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perfection vs. priorities: why parenting values matter

by Meagan Francis on April 4, 2012

Since I’m on vacation with my family this week, I’ve pulled up an old post out of my archives. I hope you enjoy!

A while back I made a list of the values I hold for my children, myself, my family. It’s a nice, short list, but it sums up the things that are most important to me.

I want my children to learn to be kind, and to view kindness as a normal way of relating to others.

I want my children to be actively and healthfully engaged in the world, the outdoors, and the people around them. This means being outside, interacting with the neighbors and nature around us, and when inside, taking part in a variety of activities rather than just heading right for the XBox. It means eating real food and having real experiences rather than the pre-packaged, pre-digested food and entertainment that’s all too easy to come by these days.

I want my children to know they can come to me with any concern or question and I will really listen. I want them to feel heard and valued.

And yet far too often my actions don’t match up with my priorities.

Too often I allow my children to overhear me being unkind to or about another person. Worse, too often I am unkind to them.

Too often I allow my kids to spend hours staring at various screens because it allows me quiet time to do the things I want or need to do. Too often I just passively let them consume “junk”, whether it’s junk food or junk entertainment, because it’s easier than intervening.

Too often I am distracted, only half-present. Too often I look past the most important people in my life to pay attention to things I don’t care much about at all.

Now, am I sitting here mired in guilt because of this list of realizations? Heck no! I’m not because I know every single person reading this has her own list of “too oftens”. And we are all, I trust, good moms.

I’ve seen a troubling dichotomy in the online parenting world: the “eh” mentality and the “everything matters” mentality. I don’t believe in either. Parenting is too important to casually leave to our least efforts. But every decision is not life or death. To take an example from my list of priorities–I engage in ‘junk’ food and ‘junk’ entertainment myself and don’t really have a problem with my kids watching a crappy TV show or two. It’s only when the junk becomes a way of life–what we’re subsisting on, rather than a snack–that I feel the need to reign my kids and myself back in.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We don’t have to look at our everyday, run-of-the-mill faults and shortcomings and feel tremendous guilt over them. What’s the point? We all miss the mark, we all miss opportunities for greatness.

We also can’t use the reality that none of us are perfect as an excuse to throw our hands up in the air, and say “Oh well!” What is the point of doing anything in life if we aren’t always trying to get better at it?

It’s not about aiming for perfection. Far from it. When my oldest two kids were very small, I aimed for perfection, but fell way short. And I felt a lot of guilt. Truth is, I was surrounding myself with people and Internet personalities I perceived as parenting idols, but the chances that they were as fantastic as they presented themselves to be were just as slim as the chances that I could ever be as fantastic as I thought they were. I tried to do everything “right”, burned out, and did the most important things (like enjoying my life and my kids) all wrong.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the less I try to be perfect, the better a mom I am. That’s because I can focus on the things that really matter to me, not anyone else. Leaving perfection behind allowed me to figure out exactly where my values lie, and try to create a life that puts those values at a high priority.

Note that I am referring to my values. I don’t expect anyone else to have the same ones as I do. All the word “values” means is, those things a person puts a high value on. Your list can be different from mine. But yes, I believe we all need to have a list.

It’s not about putting pressure on myself, or trying to meet some imaginary ideal. Taking stock of where my actions don’t match up with my values is just a good way of keeping myself in check. Yes, I’ll still slip and fall, over and over. But at least I have a bar to reach for when I’m back on my feet. It’s a way of reminding myself of the life I want to live; the life I want to look back on later.

Trying to be perfect gets in the way of following our own personal values. It robs us of the chance to be good enough and tempts us to throw our hands in the air and give up.

The way I see it? Parenting is too important a job to try to do perfectly.

Speaking of perfectionism, I’ll be joining Christine Koh of BostonMamas, Kristin Van Ogtrop of Real Simple, and a panel of smart women at The Motherhood tomorrow, Thursday the 5th of April at 12:00 noon EST, to talk about women and time: how to let go of perfection and allow ourselves to enjoy more free time at home. I hope you’ll pop over and join us!

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristen @ Motherese April 12, 2010 at 11:20 am

Wonderful post, Meagan. I too often get lost in my own set of “too oftens.” Recently I read a book that discussed the importance of setting intentions for parenthood: finding two or three values that really matter and then focusing on them. I chose cultivating kindness and demonstrating gratitude as the two values I would practice, model, and try to instill in my kids. I absolutely still have days when I am grouchy and ungrateful, but focusing on two big things that matter most to me helps me from swaying too far in the direction of “eh” or “everything matters.”

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C. Michele April 12, 2010 at 2:43 pm

I am so happy I found your blog. It helps to feel that I am not alone in this crazy world called “motherhood.” Thanks so much.

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RookieMom Whitney April 12, 2010 at 2:44 pm

I whole-heartedly agree with you, Meagan, and have been having a hard time with my son’s school recently on a related topic. They dole out advice (via a weekly email) that I feel simply adds to the list of things we “ought” to be doing to feel like we are good parents.

Like you, I have enough self confidence to mentally say, “thanks for the ideas – i may use SOME of them”, rather than get bogged down with all of the things I’m not going to do. But your example of crappy tv resonates with me. A little bit is not going to un-do all of the good things we do for ourselves and our children the rest of the time.

One of the things our school wants us to do is send Zero Waste lunches. I have completely stopped using baggies and have really reduced the amount of waste my kids’ lunches generate, but my husband and I agree that there are some choices we should make to make our lives and morning routines easier. A prepackaged snack or two is among them. (Cashews or carrots or applesauce that come in individually wrapped containers.) It seems that “pretty good” is not “good enough” in this case, and it makes me resentful!

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Meagan Francis April 12, 2010 at 7:48 pm

Whitney, this must be a private school, no? I had a similar issue at a Montessori preschool my sons attended years ago. I understood where they were coming from…truly I did. And yet there were times I simply was not in a place where I was ABLE to provide completely waste-free lunches, and I did not appreciate the guilt trip. I figured if the specifics of each lunch were THAT important to them, why not provide a healthy, waste-free lunch option parents could buy into? (There was no school-provided lunch at all.) Needless to say we didn’t stick around for longer than a year.

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Meagan Francis April 12, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Kristen, you’re so right that it’s important to have that anchor to keep us from straying too far off the path, even while recognizing that we’ll still wander along the grass along the sides pretty much daily :) I’d love to know which book it was you were reading!

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suburbancorrespondent April 12, 2010 at 8:06 pm

Perfection is the enemy of good enough.

God loves us because of our imperfections, not despite them.

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Jamie April 13, 2010 at 11:40 am

I think this is such an important post because it’s inevitable that all mothers will get caught up in that perfection myth now and then, especially because it’s so easy to focus on what you’re NOT doing, instead of what you ARE doing. I particularly like that you talk about being a better mom once you decided to stop trying to be the perfect mom. I took the same approach to housekeeping, and it was very effective, but I never thought of applying it to parenting – great idea!

I also really like Kristen’s comment about choosing 2 or 3 values and focusing on those values. That’s essentially what I’ve tried to do, albeit not consciously, since her comment is the first I’ve heard about that specific approach. But there are certain things that I feel very strongly about, and I focus on those areas. Feeding a healthy diet, and instilling in my son not just a healthy attitude towards food, but also the skills to choose healthy foods and prepare them. Teaching manners, integrity, and respect for others. If, at the end of the day, I’ve made some progress towards accomplishing these things, I’m okay with the fact that I caved and let him watch Wonderpets so I could make some phone calls in peace.

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Amber April 13, 2010 at 3:17 pm

My goal is to be a ‘good enough’ mom. To me, that means that I really do try. But I also don’t sweat it when things fall apart. Because, you know, things are GONNA fall apart.

Sometimes I’m actually grateful that my first child was such a high needs baby. She cried all the time for her first 3 years of life. I frequently had no idea why. I did my best to be there for her, but I learned that I couldn’t solve every problem she had. It helped me learn not to sweat it when my daily life with my kids doesn’t always live up to my ideals. I did my best, I truly did, and then I cut myself some slack. And that’s how I’ve continued, trying to find a middle way.

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Pamela April 4, 2012 at 9:17 pm

I’ve been feeling some burnout myself and wondering how to adjust our priorities around here to take the stress down a notch. I probably lean toward the “everything matters” end of the spectrum when I’m ramped up, but you can only sustain that level of parenting for so long and I’m trying to figure out the places to tweak and spend my energy. Great post; was a timely one for me.

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Kyla April 4, 2012 at 11:34 pm

I believe that what values we had is from our parents. We should know our priorities. Thanks for sharing this kind of blog with us.

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Sleeping Mom April 4, 2012 at 11:49 pm

Yes! Overall I think I’m a darn good mom, but I know I’ve done my less-than-proud of moments for sure. I think it’s pretty much impossible to have a perfect record of always being on top of our game.

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Liz April 5, 2012 at 4:02 am

Everything starts at home. Especially the values we had.

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Andrea | Elimination Communication April 5, 2012 at 6:12 am

Thank you for this insightful article. It really grounds motherhood and parenting as it is in the real world. I try to be a “present” parent as much as I am able, but I accept (and appreciate!) the fact that I cannot do everything alone. Yes, a child needs parenting, but at the same time, it takes a village, a community, to raise a child. When I try to take on everything all at once, trying to do things as what society (or others) say I ought to do, it just ends up making me a grumpy mama instead of a happy one. We moms give the best that we can and strive to make our best better every single day.

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Tiffani April 5, 2012 at 12:05 pm

A big thing we need to remember is self-compassion. No one is perfect, not even those who can give off that impression, and so for ourselves, it’s important to say, “It’s OK to not follow other people’s standards of how to live my life or raise my kids”. We do the best we can, we try the hardest we can, and that should be enough sometimes. Being true to ourselves and doing what we can, not pushing beyond, is the best thing for our children as well.

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Kristy April 6, 2012 at 9:28 am

One of the best parenting posts I’ve read. !!!!

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Carolyn April 6, 2012 at 4:27 pm

I don’t think I could ever get enough of this subject!! I love this post. I think I put everyone up on a pedestal, while thinking I’m some inadequate, unequipped person who has no idea what she’s doing. I wonder if most moms feel this way at first? I love that your posts about being a mother imply trusting your gut. It relieves so much unwanted pressure. Thank you!!

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Julie April 7, 2012 at 11:49 am

I think that these resolutions cannot be fully realized… All of us wants to be the perfect mom. the perfect parent, but we also have to work, keep the house clean and care about the husband as well. The most important thing is, that we have to try to do our best.

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