The Perfect Mother

by Joanie Butman


If you are of a certain age, images of Donna Reed, June Cleaver, or Carol Brady probably come to mind when you imagine the perfect mother. I think we could all be better mothers if we had another set of hands around like the Brady Bunch’s eminently capable Alice, don’t you?  The perfect mother – there’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one. Let me just say with confidence, “She doesn’t exist!” because if she did, surely one of us imperfect ones would have killed her by now. The perfect mother today may be the raving lunatic you observe in the grocery store tomorrow as she and/or her children are experiencing a total meltdown. Or in the dressing room trying on prom dresses. Regardless of our children’s ages, we all have our own stories of imperfect parenting moments and they grow exponentially with our children.

The only definitive thing I can say about parenting is that there is no such thing as perfect. First of all, “perfect parenting” (and I use the term loosely) for one child may be disastrous for their siblings. Unfortunately, children don’t come with instruction manuals. It’s a process of trial and lots of errors – which is why we all end up in therapy sooner or later – or if we don’t, we probably should.

Anytime I’ve ever patted myself on the back and mumbled to myself, “Okay, I think I’ve figured it out. I can do this,” I am immediately humbled by some new problem or circumstance I totally mishandle. Another thing about parenting is that the person who excels at being the mother of an infant may fail miserably at parenting a toddler, pre-teen or teenager. The job changes with your children, and we are all better in some stages than others.

The secret I’ve learned to survive being an “imperfect mother” is to avoid all of the so-called “perfect” ones out there. You know who they are. As a new mother, it was the ones who proudly claimed their child slept through the night since they were a week old, as if they had discovered some secret formula that helped bring about this coveted and miraculous feat. Or the ones who toilet trained their children in one day before the age of two. Or the ones whose children were reading Shakespeare at age four. Or the ones who serve their sandwiches in shapes. How about the ones who boast never having to raise their voice or how “good” their children are in everything? My personal nemeses were always the ones who teared up when they sent their kids back to school in September – a day I’d been fantasizing about for weeks at that point!

If I were a “perfect mom,” I would enjoy preparing a perfect meal every night and serving it with a smile to my perfect family who only had nice things to say to each other and always thanked me for being so attentive to their every need and shared how blessed they feel to have me as their mother. But alas, I am just a humble woman trying to survive another family dinner without incident – a rare event.

It is also the eternal optimism of a mother’s love that props up the illusory perfect “family vacation.” Silly as it seems, I always cling to the delusion that they are going to be as heavenly as they sound. Not so! But I am ever hopeful in continuing to plan quality time with my family, which I’ve discovered can be highly overrated. Einstein must have been referring to the family vacation when he defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. BUT, those few times when the stars align and all goes smoothly you understand why you make the effort.

The interesting thing I’ve noticed about moms is that you rarely find women who are willing to be honest about the ups and downs of parenting, as if they would be admitting defeat by acknowledging they are not always in control, nor do they always enjoy being with their kids. If I was forced to come up with my version of a perfect mother, it would be someone who is willing to share just how imperfect she is without shame.

The truth is, we do our best to impart our values to our children; and surprisingly, every so often we will be rewarded by hearing them say something that indicates they’ve actually been paying attention. However, at some point, they will make their own decisions – all of which won’t necessarily be good. In fact, you can count on it. What we need to remind ourselves is that good kids sometimes make bad choices, as do good parents. We’re here to pick up the pieces and help them learn from those choices. Perfection should never be the goal for either of us, because we set ourselves up for failure and disappointment. Furthermore, overcoming the mistakes binds you closer together. Sure the road is bumpy, but it’s better than not being on it at all.

Choosing to become a parent is not to be taken lightly and definitely qualifies as a life-defining choice. Once that baby arrives, your life is never the same, nor would you want it to be. There is no quitting, no retirement, no vacation, no sabbaticals, no weekends off (double time only), and no return on investment for years. However, despite the long hours and low pay, it is the best job I’ve ever had.

In eighteen years of parenting I’ve learned the most important ingredients to being a good mom are commitment, time and love. In a recent Purpose Driven Life Daily Devotional, John Fischer describes it as Family Ties.

“It’s all about commitment.  In spite of how bad it might get, no one’s leaving.  If the ties are strong, we can put up with almost anything (with the obvious exception of abuse).  The real key is not how perfect we are, but how committed we are to each other.  How much are we tied together at the end of the day?”

Family Ties doesn’t necessarily refer exclusively to your nuclear family.  We are all members of many families in our lives - some we are born into, others we choose: school families, soccer families, lacrosse families, church families – you get the picture. However, the most important family we will ever have the “choice” to be a part of is God’s family. And that’s where that question, “How much are we tied together at the end of the day?” takes on a whole new meaning. Yes, it is often a difficult journey, we will all make mistakes again and again; but it’s worth remembering John Fischer’s question, “The real key is not how perfect we are, but how committed we are to each other. How much are we tied together at the end of the day?” We can be committed to God and each other without perfection. The effort in trying is all God asks from us. After all, he knows our imperfections better than anyone.

So, will I be receiving the mother-of-the-year award or even the Christian-of-the-year award any time soon? Based on my performance over the years, definitely not. But I know without a doubt that if it depended on a measure of commitment, there are an abundance of “imperfect mothers” and even more “imperfect Christians” out there who would certainly qualify – myself included. It is our relationship and our commitment to those bonds that will warrant our reward, not necessarily our performance along the way.

Happy Mother’s Day to every imperfect mom I’ve ever had the honor to know and love.