Ann Dunnewold, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist who specializes in the issues of women and mothers today. She is a nationally recognized expert on postpartum depression and anxiety, and has appeared on the Today Show and in national magazines such as Fit Pregnancy, Parents and Dallas Child. Dr. Dunnewold has appeared as a consultant in two videos produced by Family Experience Productions, both of which air in hospital systems over the Lamaze/Newborn Channel. The author is a mother of two nearly grown daughters and has survived the endless push to perfection in parenting.
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What prompted you to write this book?
First and foremost, I am a mother and I work with women, so I am surrounded by mothers all week long. I saw how women were struggling to be good mothers, aiming for the impossible standards that our culture puts out there for motherhood. Women feel they must be perfect to be good mothers, to raise children who can compete, given the increasing demands for perfection in sports, school, finances, and appearance. The result is over parenting, or extreme parenting. Women are blaming themselves when they can not "do it all."
What is extreme parenting?
Extreme parenting is over parenting: endlessly doing more in an effort to control every minute detail of your child's life. Underneath extreme parenting is the illusion of control—that if you can just control enough of the small details, your child's life will turn out "right." Extreme parenting is not just "control for control's sake," however. It is an effort, driven by anxiety and guilt, to make sure your child can compete in today's world, that your child can have a happy, optimally successful life.
What are the forces at work?
First is the universal parent wish: to give your child a great life. And to step back from extreme parenting feels like you don't care about giving your child that ideal life. But we live in a society that has several dysfunctional beliefs:
What toll does extreme parenting take? On kids? On moms?
Certainly, all these unachievable standards about women's behavior create much guilt, anxiety, anger, and depression for women, and marital dissatisfaction for couples. That's a given. But we are starting to see that the over involved, over controlled style of parenting may create real problems for kids, as well. Children don't learn to structure their own time if every moment is planned for them. They cannot manage their own feelings if mommy always makes it better. College counselors on college campuses are seeing the manifestation of these problems, with huge rates of anxiety, depression and control-related disorders, such as eating disorders. And the rising number of young adults who return home to live after college is probably a result of extreme parenting as well.
You talk about "perfect mommy traps" in a woman's head. What are the perfect mommy traps?
Perfect mommy traps are the unreasonable beliefs that invade mothers' heads about parenting. They are beliefs about how mothers "should" be with their children: eternally patient, always on duty, perpetually stimulating, ceaselessly joyful. Not human: not ever tired, or cranky, or wanting time for yourself. And there are beliefs about parenting and children: that children are fragile, and should always come first, and must be protected from any and all disappointment and failure. What makes these beliefs "traps" is they are so woven through the very fabric of our society that women have difficulty recognizing them, realizing they are unrealistic, and so seeing the impossibility of always living up to them. These traps are just automatic in our heads. They just drive us to extreme parenting without much awareness. Parents who get sucked up in extreme parenting aren't bad guys—they have just lost perspective on what matters and how to get there. Extreme moms are like mother bears on steroids—they just want to protect their cubs, give them their "all." And they are driven by anxiety, not by reason.
Other books/authors have addressed this issue: Judith Warner in Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety and Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels in The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women. How is Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juice Box different from what these authors have said?
Warner, Douglas and Michaels were key in bringing this problem to the forefront. They wrote about the push for perfection in parenting, the Mommy Mystique or the Mommy Myth, that has elevated the motherhood standards to this impossible level. They are right that this is a cultural problem, reinforced daily by the media and our societal expectations. When I read those books, however, the process of change seemed to stop short: with the recognition of the problem and cultural change that required a solution. Women in my office are beginning to accept that "I don't have to buy into these unrealistic ideas about being a perfect mother" or that "it really is the culture and not me." But they do not know what to do next. Their "to do" lists were already full, and marching on Washington to bring public policy in line with "parents as human beings" was not on the list. Insight is increasing, but anxiety is not dissipating. I am a cognitive behavioral psychologist, and while many other psychologists believe insight is sufficient for change—I don't. So in this book, I try to give women some strategies to go beyond the insight that our current model for motherhood is not workable. I offer strategies to counter the anxiety and guilt that fuel extreme parenting. A new paradigm for motherhood: the perfectly good mother.
Define the perfectly good mother.
Many others have tried to offer "the good enough mother" as an alternative to the perfect mother. In our tendency to all or nothing thinking, too many women hear "good enough" as not good enough. If your behavior is not perfect, and you think in black and white terms, then good enough must be the other end of the spectrum, i.e. failure. Again, our society adheres to this view: consider a beer billboard I saw recently. It said "never settle for good enough." The perfectly good mother, however, is more middle ground. Sounds like excellence is possible—maybe even much of the time. Perfectly means "to the fullest extent." So the perfectly good mother is parenting to the fullest extent possible at any given point in time, given who she is and the demands of her life. There is no hard and fast definition of what the perfectly good mother is, because there is no single prototype mother. I encourage each woman to define what a perfectly good mother would be for her. Not for her neighbor or her si