A few years ago, without intention or malice, I joined a cult. Sure, it wasn't the kind of extremist organization where we dressed all in white, packed our bags, and drank the Kool-Aid — to be honest, Kool-Aid was most definitely NOT allowed. Way too much sugar.
What started out as my natural desire to give my children the perfect childhood, excel as a mother, and embrace my new role as a homemaker ended with me sitting alone, in the dark, among the ruins of a my daughter's failed first birthday party snapping pictures of the mess, desperately trying to capture the fun I was supposed to be having. I was officially inducted into the cult of perfect motherhood, and I wanted out.
It began innocently, as these things often do, with a young mother-to-be searching the internet for tips on how to create the perfect environment for her growing baby. It was the first time in my life I had complete control over another life and the power was both sickening and intoxicating. Every move I made impacted the future of the creature growing inside my body, so naturally I wanted to do everything right. I piped music to my stomach through the world's most enormous pair of headphones: classical, of course, for maximum neuronal benefit, but also some Led Zeppelin and Bon Jovi, just for breadth. I ate only organic, grass-fed, locally sourced, free-range, antibiotic-free foods. If it had a hyphen and cost more than my first car, then it had to be good for the baby.
I followed all the rules, even the contradictory ones, and my exhausting efforts paid off because my first child was born and beautiful and perfect as any prophet could promise. A soundly objective fact, of course. But I wanted more. It wasn't enough just to give him the perfect start to life. I wanted to give him the perfect childhood as well. So I delved further into the cult, upgraded my subscription from the basic pregnancy package to the deluxe privileged, upper-middle class, desperate suburban housewife plan. It came with a free string of amber teething beads and a space on the local Montessori preschool waiting lists.
Determined that my child would grow up with siblings, I generously birthed him a baby brother, and then a sister to ensure that he grew up sensitive to the needs and feelings of women. After all, I was a feminist at heart. My toy bins were organized and labeled, my floors vacuumed of all choking hazards, and my children bathed every night. I posted pictures on Facebook and Pinterest and reveled in the encouragement — OK, and a little bit in the jealousy — I received instantly. The cult was finally paying off.
Then came the night before my baby girl's first birthday party, a sparkling pink pancake-themed event I'd been dreaming of since I first decided to have children. Everything was perfect. That is, until my 2-year-old son vomited in the middle of the kitchen floor. I whisked him away from our out-of-town guests and tucked him into a bed lined with towels and a five-gallon bucket. I'd promised my friends, my daughter, and mostly myself the perfect first birthday party. But none of my plans involved infecting a house full of guests with the plague. I was at a loss.
On the one hand, my meticulously planned party was in peril. But on the other hand, I really hated puking in front of people. So I canceled my daughter's party, but not before I snapped photos of the gratuitously decorated table and the approximately 100 gallons of pancake batter and flavored butter I'd prepared for the occasion. Sitting on the floor of the kitchen disinfecting the tile and feeling like a perfect failure, I noticed something I might not have seen had I been rushing around decluttering the house and posing it like the centerfold in a housekeeping magazine.
My oldest son was sitting on the floor with my daughter, both of them wearing the pancake-themed pajamas I bought them to wear to the party, and he was reading her a book. She sat in his lap, her big blue eyes glued on his face as he sounded out the words to Go Dog Go, carefully, slowly, and perfectly. I may not have been able to throw my daughter the Pinterest-worthy birthday party that the cult of perfect motherhood told me I should, but I'd given my children something even more important. Each other. Messy, disorganized, silly, goofy, loving, and more perfect than anything the internet could ever teach me, my kids didn't care about parties and playrooms. They wanted my attention, my hugs, and my approving smiles. They wanted me, not the perfect mother.
I'd been so caught up in doing everything right that I was missing out on the simple beauty of a life lived spontaneously, imperfectly, and authentically. That was the moment I realized that cults, even the perfect ones, were dangerous. They drained the enjoyment from my life and left me a hollow shell of a mother — though, mind you, a highly coiffed shell — obsessed with both my social status and my Facebook status. I wasn't living my life, I was displaying it. So that is how I escaped from the cult of perfect motherhood: covered in my child's vomit, sweating from anxiety and scrubbing, and listening to my children laughing together. It was the most perfect moment of my life. Of course, eight hours later, my son was completely recovered and I was bedridden for three days, but that's just motherhood.
Product Credit: Left: Gap shirt / Center: Everlane sweatshirt / Right: Equipment sweater