Perfectionism, judgement and the ultimate objective
Being a perfectionist, (yawn), I want to know that I’m doing the best I can at whatever it is I’m trying to do. In parenthood, although this is the thing I put most of my energies into, it sometimes feels a bit wrong to be interested in how well I’m doing. It’s not for me, or all about me. But the other thing is that I can sometimes end up confused as to what the aim is, as I navigate through each day and then come to the end of it. This is made more confusing by the amount of messaging that comes at parents (mostly I think mothers) about the things they could or should be providing for their children. So in response I thought I’d try and work through my own processing of it all, finding some questions that tease out the scale of what is involved in parenting but that also help me to look at it more closely.
1 – Is it that I am trying to make sure they have everything they need?
Yes, it is up to me to be continually updating and ticking things off the list. And with a host of ever-changing needs, I am never fully on top of it. I do fear that this will get picked up especially when one or both of the girls is in the care of someone else for a few hours. I am conscious of doing an extra check just to try and shore myself up against the risk of criticism, because when I do get this, it stings. I also think that when so much of parenting seems to go unseen, these bits where we become visible to others carry added weight. It’s as though having all the right things is supposed to be proof that you’re doing it right, when perhaps it can’t really tell you very much at all.
2 – Is it that I am trying to protect them from harm?
Certainly this seems to be one of the basic reasons I am there: to look out for what’s happening around them, to assess the risks and dangers, and to relieve these wherever possible. But I do remember struggling to get used to the idea as a first-time mum that they would at some point get hurt anyway. That I couldn’t always stop it. I remember a particular afternoon when we had gone for a short walk up the road and back: myself, my husband and the toddler. She would often pull away from holding our hand at this stage and was trying to do short bursts of running along the (mostly empty) pavement, the ability to run being itself a fairly recent skill for her. We protested; she continued. We were anxious but didn’t know what else to do, aside from keeping her from the actual roadside. I remember her tripping up and falling, and then crying the rest of the way home as I carried her back. And I remember the guilt: I shouldn’t have allowed that to happen, it was my fault, and now the walk was spoilt. We’d needed that break away from the house, and now we were worse off than when we’d started. And I suppose on some level it would take time for me to get used to holding the emotional fallout from these situations. The everyday calamities where my delicate house of cards would be blown down by a passing gust of wind. I’m also aware now that though my role is to protect, I am constantly having to learn how to do that, what I have to put in place to create the right kind of buffer.
3 – Is it that I am trying to teach them?
This must be the biggest and broadest aspect of what falls within our remit as parents. It certainly feels like the different kinds of things we might undertake to teach are endless. Teaching children how and when to do certain things, but also why. Teaching them about the world around them and how to make sense of it. In a way this whole project is massively exciting and adds a richness to life. We are invited into a partnership which is all about making the world anew; reinventing it for eyes and ears that are still processing it for the first time.
But while teaching is something to enjoy and aspire to, I certainly won’t always get it right, and will often get it wrong. They will learn not just from what we say and point to, but also from the example we set, for better and for worse. It’s difficult to know now what they will in the end learn the most from.
4 – Is it that I am trying to entertain them / give them a nice time?
Again this is confusing because on the one hand, children are built to play and this is what their young lives are all about. But on the other hand I sometimes feel as though there is an odd tipping of the balance into creating a world of entertainment exclusively for children, which bears little relation to anything outside of it. There’s a bit of a tell-tale sign I think sometimes when you see parents sitting around the edge of an event looking bored and resigned to waiting it out. It’s the opposite of what you get in William Blake’s poem ‘The Echoing Green’ as the sound of play rebounds from one generational group to another. I know this is idealistic but it is a lovely idea and we are poorer for pretending to do without it.
Still, I like planned activity, and sometimes I feel bad if we have days when there isn’t much of it. I guess the pressure to be constantly doing has fed into parenthood too; we have to have something to show for our days, and an argument has to be made for staying at home with the children not being the choice of the mother who has nothing better to do.
One thing I do try to focus on is encouraging stimulation over entertainment. Sometimes I will remind myself to chat to the toddler as we drive along in the car with some minor chore to tick off the list. Chatting not only wakes the toddler up from her passive gaze out of the window; it also wakes me up.
5 – Is it that I am trying to stick it out until bedtime?
Yes, yes, yes. Because the demand is intense, and I get worn down by the number of things we have to recover from, or rise above, in any given day. But I also feel troubled sometimes by this feeling, late in the day, of needing to stick it out. What is the point of what I am doing if that is all it has become? I’ve been thinking recently though that perhaps if I reach the end of the day feeling like I’ve been pummeled to the floor, it’s not necessarily a sign that I’ve done everything wrong or not given enough. It’s the opposite, and apologising for how I feel is the last thing I need to do.
6 – Is it that I am trying to treasure every moment?
One of the ways perfectionism affects me is that I want the emotion to be “right”. I suppose that ought to be a massive red flag in itself – they say we have to learn to accept whatever emotion comes up – but it takes a lot of awareness to start to let go of what we expect from ourselves and others, and simply to accept what is. I’ve had to negotiate this time after time – for example – in the most banal of settings, at mealtimes, when the food I had thought would bring pleasure is greeted with disgust or antipathy. This has happened so often now that it has swung the other way: I experience real joy when the food I’ve prepared does, unexpectedly, hit the sweet spot. And I also know enough not to expect the same reaction to it the next time.
7 – Is it that I am trying to be the person who makes everything better?
Yes, and I think this started at the beginning with the purple crying – remember that? – when I couldn’t necessarily soothe the baby but I was possibly the one who could withstand the crying the longest at times. I felt I couldn’t surrender her out of my arms until I’d done absolutely all I could to make it better. So that meant only doing so when I was ready to crack.
Now we have two, and the girls are getting that little bit older and more independent, that instinct which both they and I have – to run to one another when they need comfort – has more to contend with. It is not always possible and not always helpful for me to immediately respond to that instinct, though it feels like I am acting against part of myself when I don’t, or can’t. As a perfectionist, this inability at times to do what feels on one level deeply necessary makes me feel pretty crap.
Which makes me wonder: if none of these questions can encompass it all, then what am I actually trying to do?
At the heart of it is the wish to build a relationship in which they feel confident and secure, and in which there is mutual pleasure and affection. But the thought that has probably helped me the most is that, given this is a relationship for life, it doesn’t all have to be judged on today. However the day has gone, and however brutal it may have felt in certain moments, this need not define the relationship either as it stands or as it will be. We’re learning, and growing, and we’re in it together.