I have a problem with perfection. This isn’t news, of course, I’ve been perfecting my perfectionism for years – decades, in fact. Different manifestations, different modes of measure, but perfection nonetheless. I was the perfect Tween Theater Troupe Cinderella turned perfect Teen Greek Debutante turned perfect Rhodes Scholar in Training turned perfect, truly perfect, Fuck Everyone Late Blooming Rebel. Through all these various iterations of my identity, one thread never broke – I was always and forevermore needing, striving, quite nearly killing myself to be PERFECT.
Yes, quite nearly killing myself. This is only a bit of an exaggeration.
When I was twelve years old and desperate for attention, risk to my physical wellbeing wasn’t so much a danger as was the depression that would set in and not lift for years – my need to be perfect and my apparent inability to reach that unreachable height was just too great a disappointment to happily accept. As I got older, though, and dug myself deeper into the bottomless hole of the perfectionistic expectations I kept setting for myself (or imagined others were setting for me), I pursued perfection with such ferocity that I did, ultimately, veer into riskier realms. I taught myself to ignore basic human needs, both physical – like sleep, and most especially food – and emotional – like intimacy, connection, and most especially love (because as much as I like to deny this fact, humans have a hard time of things when they try going it one hundred percent alone).
In my twenties, when I told myself I had finally flipped this perfection thing on its head, is when I really went careening out of control. I was a perfect model of self-destruction, like the mods Dick Hebdige so deftly describes – “a little too smart, somewhat too alert, thanks to amphetamines” – subversive in their perfection that was just a little too perfect. In this way, I justified my quest, rationalized my behavior, made sense of my self-imposed insanity.
But this pursuit of perfection hasn’t been all bad. My perfectionism has also resulted in good grades at good schools, it’s resulted in success in the workplace, it’s resulted in a beautiful (CLEAN) house. And now that I’ve corralled it (mostly) to act as a force for good, it (usually) results in me being a better mother and a healthier human being. Usually.
Motherhood has been the biggest challenge yet to my altar of excellence in all things. It demands perfection and flawless performances while at the same time urging me toward leniency. It has made me less perfect physically, more perfect spiritually, and more emotionally erratic than can even be measured.
When I went back to work after my maternity leave – reeling with PTSD from my daughter’s near death experience, desperately seeking solace from the fear I felt around leaving her at daycare, determined to not let my increasingly oppressive sadness get the best of me – I picked up right where I left off on the perfection front. I believed that the only way to give value and meaning to the time I was away from my child was to be the best at what I did in all moments; I took that prenatal passion for workplace perfection and amped it up by adding sleep deprivation, emotional instability, and massive, giant, inescapable guilt.
But there is perfectionism and there is pragmatism. For once, my pragmatism won out. It simply wasn’t possible to be both a perfect mother and a perfect manager. I picked perfect mother, only to learn that there is no such thing, and I picked imperfect employee, only to find it made me even more effective.
This time I hadn’t quite flipped my interpretation of perfect on its head; I had inadvertently dropped it onto a live grenade and splattered exploded little pieces of perfection all over my world. A little bit here, a little bit there. More in the kitchen and on the running path, less in the playroom and backyard. Not nearly enough in the mirror and maybe too much on my desk.
I am working to find just the right balance – the perfect equipoise, if you will – between flaw and perfection, and I am nowhere near any claim that I’ve gotten it right. I’m a perfectly patient mother most of the time, though I still overreact to too much mess or too many tantrums. I’m attentive to a fault, but lately, every now and again, I tell my daughter to read alone so I can sneak a peek at my emails.
In other words, I’ve opened the relief valve just a hair. So far the results have been a success, but I still don’t know what this means going forward. Does this mean I should get to the office late on my first day of my new job? Does it mean I should chat around the water cooler and make mistakes on student records? Should I let myself go completely, stop brushing my hair and start eating nothing but fatty microwave meals? Might I be happier and better loved if I allowed myself to be – gasp! – just another normal, imperfect person?
I joke (sort of). Comfort in my imperfection is still a world and a half away. For now I’ll settle for a simple acceptance that I am human. My perfectionism will still find ways to ruin even those things I do to escape the pressure of perfectionism (I’m not running fast enough! I’m not meditating long enough! I’m not writing experimentally enough!), but it will also continue to be the crutch that helps me climb those long steep stairs toward success, will be the motivation that keeps me going, that makes me be me even after a long night of a sick child or a long day in a train wreck office.
I may never be perfect, but I’m perfectly content to keep trying.