Trying to be the perfect parent leads to stress

Trying to be the perfect parent leads to stress

By Liz Lockhart

Feeling that you must be the perfect mum or dad can cause so much stress that it can backfire and lead to the undermining of parenting skills.

A new study shows that, for the parents of newborn babies, the adjustment to their new role is made more difficult if they believe that society expects them to be ‘perfect’ parents.

When new parents worry about what other people think about their parenting skills it causes stress which affects mothers and fathers differently.  Mums tend to have less confidence in their parenting abilities whilst dads feel more stress.  When the pressure to be better parents was self-imposed this proved to be somewhat better for parents especially for fathers, according to the study results.

The lead author, Megan Lee, said that the findings are some of the first to show how the quest for perfectionism affects new parents.

‘Trying to be perfect parents is a mixed bag.  If you think you have to be perfect because of outside pressure, it really hurts adjustment.  If you put these demands on yourself, it may have some benefits early on, but it is not universally good,’ said Lee.

The study was conducted by Megan Lee of Ohio State and her colleagues Dr. Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan and Dr. Claire Kamp Dush of the Department of Education and Human Ecology.  The results can be found online in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

The study is part of a long-term larger study called ‘New Parents Project’ which focused on studying dual-earning couples as they adjust to becoming parents for the first time. 

In this part of the study, the investigators examined 182 couples who became parents between 2008 and 2010.  Both spouses completed a questionnaire during the final trimester of the woman’s pregnancy.  This measured their levels of feelings of pressure which arose from their perceptions of social expectations and of their own self-imposed parenting perfectionism.

Schoppe-Sullivan said that societal-oriented perfectionism is explained as being concerned about what other people think about your parenting.  This was assessed by asking people how much they agreed with statements such as ‘Most people always expect me to always be an excellent parent.

Self-oriented perfectionism was assessed with statements such as ‘I must always be a successful parent’.

The same couples answered questions about their adjustment to their new roles three months after the birth of their baby.  The parents’ perfectionist tendencies were associated with how well they adjusted, the results showed.

The mums who had higher levels of societal-oriented perfectionism also had lower levels of confidence in their ability to perform their maternal tasks, Schoppe-Sullivan said.  However, for dads, this type of perfectionism lead to higher levels of parenting stress.

Self-oriented perfectionism, for mothers, was linked to higher levels of parenting satisfaction and had no effect on their self-efficacy or stress.  For fathers it was related to better adjustment in the areas of higher satisfaction, lower stress and higher parental self-efficacy. 

Schoppe-Sullivan said ‘If you think you have to be perfect because of outside pressure, it really hurts adjustment.  If you put these demands on yourself, it may have some benefits early on, but it is not universally good.’

Conscientiousness and neuroticism were found to be two personality factors which were linked to parental adjustment.  These characteristics were measured and statistically controlled.  Because of this, the researchers are more confident that parental adjustment is related to perfectionism and not to other factors.

The researchers say that the data from the study cannot explain why fathers were more likely than mothers to gain benefit from the self-imposed perfectionism.  One explanation may be that these dads were highly involved in parenting, and having these high standards proved to be motivational.

Another reason, according to Schoppe-Sullivan, may also be related to the fact that fathers still don’t carry the same burden for childcare that mothers do in our society.

‘Some fathers may have these very high standards for themselves, but it may not be as hard for them to meet those standards as it is for the mothers.  Fathers, generally, aren’t expected to have as much responsibility for taking care of their children,’ she said.

This study examined parents just three months after the birth of their child, so it is possible that the role of perfectionism may change over time, Lee noted. 

‘What’s going to happen to adjustment when these mums and dads start having problems and failures, as all new parents inevitably do?  It may be that self-oriented perfectionism will no longer be a good thing in the face of these failures.  We just don’t know yet,’ Lee concluded.

Source: Ohio State University 

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