The Supermom Backlash

Seven ways to ease "mommy guilt" and feel good about being just good enough.


"I think parents probably have better instincts than they know. You don't have to be a pediatrician or a child psychologist or an academician to have some inborn wisdom about raising your child. You just have to be a mom or a dad with a sense of what's practical, and a willingness to listen to your inner voice, instead of bowing to the inevitable pressures of "perfect parenting" messages. — Confessions of a Slacker Mom by Muffy Mead-Ferro (Da Capo Lifelong Press, 2004)"

Like most Type A personalities, I didn't jump into motherhood thinking, "I hope I'm decent at this." Oh, no. I was going to be spectacular. I planned to carry my daughter 24/7 in a sling, clean her bottom with warm, fragrance-free organic wipes and speak to her in multiple languages (never mind that I was only fluent in one). Pregnancy doesn't create the pressure to be perfect (there have always been thin thighs, glossy hair and an adoring partner to pine for), but it does seem to kick the urge into high gear. And no matter what we do, we're still nagged by the guilt that we're not doing enough, and that even if we are, we're not doing it well enough. "The myth of the perfect mother has become highly romanticized," says Susan Douglas, Ph.D., chairwoman of communication studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and co-author of The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women (Free Press, 2004).

Douglas blames the elevation of mothering standards to unreachable heights on a combination of factors, including the have-it-all ethic of the '80s and '90s and the rise of celebrity journalism, which treats babies as chic accessories. The increasing number of guilt-plagued, overcompensating working moms is another factor. "All these things extend the to-do list," Douglas says. "The standards of success have become impossible to achieve." But no parent should be expected to be constantly patient, present and put-together. The suggestions below can ease the burden of guilt.

1. Go easy on yourself: Some people (many of them childless) would have you believe that hiring a babysitter, bottle-feeding your baby or putting her in a playpen so you can take a quick shower are akin to child abuse. They're not. "You have to give yourself a break," Douglas says. You might have missed your Mommy and Me class this week, but you have been there for 14 weeks straight. Make a mistake? Your child probably didn't know (or won't remember) anyway. Your parents made plenty of mistakes, and you survived. Learn from yours and move on.

2. Question over-the-top consumerism: "Does a baby need to have custom, hand-painted murals in her nursery to feel loved?" asks Douglas. "I for one don't think so."

3. Get out without the baby: Taking breaks is not only essential for your mental health, it's also important for your partner's relationship with the baby. Sign up for a pottery class, train for a race, start a rock band. "Watch reruns of Leave It to Beaver," Douglas says. "June Cleaver is constantly shooing the Beaver outside to play." If TV's í¼bermom didn't feel obliged to spend every second with her kids, neither should you.

4. Join a mothers' group: You may be relieved (and surprised) to hear other moms admitting that they don't find every moment of mothering blissful. If getting out of the house to meet with other women is impossible, see "Morale Boosters" for confidence-inspiring books and online resources.

5. Don't compare yourself to stars: It's easy for celebrities to extol the joys of motherhood when someone else is doing their cooking and cleaning so they can frolic for photographers with their dressed-all-in-white offspring.

6. Laugh at ridiculous expectations: "When you see an advertisement featuring a mother who's showing flashcards to her 6-month-old, make fun of it with other mothers," Douglas says. "It helps to acknowledge the ways in which these images try to tyrannize us."

7. Compliment a mom: "I constantly see mothers contorting themselves trying to be perfect, yet they tell me what bad mothers they are," Douglas says. Tell other new moms—often—that they're doing a great job. (Tell yourself, too.) Over time, that impossibly high bar might just lower. My very own aha! moment came shortly after my daughter was born. I'd had enough unsolicited advice and decided to make up my own mind about what kind of parent I was going to be. The truth is, I found the sling unwieldy and uncomfortable (plus she slept better in her car seat, if we're being honest here), air-temperature wipes perfectly adequate and—seeing as my new baby didn't even speak English yet—foreign languages wholly unnecessary. I didn't tell my daughter that her stroller was a hand-me-down, and she didn't ask. I exchanged dozens of fabulous but patently excessive gifts for a stockpile of diapers. Because I quickly realized that basic necessities—along with love and food—were all my baby really needed.