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Passing on Perfection: Why Good Enough Is Great

by René Syler

René Syler

René Syler is author of Good Enough Mother: The Perfectly Imperfect book of Parenting, a former anchor of CBS' The Early Show, mom and advocate for cancer research. Read more »

Sorry, René Syler is no longer taking questions.

Yesterday morning, I got home after my 5:30 a.m. boot camp to find my husband of 16 years had locked one of the cats in the closet, and she had pooped in his favorite carry-on bag. Neither of the children was up, and the bath I ask him to draw every morning was ice cold. That meant, the cranky son wouldn't want to wash his hair in it (and our water pressure doesn't allow us to run the bath and shower at the same time). This was a surefire combination for a sibling battle and just another day in the life of a Good Enough Mother.

I'm René Syler. Welcome to my world! I'll bet it looks a lot like yours. Three years ago, I wrote Good Enough Mother: The Perfectly Imperfect Book of Parenting, which outlined my philosophy on parenting and life in general. Back then, I had a high-powered job as a network news anchor, a husband and two beautiful kids: my daughter Casey and son Cole. I was trying to do it all.

Like so many of my girlfriends, I was running myself ragged trying to provide my precious babies with a perfect childhood when it hit me: I didn't have a perfect childhood, and yet I survived. I was so tired of living up to an absolutely unattainable standard of parenthood that left me tired, frustrated and overall unfulfilled.

It was then I decided good enough was going to be perfect. Now that doesn't mean we don't try to be perfect parents, but we do get to cut ourselves some slack when we fail. And failing, my friends, is a given.

One of the stories mentioned in Good Enough Mother was about my son's grade school birthday party. He wanted donuts in the shape of an "8," just like his best friend had. I searched high and low and found a well-known chain that would do just that. So after working eight hours, I drove to the donut store only to find the pubescent kid behind the counter had given my 8s to another mother. The only thing left were 9s. He was completely oblivious to my panic. For a split second I thought about scrapping the donut plan altogether and getting cupcakes, but there wasn't time for that. So off I went, mulling over the explanation I was going to give to my crest-fallen 8-year-old boy as to why he didn't have his special donuts. When I got there, guess what? He didn't care. You know why? Because it was his special day, they got to eat donuts in class, and his mom was there to help him celebrate.

That was a big lesson for me. I realized that, even with my faults, which are way too numerous to count, what my children really wanted was me. So now I preach the gospel of imperfection. I have screwed up more play dates than I can remember, forgotten permission slips and am a really lousy cook. But I give my kids what they really want, which is my time, love and attention and, with a fair amount of frequency, breakfast for dinner.

Want to be a Good Enough Mother? Try these tips:

  • Lower the expectation: Forget perfection altogether. Understand that you will do your best, and your best will have to do.
  • Enough with the competitive parenting: Do what works for you and your family. Remember, you are parenting for your children, not your mother-in-law, neighbor, sister or best friend.
  • Keep your own hopes and dreams alive: Just because all of these people came into your life, does not mean you have to give up ALL of yourself.
  • Take time to nurture yourself: That means not always putting yourself at the bottom of a long to-do list. How can you possibly take care of others if you don't do the same for yourself?

Years ago, while pregnant with my daughter, an older woman struck up a conversation. She must have sensed my palpable fear at giving birth and being responsible for another human being. She gave me the words that have stuck with me through this whole humbling experience. She said, "You alone will be the best mother that child could have." Instantly I was put at ease because I understood what she was saying.

I didn't have all the answers then and still do not. But I am smart enough to figure it out. So are you!

Remember, imperfection, is the new black!

Sorry, René Syler is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


Gine writes...

I'd just like to point out that the doughnut story is not an example of Mama's imperfection; Mama did everything she could, perfectly, to get the right doughnuts. The imperfection occurred on the other side of the counter, when the "pubescent kid" gave away the doughnuts Mama ordered.

We parents have to get out of the habit of appropriating other people's imperfection. Losing that habit will help us be happy in doing our best.

René? writes...

You know what? You are right Gine. I suppose I saw it as imperfection because I was so frazzled about trying to "make it right" and beating myself up that his special day at school was going to be ruined. Of course it was not and I learned a valuable lesson. Unfortunately, while this was not a great example of my imperfection, there are many, many more that did not make print. However, I agree with your assessment that we need to stop taking other people's mess up's as our own.
Thanks for the reminder.

Nancy writes...

Love the doughnut story. I think it points out not our imperfection, but that the world is not perfect.

On the other hand, my daughter often has asked me to bake (which I love to do and we do together a lot), but there are times we are busy and jut can't. I let her know its OK if life doesn't always allow for you to do everything. Sometimes we buy the cookies or cupcakes. Most years we bake for her dance teachers, 3 years ago Holiday time was hell, my mom was having hip replacement, MIL had breast surgery and My dad has Parkinson's. I said to my daughter "I can't bake for them this year". She was a little disappointed, but I think she learned that sometimes its OK to let go and do what you can, instead of try to overacheive and feel like crap.

TJ writes...

This is good for me to read... I need to learn these lessons. As a stay home mother of 3 children we homeschool, one of whom has servere autism I feel most days like I barely get through half the race and the whistle is blowing that time is up. My husband is always telling me tht I got so much done in the day and I need to work on believing him

Tammy writes...

I'll never forget a piece of wisdom my minister(wife/mother of 4) gave to me when my 3 children were tiny..."if I could do it over again, I'd make soup from a can more often!"

René? writes...

YES! Canned soup and chicken nuggets! Or cereal! Of course not every night but once in a while is perfectly fine. And of course, by once in a while, I mean once a week. Okay maybe not but I would rather have special time with kids and an ordinary meal than the other way around. Thanks Tammy

Caroline writes...

This is something that I need to read. For 12 years, I've periodically beaten myself up for not feeling like the perfect mom to my 3 children. But you're right--my parents weren't perfect and I turned out fine. The title of your next book should be "The Good Enough Person" because I think many people, whether or not they are moms, may be much less stressed--and much more happy--if they accept good enough in their lives instead of perfect!

René? writes...

Hey Caroline:
I do agree with Good Enough Person but there does seem, at least in my life, to be one big difference. When my husband messes up with regard to the kids, he doesn't beat himself up about it where I used to feel like somehow I was an inadequate mother. It seems like men, not all but some certainly, are less bothered by the mistakes they make with their children. So I try to adopt a little of that attitude as well.
Thanks for weighing in!

Martha writes...

Perfectionism is never a thing I try to achieve as a person or as a parent. It places too much stress to any situation. Perfectionism prevents me from being real with myself and my kids. As a human being I make mistakes. As a parent I am constantly making them. "When you know better, you do better" Mistakes are a time to evaluate myself. Admitting to my mistakes allows my children to see me as a vulnerable person. Their patience & never ending admiration teaches me to also be patient & loving with them as well.

René? writes...

Hey Martha:
I agree. I think it's important for our children to see us as imperfect because it teaches them the valuable lesson of how to forgive. When I make a mistake (I'm doing well so far today 'cause kids have been in school all day!) I issue a heartfelt apology and move on. That is as much a learning experience for them as it is for me. Thanks so much for your comment!

cynthia writes...

I am not judmental towards my family, neighbors, or any one else, but when it comes to my daughters boy they hear it from me...they are adults now and have been for over ten years or so and i still get after them when they are doing something i disagree on what ever it may be...parenting skills, social life, or anything and can i quit doing that besides six feet under the ground...

René? writes...

Well, I'm a big believer in natural consequences. If the boys are adults, that means they can make decisions on their own and live with the consequences. At the end of the day, they are in charge of leading their own lives and we as parents (or grandparents) have to learn to bite our tongues! Good luck

nuria writes...

She said, "You alone will be the best mother that child could have." This brought a lump to my throat...

René? writes...

:) I love it too.. I think about that lady often.. Hope it brings comfort to you too, nuria!

Sandra writes...

Such a simple message -- you'd think we as intelligent women would find this obvious, yet we all need to hear it, one of life's little ironies...

René? writes...

I know, right?! I think it's because we want the best for our kids and will really go to the mat trying to provide it. But as I always say my job is not to protect my kids from inevitable disappointment, but to teach them how to deal with it. They will be disappointed in life, heck, sometimes I am the one to provide that! But they'd better learn early that life doesn't always go their way or they're in for a rough ride.
Thanks Sandra!

pip writes...

"You alone will be the best mother that child could have." Lovely sentiment...but let's face it ...there are some bad parents! Am I one? I hope not. I have 4 great kids! My second is above average intelligence - no genius, but a few years ahead of himself. He's a talented soccer player too and is already on the National "watch list" and he's only 9. BUT.....he doesn't know how to have good genuine childish fun. Everything is a competition. He MUST win! He is also short tempered and gets angry when frustrated. We got him into scouts as an attempt to constructively challenge him. Today he was expelled!From Scouts! After a two night camping trip. He wasn't "bold" apparently but he was "aggessively competitive"! at 9! OMG! My reaction was not anger, but deep disappontment for him and a great deal of shame for me as his mother.....what have I done and what can I do to help him to redeem himself? Ours is a small community and a bad rep at 9 is likely to stay with him 3 other kids are socially adept, educationally on the level and take pleasure in everyday life as kids do. any opinions?

René? writes...

Yes, you are absolutely right in that there are some bad parents out there. But they are in the minority and the woman who told me that may have simply been playing the odds.

Let me preface this by saying I am not an expert. Have you spoken to your son about being expelled from Scouts? Have you mentioned this to his pediatrician?I only ask because they might be able to give you a better idea of what is going on and whether he should see another professional.

Now here's the hard part. While we want the best for our children, we can only do so much for them. The rest is up to them. 9 is young but not too young to understand actions and their consequences. As I mentioned in another response, I am a big believer in natural consequences. Perhaps if he understands why he was expelled and the fact that he may have to wait a while to get back in, it will extinguish future behaviors.

I'm not sure you should feel shame, even if you do live in a small community. I have a chapter in my book called "I Don't Care" that speaks to my attitude about how others feel about my parenting. It's sort of a waste to worry about what others think/say because you can do little to change that and I find that energy better used elsewhere. At the end of the day, hold your head high and let them talk.. who cares?

Good luck!

Michelle writes...

This was good to read. We are expecting our first child and of course the thoughts have crept in about whether or not I'll be good enough for my child. But, I guess it's like I told my sister-in-law, if you're thinking about then chances are you're doing just fine.

René? writes...

Hi Michelle:

I agree, if you're thinking about it, you'll probably be fine. Honestly I think where we run into trouble and start second guessing ourselves , is when we stray from our own path. Your neighbor did something this way and says you should too. Or mother/mother-in-law swears baby will be sleeping through the night if you put cereal in his/her bottle. This list goes on and on. When I had questions, I researched, asked my pediatrician but them made my own decision. My kids are still growing so I must have done something right!

Get your rest now because sleep deprivation is hell! (Can I say that?)
Best to you!

Vern writes...

I am going through a life changing, family transition and breaking the news to my 8 year old was the hardest thing to do. She didn't take it well that night but after a couple days and getting her teacher and guidance counselor to talk to her, she's been doing much better. I still however felt like 'I' let her down cause I was one of those people that had their whole life planned out and never saw this coming.

René? writes...

First of all, good luck as you navigate this "new normal". One of the things I have discovered is that children are keen to pick up on stuff that we think goes right over their heads. Example.. I had a preventive mastectomy in January 2007, after a mother and father with breast cancer and my own breast disease. My kids were 8 and 10 at the time. I was very open and honest with them about the surgery, why I was having it, how long I would be in the hospital, what to expect when I came home, then I let them ask me ANYTHING they wanted about it. Cole, my son, asked if I could die. I explained that there were risks but that I had very competent doctors and was probably going to be okay. Then he clarified, no he wanted to know if I could die from having "plastic breasts"! Okee-dokee.

But looking back on it, I am glad I laid it all out there for them. I think you just have to know your own child, how much they can take and explain things to them in an age appropriate manner. In conversations like this (including sex talks) I end with "do you have any questions?" Typically they don't but it's a good way to let them know that door is always open.

Please hang in there. Sometimes the plan we lay out is not the one for us, though that's hard to see while you're feeling your way through the dark.

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