The Snare of Perfectionism

The Snare of PerfectionismTrends happen for a reason. The sudden spate of books and conferences exposing the myth of “the perfect mother” is a cultural admission that women feel a lot of pressure to both be mothers (you are less of a woman if you choose not to be a mother), and then to do that task “perfectly” however that is defined.

When women admit that being “a perfect mother” is not possible, a collective sigh of relief follows. Moms make mistakes and have legitimate worries:

  • forget doctors’ appointments,
  • don’t wash their children’s hair often enough,
  • feed the children sugary treats to stop the crying,
  • yell when they are frustrated,
  • are especially anxious when one of their children throws a punch or steals a toy.

Children become an extension of the mother’s body and identity—
a beyond-my-control extension of me that tells me (and others) about me.

Perfection, as it is defined for women, often includes non-motherly tasks as well, like being well coiffed, or keeping an organized and tidy home. Mothering doesn’t depend on either of these, though. Perhaps the “perfection” label is more about trying to be a woman who matches culturally-assigned stereotypes of female married+children adulthood.

Reading these discussions has left me a little cold. While I’ve had my share of guilt about motherly missteps (lecturing a child rather than hearing her, switching curriculum too swiftly without proper preparation, letting one child’s vocal needs drown out another child’s quieter ones) I don’t think I ever worried about having the right haircut while my children were young. Getting to go for a haircut once in a while was treat enough!

And even though stepping on a cluster of Legos in the middle of the night with a baby in my tired arms drove me to the brink of swearing on more than one occasion, I didn’t feel a lot of pressure to keep a perfectly neat home, nor did I feel particularly embarrassed by evidence of children strewn throughout the living spaces.

The pressure I felt (and still feel!) had less to do with my external presentation (how I appeared as a woman, mother, wife) and more to do with significance:

  • Am I mattering?
  • Am I making the ultimate difference?
  • Am I doing the right things to ensure the right results?

The pressure in mothering as a home educator is even more insidious. Not only do you feel it matters that your children eat healthy lunches (that are hot, predictable, and require clean-up midday), but you must also make “healthy” curriculum choices and adopt the “right-est” educational philosophy. You scour the Internet for the Magic List of principles and practices that ensure your children will be well-socialized, well-educated, and well-behaved people.

The danger of perfectionism kicks in not because you are
trying to convey an image of success.

You actually want to be successful.

Measuring success is a huge part of our culture—and that measurement is usually exacted by others who are in the same soup, trying to get to the same place. When we feel “measured against a criteria” (in other words, “judged”), that’s when we move ourselves toward the impossible standard of perfectionism. We double down and try harder to apply the methods and madnesses of a system. We stop hearing our own voices inside and we lose perspective.

What frees us isn’t simply agreeing that none of us is perfect (oh well) so let’s just do the best we can and hope for the best. Hey, let’s be kinder to each other and share our stories of all the mistakes we make every day. And let’s laugh about it (ha ha). Certainly there is some therapy to be had in those exchanges. For sure!

But for me, comic relief never freed me. I had high expectations for my family and my efforts. I wasn’t about to give those up just because of the snare of perfectionism or the judgment of others. And occasionally, some of the examples of what passed for mere imperfection appeared to be important flaws to notice and address.

What’s helped? Here’s my short list. It’s not meant to be a new standard, but I hope it inspires some of you to share what’s helping you, right now.

Breaking rules. The temptation is so strong to do what the rule-makers say to the letter, believing that it means I am protected from failure. When I apply the rules, I stop listening to my children and to my life. I put my faith in practices ahead of relationships. For instance, I breastfed my kids. A false nipple equaled heresy. The day I discovered that a pacifier helped my son sleep was a day of liberation. We happily breastfed for nearly 3 years, but knowing he could nap without me saved my sanity and made me a better mother. Breaking a rule, based on my son’s needs (and mine) was good for us.

Paying attention. I sometimes became distracted by principles and missed the really cool thing happening under my nose. For instance, I had read that starting school work right after breakfast every day led to a quiet expectation that “school” would happen and we would avoid power struggles. But the day I woke up and saw sheet forts and kids in dress up clothes and apples cut into tiny pieces for food told me that “school” was already happening. I didn’t apply the principle, that day.

Experimenting. I used to say to my friends that I would unschool my children to find out if it worked so they wouldn’t have to. I thought of unschooling as a risk and as something to embrace or explore, but I chose not to see it as the defining story of my family. That attitude, by the way, is not often welcome in unschooling settings. And that discovery unsettled me for a time. Then I realized: this is my unique family story and I’m writing it with my kids and their dad. I am not defined by someone else’s vision, even if their ideas can contribute good things to us.

Getting help. Maybe it’s my Malibu upbringing, but I’m a big-believer in therapy and support groups. Perspective doesn’t often come online to the degree we need it. The community you develop with friends across the miles via the Internet is legitimately supportive, loving, and often insightful. But those friends don’t know your kids. They haven’t been in your home. They aren’t aware of your marriage dynamic, or your family of origin. They don’t even really know what you’re like—they can’t hear your tone of voice or see how you use your hands or how long you talk before you let the other person get a word in edgewise. When you hit a wall emotionally at home, where you feel like you’re failing, and you can’t see your own neuroses, get in-person help. You want a safe space to think about the particularity of your family and life. You want to get away from systems that dictate their terms to you and tempt you to slavish devotion. You want gentle, kind, reflective space to consider a slew of options, not just the ones sanctioned “by the group.”

The bottom line is this:

My connection to my kids matters the most.

When we are connected, no matter how we’ve arrived at that space, I know we’re okay.

And that feels perfectly fine to me.

My connection to my kids matters the most.

One Response to “The Snare of Perfectionism”

  1. Maggie May says:

    Oh I loved this so so much! You expressed points of view that I have but haven’t articulated within myself- and I can totally relate to doing something off the beaten trail to find only that you are even off the off! Great piece.