May 17, 2021

The quest for "perfect parenting" is screwing us all

Dr. Emily Bilek is quoted in this Salon story. 

Original article on the Salon website. 


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.


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.