the time supper comes around. Others might be able to do more, but I do the best with what I have.

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Meagan Francis February 19, 2013 at 4:46 pm

VERY good point. And “your 100%” can change from week to week, year to year. Chronic pain, illness, a stressful situation like a divorce or a move, having a newborn or a kid who suddenly won’t sleep…all those things can affect how much you’re able to give even on your ‘best’ days.

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Tragic Sandwich February 18, 2013 at 11:08 am

I think it’s important to distinguish between “the best,” “your best,” and “what’s best.”

I don’t particularly care about the first, no matter the context. The second is, depending on the specific subject, anywhere from excellent to totally useless (you don’t want me to fix your plumbing). The third, though, is a whole combination of things, many of which have nothing to do with me personally.

But in any case, all of these are subjective and specific to the individual.

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Rachel Gurevich February 18, 2013 at 11:47 am

Did you write this just for me? *looks around the room* Do you have cameras in here? Perhaps a mind-reading sensor?

I’ve been getting down on myself on the “not 100%” thing quite a bit lately. I mean, why can’t I write 1,000s of words a day, keep the house clean, homeschool my kids “perfectly”, never allow the children to turn on the television, make all natural gourmet dinners, and never tire of the running-in-circles-game my three year old twins love to play so much? I mean, what is wrong with me!

This blog reminded me that giving 100% all the time is not only unrealistic but ALSO a bad idea. Thank you for writing this!

Rachel, more of a 79% kind of mom (Hey, that’s a high C! It’s just slightly better than average!)

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Meagan Francis February 19, 2013 at 4:49 pm

Love it – a 79% kind of mom! You should put that on a T-shirt. :)

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Laura February 18, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Totally, Rachel! And you know what? My kids LOVE 79% mom, the one who does occassional movie nights and takes the time to wrestle. The one who helps the kids clean up their toys, instead of cracking the ‘clean-up’ whip.

I love 79% mom, too.
Laura

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Elizabeth Kane February 18, 2013 at 7:05 pm

Well said!

It’s interesting…the days I feel like I’m gliding easily are usually the ones followed by a day of letting go in some big area of my life I’ve been obsessing over. Coincidence? I don’t think so!

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Nina February 19, 2013 at 12:19 pm

I think “your best” is doing what you think is right, knowing what you know at that moment. I don’t think it’s that idyllic description of having a neat house or home-cooked food and everyone’s cheerful. For me, I know I’m doing my best when I’m just happy with how the day is going, mess or not, home cooked food or not.

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Brittnie (A Joy Renewed) February 19, 2013 at 6:09 pm

Such an inspirational post!! Love this mindset. Thank you for sharing and being an encouragement to other mommas!

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Kate F. @katefineske February 19, 2013 at 8:18 pm

I would much prefer to be an “Average Mom”. I like the idea of averaging my week… if I look at things day by day, hour by hour – yeah, there are going to be bad times. But if I take the week as a whole (or even better, my month of as whole – because lord knows you can easily have an entire week go bad!), and then look back at it – the “bad mom times” and the unproductive times totally are NOT the average of my time. There are “high times” and “low times” but overall – when I look back, my average is good. :)

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Rebecca February 21, 2013 at 1:51 pm

I wanted to thank you for your blog. I’ve been struggling since I became a mom and started staying home (my daughter is 7 months old now). This and many of your posts describe my experience so clearly, but you add a positive perspective that I am still working to develop and that is so important for me to hear. I think your blog is as much help with that as the counseling I go to!

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