I've set realistic, attainable goals through the years: Graduate from college; get a job; buy a house. But when my husband and I starting walking the path to parenthood, I felt internal and external pressure to do everything just so. To be the do-it-all woman — a mix of June Cleaver and Condoleezza Rice.
Never mind that aside from liking to cook, I'm not exactly a domestic goddess, or that a few hours of baby-sitting as a teen doesn't a parent make. I began plotting my new life based on the latest parenting trends I'd been reading up on (and had even reported on in this very magazine), as well as the "gospel" I heard other moms dishing out. I wouldn't say that I looked at motherhood through rose-colored glasses, but I had high expectations for myself.
I'd only feed the baby organic, homemade food. My friendships wouldn't take a back seat to babymania. Plastic toys wouldn't cross our threshold (got to watch out for that Bisphenol A and those phthalates). I would love my baby 24-7 and never get upset at him. I would embrace being a stay-at-home mom and cast aside my career. Each night, my husband and I would read our baby two books before we gently placed him in the crib to sleep — without a pacifier, of course, because who wants to end up with a 6-year-old with bad teeth who can't self-soothe? And we certainly wouldn't let him cry himself to sleep because that's not in line with the oh-so-trendy Attachment Parenting movement.
As I stood on the brink of parenthood, those seemed to be completely realistic expectations. How hard could it be?
Turns out, it's really hard. And if you don't bend, you break!
We tried to read to our son, Nigel, every night, but he couldn't care less. I would get really worked up and convince myself that he and I would never share the same passion for reading. Or feel frustrated with my husband because perhaps the problem was he wasn't reading the book just right.
I grieved the temporary loss of my career, some days even regretting I'd chosen to become a stay-at-home mom. Other moms I knew embraced this stage in life, and I felt guilty for not doing the same. I doubted my ability to love Nigel unconditionally and show him how to interact with society, beating myself up because I couldn't live up to my expectations.
"I think women have been told for most of their lives that they can do anything they want to do, but we interpret it too broadly and think that we should do everything we want to do," says Liz Pearce, executive director of Commonwealth Parenting. "New moms seem to expect all the pieces of our multitasking lives to fit neatly together, even though we have very little control over a great number of the pieces. We know that motherhood is challenging, unpredictable and sometimes messy, yet we still add multiple layers of tasks and responsibilities."
Take, for example, Emi-leigh Benson. She expected that being a mom would go smoothly. She and her child would have an instant bond, breast-feeding would come naturally and she'd be OK running on little-to-no sleep. But when now-5-month-old Carlin came three weeks early as a breech birth, he didn't take to breast-feeding. Benson, who lives in south Richmond, realized things weren't so simple.
"I felt like I let him down because [breast-feeding] wasn't happening for us," she says. Benson felt a lot of internal and external pressure to continue trying to breast-feed Carlin — "everyone has a really strong opinion," she notes — which in turn created a lot of frustration and tension. But the pediatrician eased some of Benson's guilt and helped her come to terms with reality. "He said, ‘You're not any less of a mother, whichever way you go,' " she says. "It's turned out to be a blessing in disguise because now my husband can feed him [a bottle]. He's more involved."
Glen Allen mom Amber Underhill had specific expectations about how she would discipline her two kids, the older of whom, Brayden, is 2. "I wanted to be a ‘talk about it' kind of mom, but that's unrealistic. You have to resort to different levels of discipline," she says. Underhill, who works outside of the home full time, says her expectations were more realistic with her second child, 7-month-old Blake.
Before she became a stay-at-home mother, Benson also expected she'd have more time to get things done than when she worked outside of the home. But now she knows it's difficult to plan around a baby — and kids aren't always portable. "I don't know where our day goes. I don't get things done. I sort of felt like in the beginning like I was a big letdown as a wife," Benson says. Thankfully, though, Benson's husband, Matt, has been an excellent support system, and that's helped her block out some external pressures. "I had to learn to follow my intuition and say to hell with everybody else."
The "everybody else" can be, for some new moms, pushy mothers or mothers-in-law, all-knowing friends, judgmental strangers and media outlets. Leticia Flores, director of Virginia Commonwealth University's Center for Psychological Services and Development, says that's the paradox of modern-day parents. Moms need social support, but along with the plusses, they can also feel the pressure of expectations. There's constant tension about when to listen to others and knowing when to follow your own instincts, she says.
Pearce agrees that it's difficult to block out all societal pressures. "However," she says, "new moms can comfortably choose aspects of motherhood that are important to them, and embrace the challenges and unpredictable events ... ahead of them."
Jamie Rosati Perkins, an East End mom of three — Dylan, 10; Madison, almost 4; and Ace, 2 — did just that. "Just like any other job, I had to practice and learn as I went," says the middle-school math coach for Henrico County Public Schools. "I read too many books and listened way too much to other people's advice on everything — even when I knew it wasn't the right advice for our family."
Flores suggests that new moms give themselves a break and don't expect perfection. "There's no textbook way to be a mom," she says. And if moms do find themselves getting bogged down with negative thoughts, they should slow down, listen to their bodies and watch for signs of depression.
Also, it's OK to re-evaluate your expectations over time, experts say. "Does this particular issue fit with your lifestyle? Did you set this goal for yourself or did someone else? Have you reached out for help in meeting the expectation?" Pearce says. "Voicing the pros and cons of a situation can help moms accept the disappointment of an unmet expectation. Seeking support from other new moms or friends with young children can make a world of difference."
As for me, I'm trying to follow Pearce's advice: "Expectations should optimally match what is reasonable for a mother's particular tolerance level for stress, and for the amount of time she needs to relax and recharge."
At the moment, my tolerance for stress isn't very high. So I'm becoming more at peace with being an imperfect mom. My son has plastic toys, I once let him lick ice cream off my spoon, and the crying-it-out method saved our family by turning Nigel into an all-star sleeper. But I'm also taking the time to reflect on and celebrate the ideals I have stuck with. For example, although Nigel's food isn't exclusively organic, it is homemade. And I'm surrounding myself with old and new friends who don't judge. I've found that when I'm more relaxed about parenting, Nigel has room to explore and become his own person. And isn't that what's most important in the end?
Sarah K. McDonald was an associate editor at Richmond magazine before leaving in 2008 to raise Nigel full time.