Mindful Mama: Presence and Perfectionism in Parenting

Being a mindful mama can be painful.

I am acutely aware of how often I fail, mess up, and let myself down in this work of conscious mothering. When I decide to go through a drive-through after a long day in town, I am very aware of each preservative laden, saturated fat heavy, factory-farmed, non-fair trade bite that crosses our lips. When I’m tired and have low energy for responsive parenting and I say “yes” my boys can watch a DVD, I know I am using it as a “babysitter” and as a “plug-in drug.” I cringe to hear myself say at times, “you guys are driving me crazy!” It is painful to know better and to watch myself do it anyway.

Listening to my Inner Critic

Instead of an inner guide, I too often listen to my inner critic. My judge. The perfect mama that sits on my shoulder and lets me know how often I screw it all up. I laugh sometimes as I reference the invisible panel of “good parents” that sits in my head judging me and finding me lacking.

For me, being a mindful mama is bound up in complicated ways with being a perfect mama; a “good mother.” In this way, it is NOT true mindfulness—I respond to my children based on how I think I should respond, how a “good mindful mama” would respond, not necessarily based on what is actually happening. Too often, I respond as I believe Dr. Sears, Jon Kabat-Zinn, or Marie Winn (The Plug in Drug) thinks I should respond, not based on reality or how we feel in the moment. This is the antithesis of true mindfulness. Mindfulness means an awareness of what is, it does not mean a constant monitoring of how I have failed. If I cannot be flexible and compassionate with myself, how do I expect to be a flexible and compassionate mother?

I am harsh and relentless in my own assessment of myself. Listening to the inner clamor of how to “be good” and “do it right,” prevents me from tuning in to what my children are really doing and really need in the moment. It is difficult to hear my own authentic voice, the still, small voice within, amidst the shouting in my head produced by all my reading and ideas.

This realization also forces me to acknowledge how often my mothering is about ME and not about my children. Too often my mothering springs from a preoccupation with being a “good mother”—i.e. making this all about me, me, ME—rather than about my children in the moment.

Meet Perfect Mama

I’m sure many of you know Perfect Mama—she gives birth with joy and ease, preferably at home and possibly unassisted. She breastfeeds responsively and for as long as her child needs—even through subsequent pregnancies and babies. She uses cloth diapers, or even better, no diapers at all because she practices elimination communication. She eats only organic foods and is perhaps vegetarian or vegan. She is always happy and creative and ready to play. She homeschools. She stays home, or, she effortlessly balances fulfilling work with a baby on her hip. She babywears and co-sleeps and grows her own food. She is “green” in her life and buying habits. She does not circumcise and she never forgets to boycott Nestle. Her family does not watch TV. She uses gentle, patient, loving discipline—no snapping or snarling. She never yells or gets angry and she never, never feels resentful or irritable.

I see in myself, in my friends, and in online communities, a ready tendency to judge or evaluate other mothers based on this inner checklist of good, “natural mothering” behaviors/practices, rather than seeing her as who and how she really is. There is also the tendency to hide the “ugly” parts ourselves or the parts that don’t conform to the checklist.

I actually meet many of the criteria on this checklist and in many ways (at least on paper!) I am “Perfect Mama.” Except, I do not always do it all with a smile on my face. That is my major failure. I am painfully aware—mindful—that, though I always love my children, I do not love every single moment I spend with them. It hurts to recognize and confess that I do not always cherish and adore being a mother. When I look past all the “right answers” on the checklist, guess what is left? Just me. For better or for worse.

I’m afraid that many of us trade the rigidity and prescribed values and ideals of the dominant culture, for a new set of natural family living values that we cling to with just as much rigidity and dogma.

If I look at being a mindful mama as an entity, a goal, an ideal to achieve, an assignment on which to get an A, then I’ve missed much of the point. Being a mindful mama isn’t about a rigid constellation of proper behaviors and ideas. It isn’t about struggling to conform to a mold. It is about being there, showing up, being present for life as it unfolds, and offering myself to my children fully, imperfectly, and whole. Cultivating self-acceptance alongside the “witness.” And, picking up the pieces when I fall, and trying again.

Finding My Authentic Mothering Wisdom

I continue to discover how I might clear our mental space to find my own authentic mothering wisdom. I am learning that being a mindful mama isn’t truly about a specific collection of beliefs and behaviors—the checklist—but is about responsiveness and presence.

I open my heart and vow to be here now. To tune in—to really look and breathe and smell and hear. Perhaps if I throw out the checklist, it is enough to look daily upon my life and my children with gratitude and love. To pause in the moment and drink it in. To really see my little ones before me. To stretch my arms wide to embrace them and to embrace the flow of life. To hold myself in the inner light of love and compassion. To try to do better—but in moving forward, rather than looking back with harshness and self-criticism. Perhaps I can love and accept right here, right now, even if that nowness sometimes involves a Happy Meal, or a raised voice, or red food coloring, or an Elmo movie.

Perhaps parenting authentically, from the heart, can’t be learned in a book or through application of a theory, but only through being there and being aware—of both the beauty and the messiness. Perhaps it means a loosening of attachment to attachment parenting as a prescribed set of practices and beliefs. Perhaps it means being a more loving friend to my own imperfect self.

Molly Remer, MSW, ICCE is a certified birth educator, writer, and activist. She is a breastfeeding counselor, editor of the Friends of Missouri Midwives newsletter, and a professor of Human Services. She has two wonderful sons, Lann and Zander, and one delightful infant daughter, Alaina and lives in central Missouri. She blogs about birth at https://talkbirth.wordpress.com, midwifery at http://cfmidwifery.blogspot.com, and miscarriage at http://tinyfootprintsonmyheart.wordpress.com.

Mindful Mama: Presence & Perfectionism in Parenting by Molly Remer, was published in Natural Life, July/August, 2011,

9 thoughts on “Mindful Mama: Presence and Perfectionism in Parenting

  1. As I was reading I kept thinking, “I’ve read this before!” It took me about three paragraphs to realize it was the Natural Life article, lol! Still a good read, even the second or third time though. 🙂

    • I almost put a disclaimer/notice at the top to that effect, but then I thought it kind of spoiled it to have that be first (if people haven’t already read it) and might make people stop reading.

  2. I love this post – thank you. I’m an extremely critical (of myself) single mom. I ALWAYS feel that I’m lacking and like you, I don’t always love being with my 5 year old daughter, which makes me feel horrible. It’s good to know that there are other people out there with the same feelings and struggles. I guess the bottom line is that we do our best and the greatest thing we have to offer (to anyone, really) is love. Thanks again…

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