Dear Perfectionist Mommas: I know how you feel—a little, or a lot, less than perfect.
I remember a boss once telling me that sometimes eighty percent is OK, because although something may not be my vision of perfect, my time could be better spent focused on something more important than a few insignificant details.
The perfectionist in me could not accept this.
I was reading in an old psychology textbook the other day, because that is what I do for fun, and found an interesting prescription for parents with infants.
It said that it is hard to define a good parent because babies are all so different, but that generally good parents “need to be sensitive and flexible.”
Flexible is certainly something I was not. I was one of those naïve new parents who was determined not to let a baby change my life.
I was still going to work, just from home. My husband and I were still going to take weekend trips to the coast, and we were all going to sleep through the night at three months.
Enter the colicky baby who didn’t consistently sleep through the night until well past a year old. Our weekend trips to the coast were spent driving up and down HWY 101 trying to get the poor child to sleep or stop crying.
This experience definitely started grinding down the edges of perfectionism and building up the reserves of flexibility.
In what ways is it good to be a perfectionist-mother? When do we need to be OK with just eighty percent?
Often I can observe my children’s behavior to see a parallel lesson for me.
For instance, I do not discipline my children for childish mistakes, only willful disobedience (Dr. Dobson describes this well in “The New Strong-Willed Child”).
They are not disciplined for accidentally spilling a glass of milk, breaking something when trying to figure out how it works or running into the house excitedly to tell me something, but forgetting to take off their muddy boots.
They are disciplined for looking me in the eye and dumping out a glass of milk, breaking something I told them not to touch or running away when told to come here. There is a difference.
It is the same with motherhood. When I fall short of perfection, sometimes it is like the childish mistakes, such as trying to figure out why the baby is crying or trying to find fair and effective consequences for our children’s behavior like Tresta talked about.
My family laughs because we have video of my dad putting a pair of pretty little shoes on my sister when she was born. He couldn’t understand why she was screaming furiously until he realized he had left the tissue stuffed in the toes of the shoes.
In a way, we never stop being first-time parents with our first child. They are constantly entering new stages that we have never encountered before and it takes time and effort to figure it out.
Mommas, give yourself a break. You aren’t going to be perfect at something you have never done before. You will figure it out, probably about the same time that your child enters the next stage, but you will figure that one out too.
Other times we fall short of perfection because our conscience tells us we have not lived up to the moral standard. We realize that we have lost our patience and our temper.
We feel selfishness creeping in when we would prefer to do something other than what we have to be doing.
In these cases, should we stop aiming at perfection because we know we are going to fall short? I don’t think so. Where we aim is important.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again.” Children certainly give us a lot of opportunities to keep trying.
Often in the whirlwind of life and parenthood, something has to give. There are some areas and some times when we can be OK with eighty percent.
My children entered a new stage this week that is requiring a lot of time and attention.
Since they are my most important responsibility, my house isn’t going to be as clean as I would like it to be. I’m going to have to be OK with eighty percent.
My first attempts at this stage haven’t been very successful, but I’ll figure it out.
And while I’m focused on teaching my child self-control, I’m going to keep practicing it myself and keep on aiming for perfection.
Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1952.
Santrock, John W. A Topical Approach to Life-Span Development. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
...generally good parents \'need to be sensitive and flexible.\'