The Phantom Mom

We women know well that comparison is a nemesis for each of us, but did you know that our daily measuring of ourselves has created a collage of ideals, an image of perfection, a phantom “me” within?

Last week I pulled a cute shirt out of the corner of our closet where my spring/summer things are stashed, hopefully tried it on and sadly found it was too tight. Ugh. This should still fit, I thought as I took it off.  Shoulds have plagued me for decades; I should be able to handle this challenge at work, I should be able to come up with a solution for my kids constant bickering, I should be able to control my anger and my other emotions, and most important I should pray more often, and should want to read my bible more too. Mark my forehead with a giant scarlet letter F. Thousands of times I’ve scolded myself as a wife, a mother, a Christian because I failed to live up to this phantom image of what a godly Christian wife and mother should be like.

Does this sound at all familiar to you?

This was a list I made years ago that helped my see in words the image that enslaved me. See if you, like me, feel that any of these are on the obviously understood list of characteristics of the perfect Christian wife and mother:

  • She is always loving, patient, and understanding.
  • She is well-organized, maintaining a perfect balance between discipline and flexibility.
  • Her house is neat and well decorated. She is never embarrassed if friends drop by unexpectedly.
  • Her children obey her every command.
  • She never gets angry with her children, even if they forget to do their chores. She reminds them gently and kindly what they are to do.
  • She is energetic, never tired, even after getting up five times during the night to care for her children…with a smile on her face.
  • She manages her workload with her home tasks well and is always in the pickup line at 3:00 waiting on her well-dressed happy children.
  • She reaches out to her neighbors and takes meals to the sick and needy.
  • She looks fresh and attractive at all times, whether in jeans and a sweater, working in the garden, or in a fancy dress going out to dinner.
  • Her hair does what she wants it to do.
  • Her fingernails are never broken or bitten, but filed smoothly and painted with polish.
  • She plans healthy, balanced meals for her family and bakes everything from scratch. She would never dream of feeding her family prepared foods like canned ravioli, frozen pizza, or cheap hot dogs.
  • She doesn’t get sick, lonely, or discouraged.
  • She prays without ceasing, like over flat tires, lost keys, lost teddy bears, lost blankies. She chooses gratitude for difficulties like a husband who is late for dinner or the neighbor’s dog chewing up her son’s new tennis shoes.
  • She is always ready and even regularly initiates sex with her husband.

Quite an impressive list, isn’t it? With a phantom like that, it’s no wonder so many of us women feel like failures as wives and mothers. The even crazier thing about a phantom is that even though we know we can never live up to this perfect image, we still tear ourselves down when we fail to be perfect as we imagine it to be.

We are self-imposing an unattainable ideal.

I encourage you to make your own list because when you do the phantom becomes exposed and the light of Christ will reveal the truth; you simply cannot reach these standards.

So start with my list and copy any that you identify with. Then ask yourself these questions:

  • Have you, for example, ever compared your body to another mid-thirties mom body? Write what you expect from yourself.
  • Have you ever compared your marriage to someone else’s? Write what you are expecting from your husband and yourself. This list might be longer than you think.
  • Have you compared your child’s grades or performance on the athletic field to a classmate’s?

The images can come from anywhere! My summer copy of Magnolia Journal arrived last week. Probably only a few women in America haven’t compared themselves, their house, their kids, their cooking, etc. to Joanna Gaines! A friend recently admitted she compared herself to a made up character, the illustrated mom in a children’s book.

Phantoms can crush your self-image because your image is a self-portrait with music; how you feel about yourself, your value or worth is the tune. Often the music isn’t happy, but angry accusatory tones drumming our sense of value and worth.

What kind of self-portrait have you painted? What kind of music do you hear? When the music of self-doubt isn’t playing, you feel confident, secure, and relaxed. But when the voices and emotions of failure blare in your ears, the self-condemnation can cause paralysis.

My repeated failures to live up to my phantom expectations of myself left me exhausted and without confidence. Though I made plenty of mistakes in lots of areas like burning dinner or ruining a favorite outfit with a spot of bleach, there were two that haunted me most; my ongoing problem controlling my anger with my kids and my ongoing struggle with being interested in sex. And sadly there isn’t space or time to explain more or to write how I finally resolved both. Maybe another post.

For today let’s start by recognizing the phantom exists for you. Make your list and add to it over the next week or so as you see more ways you compare and create expectations for yourself that are unrealistic.

Here’s the good/bad news. Recognizing the impossibility of reaching any of your standards, the bad news, is really good news because Jesus wants us to see we need Him. Though I desire to be competent and strong and capable, seeing my inability repeatedly forces me to recognize the truth of Jesus’s words, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Jesus Himself, though perfectly capable and competent, depended completely on His Father. He said, “I can do nothing on my own” (John 5:30). He chose to be dependent. I have to be dependent. And knowing that truth about myself, as hard as it was to learn, has set me free to be who He made me to be and to experience His ability in my lack.

Begin to kill your phantom by thanking God that you will never measure up and that it is good.

Thank Him that He is able.

Ask Him every day to teach you about yourself and Himself as you go about your day serving your family, doing your work, loving your husband, interacting with your neighbors and friends. It won’t always feel good but the result is freedom to be who He made you to be in Him.

And may you celebrate Mother’s Day, even if you aren’t a mom, rejoicing that you are not able but Jesus is. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” (John 8:32).

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15 thoughts on “The Phantom Mom”

  1. I was just scrolling through old emails that I haven’t had a chance to open. My husband recently changed jobs, we moved, and I am expecting my 10th baby in Oct. These are all good things, but boy oh boy, is that phantom woman there in my head! It is so gracious to be reminded that we need Jesus and aren’t going to arrive on our own. Thanks for this.

  2. This made me laugh out loud. When I read the list I knew it was ridiculous but what woman has not imposed most of that list on herself? Thank you Barbara!

    1. Barbara Rainey

      Isn’t it funny and silly that we hold ourselves to such a standard? So glad it made you laugh :)

  3. I am a Deaf mother of two. My two grown up hearing children. I still being mother to them no matter what age. Always still be there for them. My daughter is on the way to 28 and married already 6 months. she still comes to me for advice with her husband. encourage her to pray for her husband. My second son is in New Zealand staying by his dad. he got a nice job and a car and we still contact by what app. just be there for kids with lots of love, kind and gentle with the Lord prayerfully. Proud Deaf Mother.

  4. Wow I don’t think I’ve seen myself in a post quite as much as this one, down to the anger and unsexy-ness. Thank you so much for this.

  5. This is EXACTLY what I needed today. I think you wrote it for me, and the timing was only God. My joy is gone and I feel I’ll never be the wife and mom that I so desperately want to be. But Jesus… Where I am weak, He is strong. Praying the truths from His word will make it from my head to my heart.

  6. Thank you Barbara for being so transparent. I’m starting my own list and writing “Free indeed.” over it.

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