“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
–Leonard Cohen, Selected Poems 1956-1968
When I was a senior in college, one of my favorite professors paired me with a freshman to work on some sort of collaborative paper. “You’ll like working with him,” she said. “He’s a perfectionist. Like you.”
“What?!” I thought, “I’m not a perfectionist!” Detail oriented, sure. Self-motivated, disciplined, with a strong desire to excel… obviously. But a perfectionist? What does that even mean? Isn’t a perfectionist, like, PERFECT? That, I knew I was not.
A couple years later, at the wise young age of 23, I was pushing my way through my second year of graduate school. I was working my ass off, earning good grades, and sharing an apartment with my dear friend and fellow student. I studied, I taught, I read, I wrote, I went to class, I read some more, and I ran a marathon. By all appearances, I was killing it. But privately, I was hurting, still haunted by the ghosts of an eating disorder from my teens. At this stage in my life, it mostly involved copious quantities of cookies, peanut butter sandwiches, and self-loathing, in place of healthier mechanisms to cope with the stress and the work load. On January 1st that year, I tearfully made a list of resolutions–goals for self-improvement–and hung it next to my bedroom mirror. I resisted the urge to enumerate various dietary and exercise goals that I knew I would fall short of anyway and wrote, at the top of the list: FORGIVE YOUR IMPERFECTIONS.
Four years later, a Master’s Degree, another year abroad, and a couple of years of teaching high school under my belt, I sat in the midwives’ office, weepy, nauseated, and bone tired from the first trimester of an unexpected pregnancy. I was going to be a mom. In the meantime, a foreign entity no bigger than a blueberry had completely hijacked my body and I felt like total crap. Most of the time, night or day, I just wanted to curl into fetal position on the floor and fall asleep. I told my midwife that I was just so frustrated because I hadn’t even been able to exercise in weeks. She basically said, “Honey, get over it!” Ok, not exactly. But she did say that pregnancy is an exercise in letting go of our control… in surrendering to WHAT IS… “And if pregnancy doesn’t teach you that, then childbirth will. And,” with a chuckle, “if childbirth doesn’t teach you that, then parenting definitely will!”
At the time, her response felt condescending. It made me feel like some sort of selfish, anal, Type A bitch who was sitting there whining because she missed her workout. What I really meant is that I was scared. Exhausted. Overwhelmed. Confused. My life was being turned over so entirely to this other person that I could not do the things I was accustomed to doing. I could not do the things that made me feel like… ME. Over the years, though, I have recalled her words often, and recognized the truth–even wisdom–in them.
I have come to understand that I am, indeed, a perfectionist. (Mea culpa.) I like to do things well. I don’t like it when I do not do something well. I am slow to recognize the things I AM doing well, and I am quick to find the areas where I fall short. Also, I feel best when my surroundings are aesthetically pleasing, orderly, and organized. When the house is clean, the dishes are washed, when everything has a place and is in its place, and when all the laundry is folded. (HA. This is a funny joke, by the way, because I’m pretty certain that none of this has happened since that year in my 20’s that I lived in a one bedroom apartment… ALONE.) That’s just me.
But my midwife was right. Pregnancy, childbirth, PARENTING, (marriage, cancer, TWINS, career changes…) all soften our edges. They humble us. Try, just try, to feel like a REALLY GREAT parent. Yeah, right. A perfectionist’s nightmare. Read five different books on any one topic from sleep training to introducing solid foods to dealing with tantrums, and you will get five different well-researched takes on “the right” way to do it. And how do we know if we ARE doing it right? If the kids turn out OK? Newsflash: Those little buggers are mostly born just the way they are; It is our honor as parents not to mold them, but to do OUR best to bring out THEIR best. Sometimes, it works out. Other times, despite our most valiant efforts, they are just kind of a$$holes.
I am not perfect. My house is not perfect. My children, my husband, and my life are not perfect. Despite the good intentions of therapists, friends, and Queen Elsa, the common advice to “let it go” just doesn’t do it for me. Sitting here in my son’s messy room, in the early hours of a Sunday morning, staring at three loads of clean laundry that have been strewn about the floor for days, waiting to be folded, writing away while my children start their third episode of Octonauts, I really don’t think I can “let go” much further.
Instead, my task is to ACCEPT. This is my life right now. To FORGIVE. It is ok if they watch a little too much TV; I am not a horrible parent. To LAUGH. Because, let’s face it: When my toddler has an epic meltdown because I did something horrible like break her banana or throw away her poop-filled diaper… That shit is funny. And finally, beyond just accepting, to EMBRACE. To embrace the chaos, the mess, the constant demands, the wondering if I’m doing what I should be doing, because, at the end of the day, this life of mine is not perfect… but it is pretty damn good.