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.