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Motherhood climbs back on the pedestal

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In the secular world, the quest for perfection manifests itself in other ways. When Christine Walker was expecting her first child, well-meaning friends and even strangers peppered her with guilt-producing questions: Are you exercising? Taking prenatal vitamins? Avoiding caffeine? Staying away from certain foods?

"The striving to be the perfect mom begins when you're pregnant," says Mrs. Walker, a mother of three in Winnetka, Ill. Noting that this striving continues through every stage of child-rearing, she adds, "The pressure to be Martha-Stewart-meets-June-Cleaver is really hard."

For Jamie Farrell of Revere, Mass., even bottle- feeding her baby, rather than breastfeeding, drew critical comments from others. "If you use formula, you are made to feel almost criminal," she says. "I felt I could never be a 'perfect mother' because I wasn't able to perform something that is presented as such a simple task."

Some women look to their own mothers as models - and come up short by comparison. "My mom never used a cake mix," says Mary Boone of Tacoma, Wash. "Everything was from scratch. I can't even tell you the last time I baked something from scratch."

And then there is that other beloved icon of perfection, June Cleaver. By today's standards of parenthood, she had it easy. "June Cleaver never worried about whether she breastfed long enough, if she should get sealants on her kids' teeth, or if the favors she chose for her 3-year-old's birthday party would be well received," says Stephanie Gallagher, author of "The Gallagher Guide to the Baby Years." Calling herself a "recovering perfectionist," she adds, "I've agonized over those things and more."

Debates about working or not working also produce insidious doubts. Most days, Mrs. Boone feels relatively satisfied with her ability to mother her two preschoolers. But on Thursdays, everything changes. That's the day she takes her 4-year-old daughter to ballet class. As the only working mother in the group, Boone feels a nagging inadequacy as the others talk about their children's many activities.

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