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 and 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 impostor becomes inferior material. Just call me Lady Macbeth. “Out, damn’d spot! Out, I say!” 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 wary. If I couldn’t win the game, then I didn’t want to play it. Unfortunately, this line of thinking often means I’m stuck on the sidelines while others are 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 clothing stains, grades and pursuing new sports and manifested in 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 my parenting skills. In fact, someone had encouraged me to start a blog long before I did. Yet, even though I loved to write and wanted an outlet for my writing during a time when I might not be able to do tons of freelance work or finish that Great American Novel that’s floating around in my head and materializing slowly in the form of fragments on the computer or in my various notebooks, I was hesitant to jump on the blogging bandwagon. Why didn’t I enter the Blogosphere sooner (this blog is only a little over a year old – happy birthday, blog!)? Because I was crippled by fear and thoughts of failure, rejection and criticism.
Yet, here I am, hammering away at the keyboard (and I didn’t even add a site meter or any other counting widgets…not yet, anyway). Honestly, it took being pregnant with my second child to give me enough guts to put myself out here, to forgive myself for my incoherent ramblings and sporadic typos. But this “work” and my fears related to it pale in comparison to my greatest works of all – my relationship with God, my husband and my children.
You’re not going to believe this when I say it, but for the first year or so of my firstborn’s life, I felt like I had pretty darn perfect kid and was doing a pretty darn good (maybe not perfect but certainly better than “good enough”) job of raising her. Of course, I knew some of it was her genes; she was born with an innate need to please and that made her easy to love and to gently discipline. Still, I took a lot of credit (too much perhaps) for her sweet, no-hassle temperament. I look back now with more perspective and I know that neither one of us was anything close to perfect.
It’s kind of like newborn babies. After hours of exhausting labor, most moms take a look at their little miracle and think, “He’s perfect, a true Gerber baby.” And why shouldn’t they? They just worked really hard to bring forth new life – a Herculean effort that included nine months (give or take) of gestating and hours of contractions. Now they’re holding this gift from God, not to mention a huge chunk of their DNA in their arms, and in their exhausted, devoted eyes, they see their babe as nothing short of perfect even if she’s got three eyes. As moms, we’re designed to love our babies and frankly, we may not see that third eye even when it’s staring right at us…at least not right away. Then a few months later when our baby really is a cooing, beautiful wonder, we look back at those newborn photos and may see that our little angel looked more like a wrinkly, conehead alien in those first hours.
I’m no veteran mom, but I am past that “My newborn is perfect” phase. I see the infant acne. I see the conehead. I see the humanness of both myself and my kids. My little cherubs are dear, dear children. Madeline is extremely empathetic and generous for her age. Rae is a sleeper (yippee!) and the most laid-back, happy baby. However, they’re not immune to tantrums, crying jags or staining my new blouse with a profusion of spit-up. Nor am I impervious to my own tantrums and inexcusable behavior. Whether we like it or not, being imperfect just comes with the territory of being human.
Motherhood, in its gritty, day-to-day tasks, has helped me to realize that in my quest to evade inadequacy, I was only setting myself (and my children) up for failure. I’ll always carry a Tide pen and it’s still going to bug me when I’m christened with carrot-tinged spit-up, but I’ve learned to get over it. What’s more, 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 don’t allow the number on the scale to define my self-worth and I don’t fall apart if I see I said something stupid on my blog.
I remember having one of many epiphanies (I can be a little dense, so God has to give me a lot of Ah-Ha moments) when Madeline, who was around 15 months at the time, emptied her bookshelf for the millionth time. Each time she left the carnage, I’d patiently sort through the mountain of books and place them back on the shelves in alphabetical order, but something clicked inside of me that eye-opening day.
“Why am I 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. Or expecting my 3-year-old and 9-month-old to not make a sound during an hour long Mass. Thankfully, my desire to be a good mom many times supersedes my need for order and perfection and actually makes me a better parent (I hope). I let the baby explore and get food all over her face. We have cleanup time at the end of the day and I overlook the heaps of toys in my living room until that time arrives. I don’t make Mass a battleground; I quietly slip away if the baby is fussy or take Madeline to the Children’s Liturgy.
This doesn’t mean I don’t still have to fight my perfectionist impulses. (Nobody’s perfect. Ha. Ha.) During my second pregnancy, 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 started 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, when Rae wears the onesie from her big sister, she looks a little like she was a victim of violence or, in the very least, had a very bloody nose. But as Madeline would say, “Oh well.”
That’s what I’m trying to learn to sometimes say, too, when we have less-than-perfect moments in our life, when I notice a typo in a previous blog post, when I commit the same sin over and over even after having confessing it not once but twice since Lent begins (Grrrr….). And I don’t mean “Oh well. I give up.” I’m not excusing my flaws, my sins, my weaknesses, but I can’t wallow in the guilt. I can’t try so hard to be the epitome of what I define as perfection (what do I know, anyway? God wants me to be a good mom, but I bet he could care less if my shirt is covered in regurgitated breastmilk) that I constantly feel like I’m letting myself, my hubby and my kiddos down. What I can do is let it go…
Oh well…Perfect schmerfect.
Oh well… So this $10 shirt from Old Navy has a big goober stain on it.
Oh well…So we live in Sardinesville and our living room is a teensy-weensy cluttered with toys.
Oh well…So my 3-year-old sees that I’m not perfect, that I’m human and make mistakes. Maybe this will help her rely on Jesus more.
Oh well…So I didn’t have time to write a flawless, poignant blog today that surely would have inspired the masses. Again, it’s probably better that people rely on Jesus and the Word of God than a sleepy mommy for inspiration.
Oh well…So I popped some frozen pizzas in the oven instead of making a Rachael Ray 30-minute meal that probably would take me over an hour lest I want to lose a finger while slicing and dicing the 17 different kinds of vegetables the recipe requires. (That perky Rachael makes everything look so easy!)
Oh well…So I can’t run 10 miles at a time anymore. (Who am I kidding? I doubt I could run three.)
Oh well…So I look like a big dork playing Ping-Pong. Who cares? I’d rather not be on the sidelines anymore.
Oh well…So those people at the restaurant think my preschooler is a little monster because she happened to throw her first public tantrum ever in their presence. I know better and so does God.
Oh well… So I messed up (again). I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Jesus, take my splintered self and rebuild me.
Oh well…I’m only human, but I desire to be so much more. Jesus, you are all that I’m not and all that I want to be. Help me to see myself and my family as you see us and to be “well-pleased.” Help me to forgive myself, my husband and my children when we fail. Finally, help me to humbly love myself, my spouse, our children and all those around us in spite of our imperfections. Amen.