The quest for "perfect parenting" is screwing us all

Perfectionism is associated with deleterious effects for parents. Experts say it doesn't have to be this way

By Gail Cornwall
Published May 16, 2021 2:00PM (EDT)
Mother suffers from headache because of noise of little children (Getty Images)
Mother suffers from headache because of noise of little children (Getty Images)

Jordi Miller Pollock's son is 14 weeks old, and she's already failing at motherhood. At least, that's what her inner voice tells her. He's underweight, and she can't seem to get his eat-play-sleep cycle to line up. She holds him with her right arm, and only depressed moms do that, according to a parenting newsletter (well, Pollock's reading of it anyway). Pollock desperately wanted to have a child, and she pored over gobs of books to prepare; now that he's here, she can't muster the expected bliss — or do anything else right.

Pollock, it seems, is far from alone.

For at least a century, women in the U.S. have been bombarded with messaging about the "one best way" to raise their children, explained journalist Danielle Dreilinger in her book "The Secret History of Home Economics." In the 1920s and 30s, mainstream child-rearing advice was largely confined to the logistics of running a home and children's physical welfare: the best chores to have them do, the best meals to feed them, and so on. Fast forward three decades, and Dr. Spock and other experts instructed mothers and girls, in particular, to optimize their family members' emotional wellness too.

Today, "U.S. mothers' roles are highly idealized [with] restrictive expectations regarding how new mothers should think, feel, and act," wrote the Ohio State University's Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, Ph.D. and her co-authors in a 2017 paper describing the "impossibly high standards" of intensive parenting.

And yet, there isn't one instruction manual for perfect parenting. Is being perpetually available to meet your child's needs perfect or is stepping back so they can develop autonomy perfect? Is feeding on demand perfect or is setting a schedule perfect? When you can find some experts swearing by one option and some by the other, their conflicting opinions cancel each other out, leaving a void. And there is no finish line when optimized interpersonal relationships are the goal.

Lofty yet amorphous expectations are like warm, moist air with an updraft: a perfect storm for what psychologists have dubbed "self-oriented perfectionism." And that is the short story of how societal norms have triggered many modern moms to (1) demand flawlessness of themselves as parents, trying to maximize everything from breakfast fare to bedtime prayer, and (2) self-flagellate when they inevitably fall short.

A second form of perfectionism, called "socially prescribed perfectionism," has to do with living up to others' expectations, not your own. People who score high in this variety believe deep down that others are in charge of determining their worth and belonging. Pretty much everyone wants to be liked, but this need for reassurance that you matter is different, accompanied as it is by shame and fear of losing others' regard. And it's exacerbated considerably by social media. As Gordon Flett, Ph.D., a psychology professor and researcher at York University in Canada, told me: "Now it's a comparison not just with grades or accomplishments, but 'how is your life going?'"

Pollock scrolls through her social media feeds and sees image after image of moms looking put together and calm. She said, "I know I'm a mess. And looking at them all so balanced and upbeat, it's just so far from how I feel, that I know I must be doing it wrong."

The socially prescribed perfectionist's response to intensive parenting norms is simple: Be Pinterest-perfect and Insta-ready at every turn — or feel like shit for not being able to swing it.

Many of us are doubly damned, clutching separate shots of these related poisons as society chants, chug! chug! chug! Both kinds of perfectionism have been associated with a slew of deleterious effects for parents. Researchers have also documented how much our perfectionism sucks for our kids. Yet multiple experts assured me that the parental perfectionism double bind is not your fault, and there are ways out of it.

Where parental perfectionism comes from

As she pushed her still-sparkling light gray stroller down a warm San Francisco street, Pollock was as forthcoming as she was distressed. Her mother died of ovarian cancer almost two decades ago. Her "lovingly neurotic" father badgered her about med school long after she'd decided not to become a doctor. Pollock's work ethic was her saving grace while getting a masters in neuroscience and later teaching middle school. Now the owner of a virtual tutoring company, she had yet to meet a hurdle she couldn't study her way over — until having a baby. "For a perfectionist," she said, gesturing at her child and his paraphernalia, "this is painful."

The origins of perfectionism are so complicated you could write a book about it. In fact, Dr. Flett and Paul Hewitt, Ph.D. did just that, alongside Samuel F. Mikail, Ph.D. (Well, a chapter of a book anyway.) In "Perfectionism: A Relational Approach to Conceptualization, Assessment, and Treatment," they explained that there isn't just one route to perfectionism but many. As Dr. Flett put it, "If we had a whole room full of people who said, 'Oh, I'm a perfectionist,' we'd talk to them and find that there's very different roots to their perfectionism."

Inherited traits and temperament play a role. So too can interactions early in life. When there's a mismatch between an infant's or toddler's needs and the responses they receive (i.e. attachment difficulties) the child can begin to perceive others as indifferent, unavailable, critical, incapable, or unreliable. Then there's how they can come to see themselves: as flawed and lacking in independent value. Being or appearing perfect can become the only way to feel worthy. Dr. Hewitt explained the thought process: "I'll become the perfect child, or I'll try to do things perfectly, and then I'll be lovable, then I'll be good enough, then I'll be okay."

(If it's starting to sound like your issues are all your parents' fault or like you've already irreparably scarred your kids, hold on a minute. The short answers there are "no" and "no," but we'll circle back.)

Another pathway to perfectionism lies in later experiences in youth, such as being subjected to parenting that induces shame, levies character criticisms, sets unrealistic expectations, is over-concerned about mistakes, and otherwise exerts psychological control. Kids can come away with a sense of being judged, that nothing is ever good enough, that making a mistake is the end of the world, or that they're a disappointment.

On the flip side, a lack of parental involvement and engagement imply a child doesn't matter. Attempts to win validation with great accomplishments can follow. That may have been the ticket for Ylonda Gault, who's raising three kids in New Jersey. When she was growing up in Buffalo, she said, "My mom kept us all in check" with an approach of children should be seen not heard, and preferably not seen either. "I wanted to be heard and seen," she said. So she looked at someone like Oprah and thought, "That's who I'm going to be."

If too much negative attention breeds perfectionism and not enough attention breeds perfectionism, a ton of positive focus should hit the Goldilocks spot, right? Not quite. Being idolized as the perfect child is yet another pathway. So is helicopter parenting. Dr. Flett said hovering parents' words and actions communicate, "You better not make a mistake out there, otherwise this is going to happen to you."

Three other roads to perfectionism include kids being rewarded when they strive to be perfect, a parent modeling perfectionism, and a family or community focused on public image, achievement, or perfection (e.g., Mormonism). Perfectionistic tendencies can also develop as a way to exert control in the face of traumatic experiences. Grief, in particular, can result in the sense of disconnection and anxiety that are at the core of many perfectionists' inner world.

Each of these pathways can lead to both self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism. Making things even more confusing, there's a lot of theoretical and practical overlap between the two.

Socially prescribed perfectionists think, "I am okay if people like me," said Chang Chen, a doctoral candidate who does research in Dr. Hewitt's lab, "whereas self-oriented perfectionism is more about trying to meet your own expectations." But your own standards are, to some extent, just an internalization of others' definitions of flawlessness. And those who suffer from one kind of perfectionism tend to score higher than average in the other, with a combination of "I'm only okay if I'm perfect and people like me" as the most pernicious manifestation.

All that is to say that going into parenting, some people's genetics and experiences render them more vulnerable to perfectionistic thinking than others.

But a significant chunk of the problem lies in the job description. "There's no way to be a perfect parent," said Emily Bilek, Ph.D., a mother and clinical assistant professor in the University of Michigan's department of psychiatry. But we do have fairly clear ideas about "bad" parenting. "We know what probably isn't perfect parenting, and that's just a recipe for us to feel bad about ourselves, because we are all absolutely, 100 percent going to fall into some, if not many, of the categories of not being a perfect parent."

Lack of feedback is also an issue. Nicole Coomber, Ph.D., an assistant dean at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business, studies goal-setting and motivation, among other things. "In terms of parenting, what kind of job has less clarity on deliverables and goals and less feedback, right?" she asks. "When you put people in a job that is completely amorphous, and they don't know if they're doing a good job or a bad job that is a recipe for perfectionistic tendencies."

"There is no model for it," Bilek agreed, "and yet, so many of us are striving for it in unhelpful ways, in ways that get in our own way." And it's worse when being a parent is a big piece of your identity. "If I think being a good mom is essential to who I am, then I'm going to be much more vulnerable to perfectionism in that context," Bilek continued.

It doesn't help that "often, you're comparing yourself to an idealized image of another mother's life," wrote Alexandra Sacks, M.D. and Catherine Birndorf, M.D. in "What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood." "Trust us, most new mothers imagine that others are 'doing it better.'"

For many, the pandemic has exacerbated these pressures to be, and appear to be, perfect. Parents have had to spend more time alone with their children and be more focused on their parental role, with, on the one hand, lack of clarity around what good distance learning and quarantining look like; and on the other, a deluge of photographic evidence of others' success: other people's kids tracing dinosaur shadows, spending hours on sidewalk chalk mandalas, and standing on tiny stools as they cook multi-course meals. As a result, Dr. Flett concluded, "The fear of making a mistake among perfectionistic parents and the consequences of making a mistake must be considerably heightened right now."

The effect of perfectionism on parents

Self-oriented perfectionism has been tied to considerable distress, including intrusive thoughts, self-criticism, anxiety, self-esteem issues, eating disorders, depression, early mortality, trouble with relationships, and more. This type of perfectionism often manifests in establishing a system of rigid rules — anything from "full bottles go in the left hand pocket of the diaper bag while empties go on the right" to "interactions with children must be unfailingly soothing" — and then experiencing stress when they aren't followed.

Gault, who wrote the book "Child, Please," described how intensive mothering turned her into "the sum of my to-do list." Her own mother trusted herself, but Gault drank the intensive parenting Kool-Aid, thinking she needed to research her way to perfect parenting. "Surely some white guy in the middle of nowhere could tell me how to raise my Black child in Brooklyn," she said looking back, "He's got doctor behind his name, and he said he did some studies, so I'm going to take his word for it." For example, she read that kids with musical training do better at math so she found herself shouting, "We got to go, we got to go," every Wednesday for piano lessons. She wasn't happy.

But there's some question around whether trying to be a perfect parent is all bad. Research has tied the pursuit of perfection in mothers to greater interest in parenting, more engagement with information about child-rearing, and a deeper consideration of parenting style.

In a related study, Dr. Schoppe-Sullivan and colleagues looked at adjustment to the parental role, using three indicators: confidence in parenting, stress around parenting, and parenting satisfaction. Both mothers and fathers who expressed self-oriented perfectionistic viewpoints around parenting just before their child was born experienced greater parenting satisfaction three months postpartum. Dads who fit that description got the trifecta, with higher parenting confidence and lower stress around parenting too.

So, does that mean "perfectionistic" parenting is good parenting? Not so fast.

When I recently chatted with Schoppe-Sullivan, we realized some things. She and her colleagues had to pare down the perfectionism questionnaire items. The ones they kept included: "I set very high standards for myself as a parent" and "I must always be a successful parent." But as Dr. Flett explained, "If somebody's pursuing excellence rather than perfection, that's not really perfectionism."

The other two questionnaire items they used do qualify in some psychologists' book: "One of my goals is to be a 'perfect' parent" and "I always pressure myself to be the best parent in the world." But we don't know about that second piece of perfectionism: how these parents reacted to falling short. If they practiced self-compassion rather than castigating themselves, many psychologists would consider them "adaptive strivers" as well.

The study's timeframe also limits its results. In some sense, the findings are a little tautological: Expecting parents who were most motivated to be good parents were then more excited about having a three-month-old. Duh.

"Those parents need to be followed over the long term," Dr. Flett said. "If a perfectionist has a life where things are going to plan, not really experiencing significant failures, then it's not going to be all that problematic. But when something goes wrong, let's say the child develops a learning problem, the self-oriented perfectionist is not going to respond well to that. They can become very, very self-critical and consumed with negative thoughts."

That's why Schoppe-Sullivan, agreeing with this analysis, told me the most important finding in her paper is the gender discrepancy. "Fathers who say, 'Yeah, I have high standards,' that means something different for dads than it does for moms."

Konrad Piotrowski, Ph.D. has a theory. The assistant professor of psychology at SWPS University in Poland thinks the difference could be a function of agency: fathers who decide to be perfectionists about parenting have made a choice, while mothers are conscripted through societal expectations.

The bottom line? Though there are benefits to trying to do a good job parenting, self-oriented perfectionism in this context is not likely to be a winning strategy in the long run. Dr. Hewitt was blunt: "It's not good for you at all."

When it comes to the impact of socially prescribed perfectionism on parents, there's no need to parse study results. Dr. Schoppe-Sullivan said, "Worrying about what other people thought or feeling that other people hold you to excessively high standards was associated with lower confidence in parenting for mothers and greater stress for fathers." Dr. Piotrowski's research has since confirmed that socially prescribed perfectionist parents of all genders suffer greater difficulties forming a stable sense of parental identity and adjusting to the parental role.

Research outside the parenting context has linked this brand of perfectionism to depression, reduced self-esteem, and anxiety disorders, as well as rumination. Higher levels of socially prescribed perfectionism in mothers have also been tied to greater Facebook activity, greater reactivity to Facebook commentary, greater stress, and depressive symptoms.

But it's not just mothers who get tripped up by intensive parenting norms. My friend Charlie Smith, a filmmaker who's now in school to become a therapist, got a gingerbread cottage assignment from his daughter's preschool. Gay men were prohibited from adopting and otherwise told they couldn't be parents for so long that he feels the need to prove he can be a perfect one. "So I decided to do a gingerbread pet shop," he said, "baking individual bricks and using icing mortar." Individual. Bricks.

"You ultimately can't control how other people perceive you," explained Natalie Dattilo, Ph.D., the director of psychology and the department of psychiatry at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "If you are constantly trying to do that or manage that or regulate that on your end, that's gonna be exhausting and anxiety provoking and, frankly, impossible."

It should come as no surprise then that socially prescribed perfectionism in parents has been tied to parental burnout. That phenomenon is characterized by overwhelming exhaustion, feeling fed up with parenting, losing a sense of accomplishment in one's parental role, and even distancing from one's children emotionally. A Finnish study published in 2019 found that "the higher the level of socially prescribed perfectionism the parents reported, the higher the level of their burnout."

In a sad twist, outside the parenting context socially prescribed perfectionism has been shown to backfire, even at achieving its intended goal. Presumably because the Insta-perfect come off as arrogant, unapproachable, or fake, Chen said, their attempts to feel more connected and praiseworthy can produce "even greater disconnection and isolation."

Sadder still, those who are driven by a desire for perfection often double down in the areas where they receive accolades, Dr. Hewitt told me. "It's like, 'Oh yeah, I'm good at this. I must do this.'" Society tells mothers to prioritize parenting and prioritizing parenting (i.e., logging more hours managing kids) can make us more competent at parenting than our partners. How many women then lean out from careers they once found stimulating and affirming? How many are left with disproportionate amounts of emotional labor and mental load because they've become comparatively perfect at that too?

Additional ways kids take a hit

After sticking with me through the causes of parental perfectionism and how it affects parents, you've likely spotted the feedback loop — XYZ things cause perfectionism, and perfectionism causes XYZ things — and you've guessed that kids whose parents are perfectionists when it comes to parenting often end up struggling with perfectionism themselves. That's true, but there's more.

While self-oriented perfectionists like Pollock and Gault tend to adopt the optimal "responsive yet demanding" parenting style, likely because of all that research, unrealistic expectations cause us to focus on where our family is falling short rather than what's working. We end up feeling dissatisfied, and that can make our loved ones feel unappreciated. Anxiety around how we're doing or how we're perceived can leave little room for moments of connection and mutual enjoyment. If I'm standing in the pumpkin patch thinking about how my pictures are going to stack up, if I'm thinking about lighting and angles and "Does it look like we're having a blast?" there's a breach in presence that means everyone has less fun.

"It's going to show up," Dr. Flett said. "Perfectionism is a world of stress, and kids don't want to be raised in a world of stress."

Then there's the impact of burnout and parental regret: a harsher, more rejecting attitude toward our kids. Dr. Bilek thought she knew why, "If I'm a perfectionist parent who realizes I've been imperfect, then I'm going to feel shame about myself and that interaction with my kid, and we respond to shame by shutting down and avoiding." Sure enough, mothers who think others expect them to be perfect tend to raise less securely attached children.

One 2020 meta-analysis found "a small, significant, and positive average association between parental perfectionistic concerns and child distress." That study's authors had another theory as to why perfectionist parents, on average, would produce more distressed kids: They're more prone to over-parent, with all the harm that entails to children's confidence, resilience, and competence.

"If you can't work on your perfectionism for yourself," Dr. Bilek said, "do it for your kid."

Springing the parental perfectionism trap

All the standard perfectionism coping strategies are available to you, with some parenting-specific twists.

"If you were perfect and your child got used to that, he would never be able to hack it in the real world," Drs. Sacks and Birndorf wrote. "An imperfect mother helps her child gain the skills to tolerate frustration, become self-sufficient, and learn to soothe himself."

Along these same lines, Bilek said if you raise your voice and later apologize, think, "How rich is that for kids? To see parents make mistakes and also parents try and repair that? That is going to be so much more valuable to them than if their parent hadn't yelled in that one moment."

The most significant mindset shift, however, is the idea of "good enough" parenting, first described in the late 1940s by Donald Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst. "It sounds like settling," reported Sacks and Birndorf of their patients' initial reaction, yet "the idea is less about aiming for a low bar and more about accepting this fact: You can only do your best." They suggest, "Rather than trying to achieve the goal of being a flawless mother, aim for compassion and authenticity when you're with your baby."

Gault eventually got there, reclaiming a bit of her mom's "mother wit." Remember those piano lessons? She said she'd also read that you can't let kids quit activities, because if you do they won't develop persistence and resilience and so on and so on. She got to a place where she said, "You know what? Fuck that. You don't want to do it anymore? I don't either." If her youngest turned out to be a virtuoso, she figured, he'd gravitate to music, and she'd know to sign up.

"I'd love to be able to say, 'Oh, I just sat back, reflected,' but it's not true." In reality, her third child, "just put me over the edge," Gault said, "I could not do it. So I began to give up little things just slowly."

But a funny thing happened when she embraced good enough. "Not only did it not have a bad effect, it was making my older kids better." She'd avoided aftercare for years, thinking her kids needed to be with her after a long day of school. But then she got divorced, and she needed it. "When I tell you, I would come pick my son up, he would say to me at least four times a week, 'Can I stay? Can I stay a while longer?'" Without the "constant engaging, all the books, all the growing their brain power," she said, "I was a happier parent. And I will go to my death and swear that when you are happy, your kids feel it. And when you're miserable, your kids feel it. I don't care how many things you do that are 'right,' if you're miserable, or even just not content, your kids pick that up more than anything."

If you're still nervous about whether good enough is good enough, there's another line of research. Remember "attachment difficulty" being one of the major pathways to perfectionism? Well, a study of 83 mothers and infants published in 2019 found that caregivers only need to respond appropriately to a baby's cues about half the time for them to wind up securely attached. Chen, the doctoral candidate, said this is important because the take-home message from the perfectionism research can't be "that in order for your kids not to be perfectionists you have to respond to every emotional need. That's an unrealistic and really harmful kind of expectation for parents to have. The goal is to be responsive enough and consistent enough."

Dr. Hewitt also cautioned me about the tendency to parent-blame in this context. For one thing, children's needs differ. "We all need to feel loved and safe and secure, but there's also idiosyncratic things that we need, and insecure attachment can just result from a mismatch between what a child needs and what a parent can offer." What's more, "there are other influences in childhood like siblings, the environment, school." There's a bigger picture to keep in mind.

Case in point: After about a year of therapy, one of Dr. Hewitt's patients traced her struggles with perfectionism back to a tragedy that compelled her mother and father to leave her with loving relatives for about a month. "What she learned at five years old was 'I can be tossed away, I can't trust that people will be there for me,'" he said. But she likely would have been more scarred emotionally had she tagged along for the trauma. "I would have done the exact same thing in their circumstances," he said. It's not about fault. It's an unfortunate mismatch. As a father of four, he too believes "good enough" is the better goal for everyone involved.

"This is good enough, I am good enough," Dr. Bilek wants you to say when you think you've fallen short of perfection. Do it out loud in front of your kids: "Oh, that feels bad. I didn't do that the way I wanted to, but I know it's okay, because everyone makes mistakes." Modeling this more healthy outlook, she said, forces us to adopt it. "Sort of a fake it 'til you make it."

There's a mindset shift for socially prescribed perfectionism, too. Drs. Sacks and Birndorf said one of their patients ultimately realized, "Out in the world, no one is thinking about you or judging you as much as you are thinking about and judging yourself. Strangers on the street know how to ignore a crying baby." And if someone actually is critical, know that it's a choice to internalize their opinion: "It's in his head; it doesn't have to be in yours."

On that note, they wrote, "The more you can keep your gaze on the relationship between the two of you and avoid looking at others for validation, the better a parent you will be, and the more secure your child will eventually become."

If none of that works — and it might not — there are a couple more tangible steps you can take. First, Schoppe-Sullivan and colleagues offered a simple fix: Encourage your partner to take the lead on managing the family's public image. Holiday cards. Instagram posts. Just hand it over. Single parents who struggle with socially prescribed perfectionism can enlist a friend or family member to serve the role of family historian and PR lead.

Behind that suggestion lies a bigger ask: To accept help.

Jennifer Petriglieri, an associate professor at INSEAD, works with couples. She said, "People have described this to me like they are watching a slow train crash. They are watching their partner struggle with perfectionism, and it puts them in a really difficult position. I want to say something but if I say something it will be rebuffed, so maybe I'll keep quiet." If you're watching your co-parent grapple with unrealistic standards around parenting, say something. If you are struggling with unrealistic standards around parenting, say something.

"Perfectionists are very reluctant to seek help," Dr. Flett said, "but there are things that can be done, and they need to know it's okay."

I asked Dr. Hewitt to level with me. All of this sounds so foundational, so deeply ingrained. Can perfectionist parents really change? "Absolutely," he said, "I wouldn't do this work if that wasn't the case."

He's talking about psychodynamic and interpersonal psychotherapy, but your work can start with trying to let yourself off the hook. For all of it. Pollock doesn't feel like a bad parent because she's messing up or because her parents messed up. She feels like a bad mom because societal messaging encourages a doubly perfectionistic mindset, one further compounded by what Sacks and Birndorf call "the bliss myth," that "anything less than pure contentment means you must be doing something wrong."

Her husband Sam said, "It's a losing battle. I can tell her over and over that she's a great mom, but she's set up to feel like she's failing." He watches her get the message from everyone—her lactation consultant, medical providers—that she's not doing it quite right, while he receives compliments "for doing anything." A single diaper change. Walking with the baby strapped to his chest. "The bar is so low," he said, "and I'm rarely criticized for anything, while Jordi's just submerged in criticism."

Gault, who used to work in magazine publishing, said it's not surprising that this happens to women in the parenting context; in fact, it would be surprising if it didn't. "You had to look outside yourself to have a beach body, right? Your body surely can't be okay the way it is. And there's got to be something you're not doing in your marriage, because if there's a problem, surely it's you. All the women's magazines, I think, were telling us, 'Fix yourself, fix yourself, fix yourself.' So having a kid was just an extension of that. Fix it, fix it, fix it. Work at it, work at it, work at it." She described it as "a vicious, vicious trap," saying, "Every which way we turned, the message was, 'It's not enough. Try harder. Nope, not there yet.'"

So while there are ways for individual parents to alleviate the pressure of perfectionism on themselves, this is not an individual problem. And it's not an easy one to wrap our heads around. In the process of writing this piece, I read books and studies and talked to people like Gault, and I thought I'd nailed down where it all comes from. Then I remembered "Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids," a book I read last year that suggests parents' perceived need for both perfection and intensive parenting have increased over recent decades because of increasing scarcity of opportunity.

These are big, societal problems, and they require big, societal solutions.

So where do we start? Awareness is the first step to individual recovery from maladaptive striving, the experts told me, and the authors of the Finnish burnout paper concluded, "It could be useful to promote public discussion on the expectations that are placed on mothers in today's society." So share that article. Or share this one. Let's start there.

Correction: An earlier version of this article cited an incorrect title for Danielle Dreilinger's book "The Secret History of Home Economics." This has been corrected. 


Gail Cornwall

Gail Cornwall works as a mother and writer in San Francisco. Connect with Gail on Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.

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