Cathy Madavan urges us to stop comparing ourselves to other mums, and our daughters to theirs


I have a theory: I propose to you that after giving birth to our first daughter, the midwife sneakily drugged me with some kind of maternal guilt hormone that meant that from that moment a constant flow of guilt would plague my consciousness. And it seems I am not alone. Other mothers also report chronic guilt and persistent worry about being good enough and doing enough for their children. Personally speaking, this constant self-assessment has not been helped one jot by comparing myself with other parents and their darling offspring who apparently slept peacefully through the night immediately, potty trained in minutes and flew past every milestone with gold stars while their mothers looked glossy and chilled. How is this possible? What did they have that I didn’t? Why did it take me hours to convince my toddler to eat a fish finger while theirs were dipping celery into humous? How are their houses, proudly displayed on social media, so very tidy?  

It seems mothering is yet another sphere where women have to live up to impossible standards, and where we are judged by society (and other parents) if our families are not impeccable. But let’s be honest, motherhood is a steep learning curve, where on-the-job-training is the only option. And in this role, like elsewhere, we do want to succeed, and be good at what we do, but this pressure to perform can infiltrate our role as mothers, affecting us and our children. In addition, as a mother of daughters, I am acutely aware that girls already live in a world of stereotypes and expectations to live up to and people to please. If their own mother is obsessed with exactly the right moment they should begin to eat solid foods (organic and home puréed ideally), and then how they could be top of their class and take the leading role in the musical or the sports team then perfectionism and the need to achieve can so easily take root.

Perfectionism – a hard taskmaster

Here’s the newsflash I needed long ago: I am not a perfect mother and I do not have perfect daughters. And ‘perfection’ is a jolly hard taskmaster anyway, which leads us to set unrealistic expectations that if left unmet leave low self-esteem and self-blame in their wake. Research regularly indicates that girls demonstrate this worrying perfectionist tendency with unrealistic expectations about their looks, their abilities and their personality. We do it as women too so it is no surprise, but this trait has significant consequences.

Mothering is yet another sphere where women have to live up to impossible standards

Perfectionism crushes creativity. A fear of not getting it right or feeling like a failure inhibits our ability to take risks. Even young girls who want to be ‘good’ and ‘helpful’ decide not to break the rules and play it safe, limiting themselves in the process. This routine lack of practice in making mistakes and having a go means many girls and women feel extreme anxiety in situations where courage may be required. 

Somehow, then, as a mother, I must instil the truth that it’s good to aim high, to give things a go and not to worry if you need to adapt and try again. But I also need to instil that striving, people-pleasing and self-esteem linked to achievement is damaging. It’s a difficult tension. I want my daughters to be brave and to back themselves without worrying that it will all go wrong if they make a mistake, but I also want them to know when enough is enough, and to look after themselves. 

I saw this tension in practice recently. Our older daughter was attending a job interview in the tech industry where she knew she would be one of only a few female candidates. The recruiter asked her how competent she was at a particular coding language, and she knew she had a choice: she could be overly self-depreciating because she knew she was not perfect at it, or she could be positive and spend the next few days coding like crazy ready for the interview! Ultimately, she exceeded even her own expectations and is thriving in her new role. Looking at her now, I realise I did put too much pressure on her at times growing up, but I also know that I’ve tried to encourage a problem-solving-just-give-it-a-go-and-keep-going attitude that encouraged her to assume she could do well if she tried. But here’s the thing: giving our best is different to aiming for being the best. It’s an important distinction.

Tell a better story

Where the world’s metrics focus so much on external beauty, success and achievement, they focus far less on character and effort. We rightly celebrate the A* exam result but may overlook the teenager serving faithfully in the kids’ work each week at church. And for girls, where algorithms constantly tell them they need improvement, comparison really can become the thief of joy. As Christian parents, we know that God cares about character, generosity and loving sacrificially. Let’s tell that better story that says it’s OK to be yourself, and be average at some things. Not everyone needs to be a famous influencer or a nuclear physicist, after all. 

So then, as a mother of daughters, my identity must be in more than my motherhood. I should not feel better or worse as a human being depending on how brilliantly or not my children are doing. Comparing myself with other parents and (worst of all) comparing my children with other children is both fruitless and frustrating. And it simply perpetuates perfectionism when those unrealistic expectations translate into setting impossible standards for my daughters, who have enough of that to contend with already. So, let’s say it loudly to the mums and the girls out there: You don’t have to be the best at everything! You don’t have to please everyone, win every award or look like a supermodel. You are unique, gifted, valuable and your life matters – but you really don’t need to be perfect.