Perfectionism & Parenting Do NOT Mix

Anita Manderfield Stay at Home Parent

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I'm a score-keeper. It's a good way to measure the distance from performance to perfection. And, for some reason, I can get drawn in by the myth of perfection.

Grades are satisfying for people like me. They reinforce the illusion of the attainable “100 percent.” Some of my preferred pastimes, like ballet class, also perpetuate the gold standard idea, and though I rarely feel perfect at the barre, striving toward well-defined goals within a coherent system does calm my nerves.

But all of this gets out of hand. Even now as I'm blogging, I become easily distracted by my stats page. They're a bit like grades. (Oh, look, another page view!)

Super-nerd confession? I even sort-of liked performance evaluations at work. For us goal-driven folk, it can function as the adult equivalent of: Look Mom! Look what I did!

Goals can help to direct these impulses in a constructive way. Or they can become themselves sicknesses, so unyielding as to do harm, like when I refused to rest long enough to heal from a hip injury, and thereby prematurely ended my high school dance pursuits.

But when glory chasers like me have kids, well, then things can get really dangerous.

I could, for one, transfer my personal pursuit of excellence to the kids and become one of those crazy competitive uber-moms blinded to her kids' limitations or undervalued strengths by the “genius lust” I inflict on them.

And I worry about that plenty. Consider the mirth with which I attended to our daughter's early language advancement. When she was just two-and-a-half, I recall phoning a friend (who was expecting her fourth child) for advice on how to get our toddler to move on from capital to lower-case letters.

“Maybe capital letters are enough right now,” came her weary reply.

Now our son is that same age. And while he has a precocious command of both demolition and charm (a winning combination), he can correctly identify no letters, and his vocabulary has only recently moved on from mostly animal noises. This seems to worry only me.  Not my husband, not my mother, not the doctors either.

I take some small comfort, though, in the hope that just maybe I remain more interested in delusions of my own grandeur than in that of my kids. I mean, what kind of uber-mom would let her son binge-watch Little Bill cartoons all morning so she can try to keep up the blog traffic?

So, um. So that's much better, right?

As a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM), one doesn't get the chance to excel at much aside from momming, and and that doesn't give you grades or performance reviews. In fact, most of the time there are no tangible results. After a whole day of cleaning, the house still looks messy, because kids. Despite the fact that you lovingly make your own baby food and stay playful, calm, and patient while feeding, the baby still spits it all out before tossing a sippy cup at the wall. And no amount of bouncing around and singing seems to soothe colic.

Some days can feel just like a series of F's, or even F– you's.

I didn't realize how poorly I was managing this until our daughter's potty training. I whipped out the cardboard and markers and made a sticker chart, complete with a little drawing of her and a grid. You know, one square for each reward sticker. Then I grew irrationally tense as she tried to apply stickers all willy-nilly: on the drawing, or on her hands, or two at a time. Once I caught her peeling the stickers off, and I actually shouted at her over this.

That was when I realized… this was not her sticker chart. This was MY STICKER CHART. I was giving myself a performance review — a report cardboard, if you will. And she was messing it up for me.

I knew, yet didn't really know, that these early years, especially if you're home, are not conducive to accomplishment. Not, anyway, in the conventional “lean in” kind of way. Children are not projects. They are tiny, marvelous, turbulent streams of very intense feelings. They fluctuate constantly. They respond instantly, broadly, and deeply to anything you throw in.

It can be hard to remember how vulnerable they are when they've just pulled half the ornaments off the tree, for the third time. Or when they're out of bed AGAIN (hold on, I'll be right back).

….Or when they've been dry for a week, and you think you're winning, and they suddenly start peeing all over the house again.

So this time, maybe I should make myself a sticker chart. And every time our son has an accident on the floor, just when I'm getting frustrated, I will give myself a gold star — two if it's on a rug. I've earned at least five since beginning this post (thanks to copious interruptions, this has taken two days). I will amass a right regalia of shiny adhesive emblems. And they can represent the glitches, those moments of glittering imperfection that make up the most essential portion of a parent's life.

And when my kids find it and start tearing it to shreds, I will just let them.


About the Author

Anita Manderfield

I used to both help direct a communications office and teach basic Italian. Since relocating to Leuven, Belgium, for my loved one's PhD work, we've had two babies. Now I build Lego towers and mediate disputes over sharp objects that really should not be played with anyway. With free time, I cook or teach myself the language of the Flemish people and their old-school painting techniques. Aside from my spouse and kids, podcasts are my most constant companions. I still dream of becoming a ballerina. Keep up with her on her blog .

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