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The Dangerous Cult of “Perfect Motherhood”

This article appeared in Revista Ya, El Mercurio (Chile), January 30, 2018.

In columns and forums on motherhood “the cult of perfect motherhood” has spread around the world, pressuring women to emulate an impossible women’s role model. Here, experts analyze the phenomenon, exacerbated by social networks, and they warn: “Motherhood is rarely black or white, rarely a total success or total failure.”

By Muriel Alarcón

“I don’t know when or why ‘the goddess myth’ began, but I believe women today feel pressured in general to be perfect.”

Alexandra Sacks, an Adult Psychiatrist who specializes in reproductive psychiatry, author of the most widely read article in the New York Times Family section last year—'The Birth of a Mother,’ on the complete change of identity that a woman experiences when she becomes a mother—speaking to Revista Ya, refers to a concept that in the last year has been repeated all over the world in columns, blogs and forums on motherhood.

‘The goddess myth’—with no clear origin or author to whom the term might be attributed—refers to an idea that has been spreading over the Internet: pregnancy and motherhood today are being conceived of as moments that are ‘precious,’ ‘beautiful,’ ‘positive.’

This was emphasized in Time magazine’s October edition whose cover story was: ‘The Goddess Myth’ with the subheading, ‘How a Vision of Perfect Motherhood Hurts Moms.’ Time deduced this reality after conducting a survey with more than nine hundred US mothers in which more than 70 percent confessed to feeling pressured—by doctors, activists, other mothers—during their pregnancies ‘to do things in a certain way.’

There is a kind of ‘cult of perfect motherhood,’ spread mostly over social networks where other mothers share their ‘perfect mother’ experiences, independently of whether this reflects reality or not. This is a tendency that for researchers like Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, professor of Human Sciences and Psychology at Ohio State University, represents an irony: by striving for perfection in child rearing, she says, it is less likely that the parents will bring up their children ‘effectively.’ Concern for how others view their childrearing practices undermines their confidence.

Authors like Sacks agree with this view, as well as other researchers who cite evidence that many women feel like failures when their experiences with pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and childrearing do not proceed ‘naturally.’

“In the information era there is an attitude that you can control everything if you educate yourself and persevere. But, overall, biology is not something we can control completely. Part of the ‘goddess myth’ is that if you try hard enough, you can have a natural pregnancy and birth and breastfeed, but biology does allow that for everyone,” says Alexandra Sacks.

If we take into account that ‘the goddess myth’ originally alluded to the idea of a ‘fertility goddess’ that is present in many cultures and religions, some dating back to antiquity, then what seems new and exclusive to our times, for Alexandra Sacks, is the excessive pressure on ‘mothers’ to be ‘perfect.’

“And, by definition, this is a myth because no human being is perfect and no human relationship can be perfect. Even the most loving relationship between a mother and her child implies feelings that are discovered, because human relationships imply giving and receiving.”

Kathleen McCartney, president of Smith College, one of the largest private women’s colleges in the United States, located in Northampton, Massachusetts, and researcher on education and policies in early childhood, says: “Parents don’t need to be perfect, because that would prepare children for a world that doesn’t exist. In life, children will confront many frustrations and they need to learn to control their emotions and to act appropriately. We just have to be good enough. Perfectionism should not be the goal.”

Parental Perfectionism

“What happens if I don’t breastfeed my baby for a full year?” “Do I have to turn the television off whenever she is in the room to avoid ‘passive’ exposure to the screen?” “Is it alright if she goes into daycare full time after five months?”

In Quartz, the blog of the Atlantic magazine, Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a researcher in Human Sciences and Psychology, acknowledges that as a mother, even with her specialized academic credentials on the subject, decisions about feeding and care for her child seemed transcendental to her and used to fill her with anxiety.  Schoppe-Sullivan confesses that she felt insecure about whether she was capable of being the mother she needed to be. And it was precisely her own experience that inspired her to study the experiences of other parents. In a project called ‘New Parents’—a continuing longitudinal study in which almost 200 couples who had their first children in 2008-2009 have been interviewed—she tried to measure ‘parental perfectionism,’ which was the term she coined for referring to high levels of rigor in childrearing, and she confirmed that mothers—including mothers in families with two incomes—not only assume responsibility for being mothers, but also experience more pressure to fulfill a ‘perfect’ role.

“I think ‘perfect motherhood’ is understood as achieving success in childrearing through the investment of impossible amounts of time in raising children and impossible depths of emotional energy, but at the same time making it look easy and ‘effortless,’” Schoppe-Sullivan says.

For Schoppe-Sullivan, the origin of the phenomenon can be traced to the 1970s and 80s when more mothers entered the work force and a sense of guilt was generated in this respect because of the fear that the children were at a disadvantage because they spent less time with their mothers.

“Although we know through research that maternal employment is not harmful for children, and in many ways it is beneficial, I’m not sure that the guilt has been completely eradicated even today. Therefore, society continues to raise the standards for motherhood, in effect, to sustain the guilt along with more traditional notions of gender roles in families. So, I tend to think of the growing emphasis on ‘perfect motherhood’ as a reaction that impedes the progress of women toward equality.”

Sacks agrees: “Many women speak of the pressure they feel to be able ‘to do everything’: to have a perfect body, a brilliant mind and a spirit and personality that are always happy. The pressure for women to be beautiful and protective is certainly new to this generation. Perhaps as women over time have had more professional opportunities and feel more comfortable with ambitious feelings, some have channeled that impulse toward motherhood. The attitude is: ‘I love my child and I want to excel in this job; I want to be perfect because my child deserves the best.’”

In this respect, motherhood has become, in the eyes of these researchers, an immense industry oriented toward increasing the consumption of products and, although fathers have been assuming more responsibilities over time, the pressure to be ‘perfect’ continues to be limited to women.

“To be a ‘perfect mother’ would include having a perfect pregnancy, losing your baby belly in the blink of an eye, raising the next Einstein and having the perfect family. The comedian Ali Wong perfectly defined the inequalities of childrearing standards: ‘It takes so little to be considered a great dad, it also takes so little to be considered a shitty mom,’ as she observed that her husband simply had to show up at the hospital for her checkups in order to receive compliments,” says Rachel Pashley, the global board planning director at J. Walter Thompson, a recognized publicity and communications company in the United Kingdom, and head of Female Tribes Consulting, a firm that seeks to consolidate the valuable contributions of women in the world.

“The danger is the cult of perfection which impregnates social networks and reinforces the idea that if women do not respond in a certain way, they’re efforts are a failure.”

A Good Enough Mother

For researchers, although the Internet has been a useful tool for learning, it has also become a place that is abundant with information that is not based on evidence.

According to researchers, on one hand, the internet has created ‘a varnished image of motherhood’—platforms like Pinterest stand out in this respect, they say—but it has also provided space for the emergence of a strong virtual community that enables women to connect through networking, relating to one another, accessing open forums, and being able to consult at will on specific sites with other users who present themselves as medical consultants.

“It is such a profound life change that women are hungry for knowledge and the void has been filled by a large number of ‘advice’ providers, some of whom are good, but others who have an agenda,” says Rachel Pashley, the global board planning director at J. Walter Thompson.

Instagram, Pashley believes, has intensified the attention paid to motherhood. The boom in celebrity accounts, influencers and personalities who have gained popularity based on their motherhood has helped foment this image of maternal perfection.

“And, once again, the commercialization of these platforms signifies that the advice provided loses impartiality and gains a sales agenda. The danger is the cult of perfection which impregnates social networks and reinforces the idea that if women do not respond in a certain way, their efforts are a failure,” Pashley says.

“To see the ‘perfect’ experiences of other mothers can result in some mothers feeling that their own experiences do not live up to those standards,” Schoppe-Sullivan adds. “The excess of evidence not based on evidence can be confusing, especially for new mothers. Furthermore, the sensationalist way in which ‘new information on childrearing’ is presented can lead vulnerable mothers to think that they are doing something wrong or that they need to make immediate changes in their parental behavior, which may or may not be necessary or even useful.”

“Addiction to social networks,” Schoppe-Sullivan adds, “has exacerbated this phenomenon. Mothers can see what other mothers are doing and they judge themselves, comparing themselves according to unreal standards.”

In her own research, Schoppe-Sullivan has concluded that, in fact, women who visit and update their Facebook accounts with greater frequency present higher levels of stress during childrearing. What’s more, extremely perfectionist women tend to spend more time on social networks, which can lead to their suffering even more anxiety.

But how and why has the excess of information become a source of pressure for mothers?

The North American pediatrician, Lori Feldman-Winter, member of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in Camden, New Jersey, and recognized for her work in relation to education programs on maternal breastfeeding and nutrition policy, believes that the problem has to do with the absence of a system of verification regarding information on the Internet.

Some things that are said with authority on the Internet would never be said in person with any legitimacy. Nowadays, the Internet is also a powerful tool for good health education when provided by reliable sources. This is the role of important organizations (regarding health issues). In a certain way, it is good for health professionals to see the variety of information published on the Internet, but this should not be confused with ‘average’ beliefs because ‘atypical values’ tend to be published with greater frequency. To create controversy is a technique for promoting unpopular beliefs. Sometimes the best response is no response. Doctors have an increasingly important role to play in involving mothers and families using an unprejudiced focus and, at the same time, providing precise information based on evidence.

How can we counter the cult of perfection?

Schoppe-Sullivan says we need to establish reasonable standards for good childrearing based on scientific evidence of what is appropriate and what works.

She says: “We need to understand that everyone makes mistakes and to avoid imitating ‘others,’ even celebrities, when they make childrearing decisions we don’t agree with.”

Alexandra Sacks believes that the solution lies in motivating women to speak openly about their struggles with pregnancy and motherhood.

“If more women spoke about their miscarriages, physical imperfections and frustrating moments in childrearing, I believe that the expectations of mothers could be more about being ‘good enough’ rather than being perfect. Motherhood is rarely black or white, rarely a total success or a total failure. Motherhood is a human relationship, so we need to work on trying to achieve a balance that is good enough rather than perfect,” Sacks says.