When did we start defining imperfection as “everything’s falling apart”? When did we start billing a rough day (or week) as abject failure?
I have a confession to make: I am not a mess. As a mom, this is apparently unusual. Moms who are a mess dominate social media. They have a dedicated hashtag (#hotmessmom) and their meme game is strong. Interestingly, though, when I scroll through these posts, their lives don’t look that different from mine. I have dropped my son off at daycare in my pajamas without brushing my teeth. I have lost my patience and yelled at him during a tantrum. I have worn the same outfit and gone without washing my hair for days. I have counted the hours until bedtime and opened a bottle of wine at 3pm on a snow day. None of this, though, makes me a mess. It makes me human. Which has me wondering: When did we start defining imperfection as “everything’s falling apart”? When did we start billing a rough day (or week) as abject failure?
I call bullshit.
We are better than this. We are mothers, for God’s sake. We are not so easily undone by school drop-off lines, tantrums, sleepless nights, homework crises, emergency doctor appointments, or any of the other whack-a-mole problems that pop up on a given day. This is not to say that what we do is easy. Raising a tiny person is the hardest work I’ve ever done. We do ourselves a disservice, though, by overstating our shortcomings and underselling our resilience. We reinforce the stereotype of women as fragile and hysterical, unable to do hard things. Perhaps most damaging of all, we perpetuate the idea that we are supposed to be perfect, and that any departure from this ideal means we have failed. Mothers face enough judgement without setting our own ridiculously high standards. If feeding our kids a PB&J three nights in a row equals failure, then how do we ever recover from things like divorce, addiction, or losing our jobs?
I am not suggesting that parenting doesn’t feel overwhelming 99% of the time. Honestly, it should, because the stakes are pretty high. We’re trying to ensure our children are equipped to thrive in an increasingly complicated world. However, this can easily result in over-magnification of each “victory” or “failure” (He ate his peas, he’s going to Harvard! Crap, he bit someone at school, he’s going to be a felon). Motherhood has a way of making us myopic, unable to view our actions in a broader perspective. It keeps us focused on developmental milestones instead of viewing our kids as unique, whole individuals.
I am also confused about how we seem to compete on our messiness and “failures”. (You think you’re a mess but wait until you hear about me!). I think the secret is that sometimes bragging about what a mess we are is the only way we know to put a voice to our fears that we’re not enough. It’s a flare we send up, hoping someone will respond with one of their own so we’ll know we’re not alone. Instead, wouldn’t it be amazing if we had a more honest and direct Bat-Signal? Why can’t moms just turn to each other at the park or in the grocery store and say, “Today is really hard and I feel like I’m doing everything wrong?” We need some kind of secret fist bump handshake that means “You’ve got this, sweetie, and tomorrow will be better.”
All this is not to say I have it all together. Far from it. As you’re reading this, my house is probably a mess. My hair is definitely a mess. Depending on the day, my work-life balance might be a mess. I, however, am not a mess. The worst moment of any given day is not who I am. Neither is the best moment. This has been tough to wrap my head around, as my brain likes to organize things with neat little labels. I’ll have a good day where everyone naps, burps, and smiles on schedule and think, “Wow, this is easy, I must be a great mom.” The next day brings tantrums, a trashed house, and dried spaghetti in my hair and I’ll think, “Wait, everything is falling apart and I’m a terrible mom.”
Motherhood, though, is not about absolutes. No one is grading us. We are not good or bad moms, just like we are not either a mess or have it all figured out. Most certainly, we are not perfect, but we’re not failures either. So, if today everything feels like it’s falling apart, just go with it. Ride the wave, order pizza and put the kids to bed early. Call another mom for an honest conversation and know that tomorrow is another day. You’ve got this, and you are not a mess.
Caitlin Weaver is a working mother and writer living in Atlanta. She is a contributor to the, , , and . Her website, , focuses on the challenge mothers face juggling multiple identities, sometimes minute by minute. Follow her on and @caitlinrweaver.