by Leslie Morgan Steiner
I was raised by a perfect mom. She was smart; graduating from Radcliffe and Columbia Teacher’s College when most women were told education was for men. She believed in volunteering her talents: as president of my school’s PTA, founder of our beloved afterschool sports program, and co-founder of a local daycare center for low income moms. She espoused natural childbirth, breastfeeding, and early childhood development before T. Berry Brazelton wrote his first book. She worked too, as a renowned special education teacher with a long list of families on her waitlist. She also happened to be the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Five kids later she still weighed what she did on her wedding day. She played three varsity sports in college and on the day she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she was ranked #1 in her age bracket in New England by the U.S. Tennis Association. At 75 she had better legs than I did at 17. She never yelled, cried, or burned dinner (of course, she was a gourmet cook who thought little of whipping up shrimp tempura, Coquilles Saint Jacques or fried squash blossoms for dinner).
Maybe, behind her closed bedroom door when we kids were on the other side, she would have understood French philosopher and Ecole Polytechnique professor Elisabeth Badinter’s latest observations: modern motherhood’s perfectionist trend toward “natural” motherhood can warp our views of good mothering. The desire to be the perfect mother, the “essentialist” mother who eschews epidurals, disposable diapers, baby formula, one’s own paycheck and eggs not laid in one’s own backyard, is a psychological trap. The focus on perfectionism – however one defines being “the perfect mom” -- restricts and demoralizes women by promising them superior self-worth and delivering crippling guilt.
Badinter’s argument certainly resonated with French women: her most recent book, Le Conflit: La Femme et la Mere (Conflict: The Woman and the Mother)  debuted at the top of the French nonfiction bestsellers’ list and stayed at number two for the next eight weeks. The New York Times profiled Badinter in last Sunday’s “In Defense of the Imperfect Mother ” with this cut-line: “Breastfeeding, cloth diapers and natural childbirth: a French intellectual knows chains for women when she sees them.”
Nothing against breastfeeding, pima cotton loincloths, spending every waking second with your kids, mashing your own organic babyfood, co-sleeping, or all the other “good mom” trends from the past 40 years. Do what you want: every mom is unique, and you’ve got the right to mother as you see fit. But tread carefully. If your true motive is to convince yourself or your family or other women that you are superior to me or any other moms – even secretly in your own mind, where most of these mommy wars take place – watch your step.
Studying my mom assiduously over the years (as all kids do), I learned that being perfect leaves wreckage in its wake. Because it is impossible. Badinter – mother of three -- says of herself: “I’m a mediocre mother like the vast majority of women, because I’m human.” Country singer Wynonna Judd once explained, “Striving for perfection is the highest form of self-abuse a woman can practice.”
My mother became a recondite, unrepentant alcoholic. When drunk, she was as vicious to us children as she was sweet and stable when sober. She went to a few 12-step meetings, but she found it incomprehensible that she had a serious addiction, one that required admitting imperfection and asking for help from others. In trying to be the perfect mother, she failed the ones who loved her most – and she turned motherhood into a fatally complex, guilt-ridden undertaking.
By aiming for perfection as a mother, whether you want to be the most nurturing, the most eco-correct, the kindest, the savviest, the prettiest -- the whateverest -- all you actually teach your children is that perfection is terribly important. Thereby they are failures if they are not as holy as you. No human can live up to that. No kid wants that. What every child wants is a happy mom, not a perfect one.