The email from my girlfriend didn't come with an electronic red flag or even the letters “SOS” in the subject line, but it was filled with urgency nonetheless.
“Give me some words of wisdom, because I actually am overwhelmed to the point of panic about all the excess details school adds to our day,” Kathleen wrote. Her older daughter recently started kindergarten, and Kathleen is fast discovering this is nothing like preschool.
I guess she figures I've made it this far two children in high school, one in middle school and one in third grade, so I'm wise, if not battle-weary.
It turns out my friend's panic isn't really over the new scheduling demands but the emotional demands of keeping up with other moms. “Will we be school pariahs if we don't attend the ice cream social next week? Will the “perfect” moms know I'm buddying up to them just because I may need their help someday? Will they hold it against me if I do?”
Kathleen is a single adoptive mom of two little girls who takes care of her daughters while also working full time as a news reporter. She manages to hold it all together with Band-Aids, love, and a great sense of humor. However, she has discovered what experienced moms like me have known for a long time: There are Perfect Mothers, and if you compare yourself to them, you'll feel inadequate at best. At worst, you'll think you're a failure.
Perfect Mothers are those well-dressed, neatly coifed, perpetually organized women who juggle motherhood, volunteering, socializing, shopping, family commitments, and jobs, all of which they handle with military precision and sweet, lipsticked smiles. These women are remarkable, but they make some of us uneasy.
You may not notice them until you're part of a school community. Perfect Mothers are the ones who orchestrate and attend every class party, field trip, and committee meeting. Perfect Mothers' names populate the lists of indispensable people who raise money and coordinate teacher gifts and work in the school library several times each week.
Perfect Mothers are cheerful. They are charming. They even are physically fit.
They are perfect.
Obviously, I must not seem like one of these women if Kathleen chose me as her mentor in imperfection and of course, she's right.
I mull over her observations about Perfect Mothers while I sit at my cluttered desk, surrounded by the piles of paper representing the many layers in the onion that is my life.
One pile deals with my two younger children, another pile is for the older ones. There is a pile of notes about events I still must incorporate into our master schedule; a pile of receipts and bills I'm trying to ignore; a pile of work-related reading; a pile of letters awaiting replies.
I can't really see what's in any of the piles because my reading glasses are buried under one of them. Despite the obvious chaos in front of me crying out for attention, I can't resist dashing off an answer to my friend.
“You're right that kindergarten is different from preschool, especially where the moms are concerned,” I write back. “There are a good number of women who take their roles as school volunteers/standard-bearers of perfection very seriously. I spend a lot of time feeling sheepish while repeating my mantra, 'I'm doing the best I can.'”
I give Kathleen permission to skip the ice-cream social. I tell her it's a good idea to cop a healthy attitude about these things early in her daughter's school career. “Only do what makes sense for you and your family,” I say, as though I have followed this advice myself.
In reality, I repeatedly overextend myself in a vain effort to keep up with the women whose levels of participation far surpass my capacity for multitasking.
I know why Kathleen is stressed. Comparing ourselves to other women, we can't help but assume they're better at everything even at mothering their children. They do everything with such competence panache, even not to mention, in shoes that match what they're wearing.
Many mornings I compare myself to Perfect Mothers as I whip through the drive-through drop-off before making a hasty exit from the school grounds. I don't want to be seen because I may or may not have taken a shower (though let me just state for the record I will always have brushed my teeth, just in case I get pulled over by the police). If I haven't showered, I will be sporting “bedhead.” If I have, my hair may be wet and profoundly unattractive. Either way, I'm far from perfect.
Kathleen sends another e-mail to update me on her assimilation into the school community.
“It's like attending an uncomfortable cocktail party without the benefit of a cocktail. I decided I would make it my policy to approach the people who looked as uncomfortable as I felt. That worked pretty well, proof yet again that coping is what moms do,” she wrote.
Indeed. Coping is what all moms do, and the truth is, nobody's perfect.
Our e-mail exchange reminds me of a plaque I once saw in the kitchen of a wise friend. It says: “Comparison is the killer of contentment.” Compared to the Perfect Mothers, moms like Kathleen and me may always come up short, but that's OK. We're doing the best we can.
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 18 years and mother of four children from third grade to junior year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)