I consider myself a recovering perfectionist. When I was a student, I put enormous pressure on myself to excel, and I would settle for nothing short of an A. As a physician, I prided myself on establishing strong relationships with patients, returning their calls immediately, and going the extra mile. In my personal life, my home was super-organized and everything had its place.
Then, I had children. And wow, was my life turned upside down. I had read What to Expect When You’re Expecting, but I must have missed what to expect once your baby arrives. Sleep deprived, anxious, overwhelmed, and wearing unlaundered shirts with spit up and leaking breast milk stains, I looked out at the mess that had become my apartment and my life. Nostalgically, I fondly remembered the days when I had once been so on top of things; now birth announcements and thank you notes were destined to push me over the edge.
My rituals of taking care of myself had become obsolete. I spent the first six weeks of my daughter’s life with no delineation between day and night, or night and day. I’m not sure I brushed my teeth or washed my face, because those are the things I do before going to bed … and I never officially went to bed during those weeks. I was a mess, and my home was a mess. My husband helped out quite a bit, but really, at a certain point, where do you start?
What I learned, thanks to a second child and an even messier life, was not to try so hard to clean up the mess, and rather to stop fighting the inevitable and to enjoy the ride. One might ask how do we enjoy the ride when we are sleep deprived, overwhelmed and overextended? I believe the answer lies in our ability to give up the idea of perfection, of everything being tidy (both emotionally and physically) in our lives.
When I look back at my most challenging times as a parent, I am frantically trying to live up to some idealistic idea of what parenthood should look like. I am my most frustrated when my kids “should” be behaving in the grocery store and instead they are stunt driving the cart down the aisle. I am most overwhelmed when my son “should” be acquiescent and agreeable while I’m buckling him into his car seat, and instead he is angry, impatient and wild. I feel most like a failure when my daughter “still” cries when I drop her off at school or camp. Why must I compare my children’s behavior and my own experience as a mom with other children or other moms? Why must I live up to a made-up story in my head about how I “should” feel and how my children “should” behave?
My husband talked me off the ledge a few months back. He noticed me about to lose my cool and escalate into a major tantrum of my own while getting my then three-and-a-half year-old son dressed for school. I had the idea in my head (even though I know that my son will only wear soccer shorts) that he should wear “real” shorts on the days he goes school. As I’m about to lose it, I hear my husband’s kind, yet firm, words, “Is this battle really worth the fight?” And when he used the word “fight,” he meant it, as that is exactly what it would have been … a battle of wills … my son’s will vs. my idea of how things “should be.” I paused. I looked at myself honestly and with compassion. The question was this … could I live with the momentary emotional discomfort of sending my son to school in soccer shorts and reluctantly banish my idea of what I think he should wear to school or what I think he should look like? Could I embrace the mess or what is “emotionally messy” for me? You bet I could. And, you know what, I did!
I have learned a few things about myself in the forty plus years I have been alive. Number one is that the pursuit of perfection is exhausting and futile. I am happiest when I let go of the idea of what I think my life “should” look like. And I am most fulfilled when I embrace what I enjoy doing and what I am good at.
By the same token, I have learned a few things in the six years I have been a mom. I am happiest when I find humor and joy in the chaos of parenthood. And I feel most relaxed and at ease as a mom when I can embrace the mess, whether it be the messiness of my house or the messiness of letting go of my own and/or others’ expectations, and enjoy the ride!
The Mommy Tune-up is a blog solely devoted to the busy mom’s pursuit of sanity and good health!