Outing our Inner Perfectionist

September 29, 2010 § 7 Comments

I have just started blogging, and at 37, I feel both too old and too young for this new sport of mine. It’s liberating and humbling and I am inspired at every turn by what is out there. In the last week, I have read two wonderful posts about contradictions; one from Lindsey Mead Russell and one from Danielle LaParte. Each was a coming out of the closet of sorts- an outing of our inner perfectionist – and each brought about a great feeling of relief in me. An ah, I can finally stop hiding my US Magazine from behind my New Yorker type of moment.

I am not sure why women of our generation feel such a need to be perfect. I see it in mothers and those without children, in working and non-working, married and single. Many of our own mothers, in the eighties, decided to “have it all,” and you would think we would have learned from them. Instead, it’s even more intense now, more fraught. Sometimes, I think that if I fit securely, definitively inside a mold or a label (NPR-listening, latte-drinking, Volvo-driving liberal), I will be safe. That nothing bad will happen if I toe the line and follow the rules. So I don’t mind being constrained by my own rules any more than I mind being constrained by a fabulous belt or an uncomfortable pair of shoes. Fitting in is worth the pain.

My son attends a Waldorf School, which I hoped would take us out of the striving mainstream of northern Virginia and give us a little break. Instead, I hear snippets of conversation at drop-off and pick-up that set off my internal Richter scale of anxiety. “We NEVER watch TV, Nathan has never even seen TV” to  to “We only eat oatmeal for breakfast” and “Have you had your son diagnosed for that?” Last week, I ran into another Waldorf mother in a local organic market. She looked exhausted, and while her two-month old daughter slept in her car seat, my friend told me she couldn’t talk because she was late for a CNN interview about the dangers of high-fructose corn syrup. I watched as she quickly dropped milk into her cart and then sprinted off. What disturbed me most, was that instead of wondering how I could help her, I thought, Crap, now we’ll have to throw away the ketchup.

This evening, my husband, two sons, and I left my parents’ house in Pennsylvania and traveled four hours back to Alexandria, Virginia. At six, my husband stopped for gas and then mentioned heading to a nearby McDonald’s, which made me panic a little. Mostly because I wanted crispy chicken something (anything!!!) which isn’t entirely consistent with the vegan lifestyle I would like to lead.

While my almost-two year old nursed and my husband waited for his behemoth SUV to fill with gas (a non-renewable resource! a major source of pollution!) I lamented that what I wanted was at odds with who I wanted to be. “It would be easier,” I told him, “If I just stopped labeling myself. Vegan. Organic. Homemaker. Career girl.”

My husband raised his eyebrows at me. “You think?” he said.

I ignored his sarcasm. “It’s getting really hard to be perfect all the time. I should be a vegan, wear only cruelty-free clothes, serve organic food, be a fabulous wife, lose 15 pounds, have an organized underwear drawer, practice yoga every day, have an immaculate house, be present with my kids all day, have a life outside my home, be a great runner again (preferably, marathons!!!), learn to knit, meditate every day. Not feed my kids high-fructose corn syrup. Be more mellow.”

My husband got back in the car. “Or,” he said, “You could just change your definition of perfection.”

“No way,” I said, shaking my head, “Perfectionism is only what the name implies.” It wasn’t something to be messed with.

And yet, as I heard myself, I was exhausted by what I tried to do every day. The only time I have ever been successful at perfectionism was when I was in college and only did two things: I ran, and I went to class. As a result, I could run a 5K in about sixteen minutes and I made Dean’s List every semester. But what I got for my efforts were half a dozen stress fractures, boring Saturday nights in the library, and a degree I don’t really use.

My husband took the boys out of the car while I went into McDonald’s and ordered for all of us.  A Happy Meal (with the toy!), a cheeseburger meal for my husband, and the crispy chicken bacon ranch salad for myself (not vegan! not vegan!). I sheepishly brought it over to the table while my husband either didn’t notice or pretended not to. My older son Oliver sucked down his milkshake and Gus, the baby, gobbled half of my husband’s fries. Both of them ignored the apple slices. As we trooped back out to the car, I almost expected one of us to fall over and convulse or have some type of adverse reaction to the chemicals and inhumane practices we just inhaled. But somehow, we all made it out of there. Oliver removed his construction truck video from the DVD player and put in Baby Einstein for Gus. Gus didn’t try to pull his brother’s hair. We skirted traffic, and instead watched darkness fall along the George Washington Parkway. Oliver sang “Wheels on the Bus” and “Row row, row your boat, eventually down the stream …”

Later, after we finally made it home, I climbed into Oliver’s bed with both boys. Gus was nursing (again! shouldn’t he be weaned by now!!) and Oliver was snuggled next to me. It wasn’t a perfect day by any accounts. We generated more than our share of trash at McDonald’s, the boys watched about three hours of videos on our drive, I lost my patience somewhere around the Maryland state line, I didn’t exercise, and I am sure we all consumed more than the RDA of high-fructose corn syrup. But at that moment I was between two of my favorite people on the planet. Gus, nursing away, was slapping my stomach (which shook! need to do more ab work!!) and Oliver moved closer to me and signed. “Mommy,” he said, “This is the life.”

He was right. This is the life. Our one good life. Contradictions, imperfections, and all.


§ 7 Responses to Outing our Inner Perfectionist

  • Lindsey says:

    That’s one wise five year old.
    As I think you already know, I relate to all of this … the parenthetical self-flagellation included.
    Also, met Danielle last year at a firestarter and she is amazing!!! So glad you like her as well. xox

  • This beautiful post made me laugh, made my cry, made me nod my head in recognition. Much as I love Waldorf education, I do remember feeling so often that I just could never be quite a good enough parent; there was always some mother who was calmer, wiser, a better bread baker and storyteller. . .And whose kids loved playing with acorns and yarn while mine whined for a video game; whose children happily ate whole wheat and raw milk while mine insisted on white flour and Hood. We are SO hard on ourselves. I love your perspective, your honesty, your great sense of humor.

  • melissa says:

    thank you for this beautiful and honest writing. for the invitation to surrender the exhausting and agonizing pursuit of perfection. and instead open to the chaos and beauty, messy contradictions, ordinary magic, and treasures of now.

  • Thank you for your gracious and generous comments!

  • Sarah says:

    So I happened upon your blog from Katrina Kenison’s tweet stream. Strange, yes. But I’m so glad that I did. My eyes have opened recently to this whole perfectionism thing. My off-kilter focus has sucked the joy right out of my days. And now, here I am, trying to embark on a mindset of progress, not perfection. Trying my damnedest to shed light on my strengths, not my weaknesses (for oh there are many and they always seem to steal the thunder)!

    But this isn’t about me, this is about you…and yeah, I just wanted to say, I hear you. Right down to the apple slices that were ignored, despite the HFCS caramel they are served with.


  • Welcome Sarah!

    Thank you for reading my blog. Isn’t it nice to know we are all giving our all? I was in a yoga class recently where the teacher talked about how we are all bringing each other up simply by doing the best that we can every day.

    Somehow I have a feeling that your strengths greatly outweigh your weaknesses … and that our children will somehow make it through kindergarten despite their best efforts to exist solely on cheerios and pb&j.


  • Michele says:

    I stumbled upon your blog as I was contemplating and researching becoming a yoga instructor at the ripe old age of 38. I was delighted to discover your similar thoughts not just regarding yoga, but also as a fellow mother of young children (mine are 4 and 1) also struggling with a mean streak of liberal/waldorfian perfectionism. (I went to Green Meadow in NY k-12). It’s unusual and very gratifying to read the thoughts of someone with whom I have so much in common! Bravo on your blog, and for taking on all this great stuff with honesty and courage! I look forward to reading more.

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