“He’s perfect” has been my mom’s refrain about my son since the day he was born. While I adore my child, I wince every time she says it. It makes me want to yell out, “He isn’t!” Because to me, perfect is confining and static, the opposite of my vibrant, growing baby.
Imperfect isn’t bad, just flawed. It’s challenging, offering us space to evolve. Imperfections connect us so that we can fill in the gaps of each other’s weaknesses.
I haven’t always held this attitude; it took decades for me to adopt. I’m a recovering perfectionist. My mom tells a story about me as a baby playing with a shape-sorter. After several minutes of fitfully cramming a shape in the wrong hole, I violently threw down the toy. While I became less physical about it, I maintained a philosophy that said, “If you’re going to do something, you should Do It Right.” Unfortunately, my version of “Doing It Right” meant I held impossibly high standards that even I couldn’t meet. A fear of not living up to my potential lurked in the background, a monster that could erase my hard work and expose me as a fraud.
Entering parenthood, I realized that this mindset just wasn’t going to work. Contrary to the parenting guides, there is no One Right Way. There’s Right for Now or Not Too Bad or The Best that I Can Do. Parenting is a slick, ever-changing thing, like one of those water worms that slips out of your hands. Every time you think you finally have a grasp, something changes, whether it’s your child, the situation, or the expectations.
Pursuing perfection locks you in, denies you the fluidity you need. One of my favorite parenting books, Babies in the Rain, compares raising children to a dance. In this duet, the child leads and you follow, always working together. But if you focus exclusively on following the rhythm, you turn it into a series of stilted steps. I know how unhelpful this perspective is in music; my jazz teacher was always telling me to experience the emotion rather than only paying attention to the beats. His response frustrated me at the time – how can I “let go” if I can’t even get the fundamentals right? But now, I can only think of how paralyzing this attitude would be in parenting.
Personally, the biggest challenge to my perfectionism has been sleep, that intimidating foe. At first, I approached the “sleep through the night” goal the same way I approach every major goal – by creating a individualized, step-by-step plan. I formulated a approach that started with not nursing my baby to sleep and over time, shortening the period of time I would rock him. Then I would move to holding him in my lap and eventually not needing to pick him up at all as he fell asleep peacefully in his crib. Hilarious.
His first cold presented the initial obstacle, and then the second and third ones came along. As I would do anything to help him (and me) get some rest, not nursing to sleep went out the window. Some nights he mistakenly falls asleep nursing and I don’t have it in me to wake him up. We’ve finally gotten to the point where he can fall asleep in my lap, but not until after several minutes of violently fighting it. Tactics that work one week stop working the next. And teething keeps finding a way to interrupt our progress.
In response, I’ve started shrugging my shoulders and carrying on. What else can I do? He doesn’t know or care that I have a plan. I want to follow the lead of my partner instead of dragging him around the dance floor.
Besides restricting your flexibility, pursuing perfect also blinds you to beauty. It catches you up in a whirlwind, never allowing you to see how much good you already have in your life. A recent article talks brilliantly about how “leaning in” ala Sheryl Sandberg, otherwise known as believing you can do everything if only you try hard enough, has made the author miserable. In the past, when I’ve tried to be perfect, I’ve just stressed myself out.
Fortunately, I’ve been more content post-baby than I’ve ever been. I love spending time with him, watching him just being himself. If I was preoccupied with being perfect, I’d be vacuuming the carpet instead of watching him peer under it with glee. (What can possibly be so interesting under there?) I’d be horrified with him biting the restaurant’s granite tabletop rather then giggling at his questionable taste. I would have been worried about his lack of progress when he was only crawling backwards instead of taking photos of him happily stuck under his crib. I wouldn’t let him grab or gnaw on his books’ pages and so not experience the joy of him learning to turn the pages on his own.
These days, besides the doctor’s appointments and other logistical requirements, I have just a single parenting goal. My husband, paragon of laid-back approaches, permanently added to our weekly To-Do list “Raise [Sprout] to be a good person.” Not perfect, just good.
I love my son too much to see him as perfect. And I love him too much to try to be perfect myself.