I didn’t know I was a perfectionist until I became a mom. Before kids, my perfectionism paraded itself as healthy ambition. I graduated college, secured a worthy career, exercised, partied, dated. I always dressed the part, went out with friends on the weekends, and got to work on time. I didn’t miss meetings. I showered. I slept. I ate. I honored my commitments. I laughed.
I never imagined I was a perfectionist. Actually, I’m not a huge fan of routine, schedules, or order. I enjoy being spontaneous and going with the flow. I take a laid-back approach to relationships and life in general. But perfectionism doesn’t mean creating order or perfect symmetry. Perfectionism refers to the guilt we pile on ourselves when we feel we have failed, or come up short. Perfectionism is merely an interpretation of our own mistakes, and how well we handle them.
To safe-guard myself from failure, I didn’t over-do my life, but I didn’t under-do it either. I stayed in the middle, safe from outside judgment, and safe from the critical voice in my own head. Then I became a mom. Motherhood exposed and offered real glimpses into my perfectionist tendencies, my low self esteem, and my hidden insecurities.
At 5 o’clock everyday, sometimes 4:30, I started picking up toys. Books, blocks, teddy bears, trucks and trains, remote controls, diapers, half-full sippy cups – they all lay helpless and spent on the floor, as if everything had exploded from a suitcase that fell out of the sky.
I stood at one end of our narrow Chicago apartment and stared down the runway of chaos and destruction. My toddler slept, but I didn’t sit down. I started at one end, and slowly made my way to the other. Like a street sweeper, I scooped up toys and placed them in baskets or on shelves, off the floor, tucked out of sight, until tomorrow, when they would all coming crashing out again.
I knew exactly how to fit in. And to me, that meant always doing the acceptable thing, whether I sucked it up or bulldozed ahead. I wanted a well-kept apartment and dinner on the table when my husband got home. I couldn’t let him see me falling. I couldn’t let him see me cry. Nothing had changed; we just had a baby in the house.
I always operated willingly, and with a smile on my face. And guess what took a back seat to my clean house, my perfect outer appearance, and my need to do it all? My self care. My self compassion.
Of course, I was betraying myself in the process. I was scared of failing as a mom, I was scared of my changing body, I couldn’t maintain the same life I had before having a baby. But I didn’t want to admit this. If I could keep everything looking pristine on the surface, no one would know the real me – the terrible me who didn’t think she was cut out for motherhood.
As a perfectionist, failure is unacceptable. Failure creates crippling guilt, anxiety, and depression. Becoming a new mom brings out a level of perfectionism in all of us. We love our children so much we don’t want anything to happen to them. We want to do everything right. We want to soothe our baby, feed him so he grows, and create the sweet image of motherhood we see in movies and in ads.
But a perfectionist will take every setback in motherhood personally – a perfectionist will wonder why everyone else has it together and they don’t. A perfectionist will hold all the mistakes close to her heart, instead of letting them go and moving on. The worst part is, no one can help us because we keep it all inside, too afraid to admit that we might be vulnerable, that motherhood has actually opened our heart, and we feel exposed, raw.
A perfectionist can’t see that all the mistakes are what make you a mother. All the trial and error is not only how you learn, it’s also how you understand your ability to come back. And it’s in our resilience that we learn our true strength as women and as mothers. In the exhaustion of waking up each night, only to do it all again the next day, we learn our incredible ability to fight through and be ok. We learn that mistakes are not failures or weaknesses – they are realities. No mother will be perfect. And our children don’t benefit if we are.
Recently, I started forcing myself to leave a few dirty dishes in the sink overnight. I intentionally allow the sink to fill up from the evening, and I resist the urge to turn on the water and put in my hand. The first time, lying in bed, knowing I hadn’t completed every chore of the day, was extremely uncomfortable. My critical voice loudly taunted, You didn’t do enough. You’re not enough.
Through the experiment, I’ve realized it’s not really about the dishes, or a clean house, or about everything looking perfect. It’s about the voice that yells at me when I don’t get everything done. Leaving a few dishes in the sink overnight is my way of quieting the voice, to remind myself that the dishes are not what’s important. My love for my children is important. My love for their father is important. My love for myself is important. The practice has made me realize just how much power I have given to my inner critic.
Motherhood is about practicing continued grace on yourself. Motherhood takes so much courage and openness you are bound to fail. But motherhood is still the most profound experience any of us will ever have. I’m grateful motherhood forced me to speak more kindly to myself. I’m grateful motherhood opened my heart and taught me to be vulnerable. I’m grateful motherhood revealed my true self. Most of all, I’m grateful motherhood asked me, What are you afraid of? Screwing up? It’s not so bad. You’ll see.
The sink of dishes is, in fact, still there in the morning. No one sees or cares but me. The house did not implode overnight while we slept. The boys did not ask what the dishes were doing there. Through a small act of surrender, I gave myself the gift of grace. I stare at the sink and consider washing them first thing. Then I think again, and sit down to enjoy breakfast with my boys.