By: A Yad Rachel Mentor/Volunteer
I once attended a lecture years ago about postpartum depression. I volunteer at Yad Rachel, and this training like many others was mandatory.
The speaker, a popular social worker who specialized in treating women of child bearing years, was asked to educate us on perinatal mood disorders. After spending time giving over many scientific facts and percentages, she suddenly shared a message that was both powerful and direct. “Ladies, there is a disease that is rampant in your community that is causing untold amounts of stress and anxiety. No, not postpartum depression. It’s called the disease of perfectionism. It’s destroying women and their families, and we must fight it!” She went on to share that in her many years of practice, she has counselled women of all different ethnicities, cultures, backgrounds. ” in general, women especially mothers, can be hard on themselves. But of all the women I’ve seen, Orthodox Jewish moms have placed unrealistic expectations upon themselves that are impossible to achieve or maintain that are bringing them to a breaking point ”
She listed the demands we make on ourselves one by one, and we all nodded along.
Perfect Wife – We need to be supportive, encouraging, and expected to look beautiful at all times or else we feel that we are responsible for our husbands’ unhappiness.
Perfect Neighbor – We need to do untold amounts of chesed for our friends and in addition be able to entertain or host at any given time or else we feel we have failed as a good community member.
Perfect Daughter – We live in enmeshed communities where we worry endlessly about our parents and extended family of origin and are responsible for their wellbeing and need to be a present and caring daughter- in- law or else we aren’t loving enough.
Perfect Jewish Soul– We need to attend a certain amount of Torah classes, refresher courses, read and study and learn and grow or else we feel we have disappointed G-d.
Perfect Housekeeper -We need to maintain an optimum level of cleanliness, a constant rotation of mouthwatering gourmet nutritious meals, all with seamless order and routine or else we feel we will be labelled dysfunctional.
Perfect Breadwinner – In addition to all this, it is expected to at least have one additional job, and be best in your field, or else we feel we are labelled someone who is lazy and unmotivated.
Perfect Parent – We need to have large beautiful families, and treat each child like they are an only child, which means, seeing that all their emotional needs are met via attending yearlong parenting courses, hiring therapists and tutors, all while seeing all their physical needs are met by feeding them, bathing them, clothing them, playing with them, spending extra time with them, schooling them etc. or else they might end up in the streets G-d forbid and it will be all our fault.
She added Yom tov and Shabbos. She added external pressure – obsessing over appearance and weight, beautiful clothes in the latest most modest fashions.
She added chesed- being involved in tzedakah, bike-a-thons, Chinese auctions, and the like.
She continued on about this insane juggling act that we do. The toll it takes on all of us. How impossible it is to do it all. How impossible it is to achieve this level of success in all these areas and how it’s called the disease of perfectionism. How it’s created a rat race where mothers are depleted and drained from all this multi-leveled constant giving and nurturing and worrying about so many things and so many others. How so many of these “perfect” women are crawling into her practice anxious, depressed, overworked and overwhelmed. Isn’t it ironic, she observed, how these women ended up being inadequate mothers and stressed wives and needing assistance from the community since they were falling apart from taking upon themselves too much. And knew in truth, if they would let go and just “be,” they would be fine.
It seems obvious now, but at the time it was eye opening for me. I never heard it put that way before. Labelled as a “disease”. Referencing it as such created a negative image which adequately depicted the insanity of it all.
When I think of a mother, a woman, I think of a tree. Strong, fruit bearing, reaching her branches out to provide shade to those around her. Growing higher and higher touching the heavens. If I continue this parable, I think of the expectation for the tree to grow and bear fruit. But it’s understood by both G-d and man that for that to happen, the tree must be watered, must be exposed to sunlight, and must be pruned and treated for disease or rot.
The tree is also expected only to produce one specific fruit. No farmer expects the apple tree to suddenly give forth oranges or blueberries. No one waits each spring for the tree’s leaves to grow feathers or develop stripes or spots. It has one purpose: The fruit that G-d assigned it to grow. No one judges the tree for not doing more than its G-d given capability. Everyone is okay with the fact that the tree only blossoms one season a year. No one turns to G-d demanding otherwise. We must have this level of acceptance for ourselves, too…
So how do we fight the disease of perfectionism other than listening to lectures about it?
It takes time and work and a lot of self-awareness to get there. Sometimes we need to be broken and hit rock bottom before we do. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be open to these concepts before we are affected by it.
You see, we need to fully accept and realize that we too, have limitations. We are humans, not super machines. We too need to be accepting of the best we can.
We need to work on loving ourselves and not judging ourselves by society’s yardstick. We need to really truly understand that children need parents to be present, not perfect. That being a role model means doing the best with what we have at that moment and not doing what others deemed acceptable. We must put on our blinders to avoid getting distracted by the high standards that others have placed which creates the impossible demands we make on ourselves. Only then can we focus on being happy productive mindful mothers.
This is the chemotherapy of this awful soul-draining disease.
This is a huge undertaking. Easier said than done.
At Yad Rachel, where I volunteer, we are helping mothers heal from this illness of perfectionism. We see time and time again how much of a trigger it is, especially post birth when we are so vulnerable and fragile.
We stop women from beating themselves up for not being perfect enough, and we teach self-love, self-care, self-acceptance. We guide our wonderful beautifully imperfect women to embrace themselves. We believe that asking for help takes so much more strength and courage than pretending to be an all-around super star. That G-d doesn’t roll out the red carpet for mothers that are martyrs. (That it’s ok to serve frozen pancakes and instant hot cereal for supper, that it’s ok to text a friend “Mazel tov” after she has a baby and not feel compelled to make a four-course supper for her family of six if you’re not up to it!) We help eliminate the fear that eats away the self-confidence of parents and help them tap into their G-d given mother’s intuition. And with our women’s Wellness initiative, we encourage mothers to nurture themselves, so they can properly nurture others.
With our commitment to spread awareness in the community and educate women about PPD and other mood disorders, we have opened up dialogues about mental and behavioral health and have helped reduce the stigma which stops so many from reaching out.