Monday, April 2, 2007

Perfect Schmerfect

When I was around 3, I fell and cut my mouth while playing in the backyard. I ran screaming to my mom with blood dribbling down my chin onto my summer dress. My mom assumed my tears were the product of my pain and immediately started to comfort me.

“Does it hurt?” she asked.

“No, Mommy," I sobbed, "but I’ve ruined my pretty dress."

So it wasn’t the cut in my mouth, but the bright red blood splatters on my dress that really threw me into despair. To this day, I can’t stand it when I get a stain on a piece of clothing. Even if it’s scarcely noticeable, I have to either change or remove the stain. I've been known to compulsively dilute a stain with water and rub it with such vigor that the site of the imposter becomes inferior material. Just call me Lady Macbeth. "Out, damn'd spot! out, I say!" I lament. Only I'm awake, not sleepwalking, and the nightmare is real. Thank goodness for those Tide take-along pens. I always have one handy.

From as far back as I can remember, I have wanted nothing less than perfection, not just manifested in spotless attire, but in all of life’s pursuits. Case in point: I’ve never liked to try new things unless I’m certain I’ll excel in whatever the chosen activity may be. Take volleyball and Ping-Pong, two sports my relatives have always enjoyed playing. Once I discovered my younger brother was far better than me at both games, I made excuses of why I didn’t want to play. (“I’d rather watch.” “I'm in the middle of a really good book.” Yada. Yada. Yada.) Even board games that were almost solely based on luck made me weary. If I couldn’t win the game, then I didn’t want to play it. Unfortunately, this line of thinking often meant I was stuck on the sidelines while others were having fun.

In school, I had to get As on everything – not because my parents bribed me with money or gifts, not even because they put a lot of pressure on me. They focused on effort rather than specific grades, but effort meant nothing to me if I couldn’t earn top marks. What good was trying if you couldn’t be the best? I've never admired mediocrity (who wants to be average?), so I put a lot of pressure on myself to be the cream of the crop.

Once I reached the teen years, my perfectionism transcended stains, grades and pursuing new sports and reared its ugly head in the form of an eating disorder. I had to be a certain weight, log in a certain amount of number of miles on the running track and eat less than a certain amount of calories each day. Otherwise, I was weak, a complete failure and certainly far from perfect.

Even now I struggle with the inner critic in my head – whether it’s about weight, the brownies I baked for my husband, my writing or parenting skills. In fact, I’ve been putting off writing this blog and procrastinator, I am not. But I’ve been crippled by fear and thoughts of failure.

I mentioned in my inaugural blog, that writing these personal narratives isn’t anything like crafting a somewhat objective feature article for a glossy. It’s about putting myself out there, raw and exposed, for strangers to judge. I imagine writing a blog or novel or creating any piece of work for a mass audience can feel a lot like giving birth to a less than perfect baby. Okay, maybe this sounds nutty and it probably is, but humor the preggo (I’m in my third trimester now).

After hours of exhausting labor, the doctor slowly shakes her head. “Your baby is ugly,” she tells you.

You’re shocked. “No, it can’t be ugly,” you insist. “This is a part of me; this is my bloody heart and soul sitting on the table.” To you, that baby is nothing short of perfection even if she has three eyes.

Here's the kicker: In some ways, it’s easier to move on with the baby than when someone criticizes your art. Though the doctor's words hurt initially, you realize you love your baby anyway. You don’t see her third eye even when it’s staring right at you. But when someone tells you your writing stinks or your blog is boring, incoherent, a rambling mess or that the landscape you painted is too simplistic or two-dimensional, if you’re anything like me, you’re likely to believe it, collapse into a heap of self-doubt and berate yourself for not being good enough.

But the truth is, I’m slowly but surely overcoming this voice of oppression, otherwise known as perfectionism. I’m writing here, after all. My closet is no longer cataloged by color. I’ll occasionally play Monopoly even if I can’t buy Park Place and Boardwalk and seal the deal. I’ve given up trying to clean all the clutter, living with a man who organizes by strategically placing piles of papers and drifts of yellow Post-it notes throughout the house. Actually, I give a lot of credit to my husband for the slow but sure death of my perfectionism. Being married to someone who is not anal or Type A yet intelligent and ambitious has shown me you can be successful without seeking perfection at all times.

But motherhood has made the greatest difference in my once relentless pursuit of perfectionism. Being a mom has forced me to take a step back and stop trying to be something I’ll never be. A superhuman immortal. Being imperfect just comes with the territory of being human. The irony, I've realized, is in my quest to evade inadequacy, I was only setting myself up for failure.

I remember having an epiphany one day when Madeline emptied her bookshelf for the millionth time. She was around 15 months and one of her favorite pastimes was the messy act of dumping all of her books onto the floor. Each time she left the carnage, I would patiently sort through the mountain of books and place them back on the shelves in alphabetical order, but something clicked inside of me that day. “Why I am wasting time organizing books that will soon be dumped back on the floor? This is so stupid.” And so is trying to stay below a certain weight when I’m breastfeeding. Or keeping an exploring baby from making a big mess during mealtimes. My desire to be a good mom superceded my need for order and perfection and actually made me a better parent.

This doesn’t mean I don’t still have to fight my perfectionist impulses. The other day Madeline and I were decorating onesies for her baby sister. Madeline asked me to draw a flower for the baby. I drew a yellow circle with a fabric marker and framed it with five rounded and symmetrical red petals. Before I could even admire my creation, Madeline starting adding her own touches. I had to sit on my hands to keep from snatching the marker away from her telling her what a flower is supposed to look like and just respect her creative process. She splattered red all over the blossom, so that it looked like a huge bloody spot. She then proceeded to add more red specks all over the white onesie. Her haphazard red designs brought me back to the blood droplets on my sundress, but I resigned myself to just let go of what I thought the onesie ought to look like. So, our baby girl is going to look like she got shot. As Madeline would say, “Oh well.” To her it was art and when I took a step back, I saw that her interpretation of a flower was beautiful. I gave her a big hug and said, “You must be so proud of this onesie. Your baby sister is going to love wearing it.” To which, Madeline fell into my embrace and said, “I wuv Baby Sister so much.” Feeling Madeline nestled in my lap, I realized that, in this case, perfect was exactly the word to describe the moment.

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