Annie Keeling: No place for perfection
“Oh, I’m certainly not a perfectionist,” said my friend when I gave an innocent compliment about how “together” she seemed as a mother, partner, colleague, and friend. “If I were,” she half-laughed, “I’d be more concerned about the clothes on my closet floor.”
I flashed on an image of my house. Not just clothes on the floor, but on my bathroom counter, my bed, the couch in the living room…
We were at the park, watching our 3-year-olds navigate the jungle gym. We sat on the comfy fleece blanket my friend had brought. She opened a picnic basket (yes, picnic basket) and offered me an egg salad sandwich. “I made a few extras,” she said almost apologetically. Perhaps she took notice of my lack of snacks. I had managed to bring water and a hat for my son.
As we watched the kids, she called out comments to her daughter. “Lydia, be nice.” “Watch your friend. She knows how to pump the swing.” “Try harder, Lydia.” “Come here, let me fix your hair.”
We watched and talked. After a few minutes, she told me how exhausted she was, how she didn’t have energy for her husband, how she would lose it and yell at her daughter for stupid, little things.
And then I wondered, had my friend succumbed to the Perfect Child-Perfect Parent syndrome?
In wanting so much for our children, we might inadvertently create unrealistic expectations. If you suspect that you might have that tendency, here are some questions to ask yourself:
Do you hold your child in comparison to some Perfect Child you have invented? Or some kid who seems more perfect than yours?
How do you react when your child does not meet your expectations? Does your blood pressure increase, your voice raise, your anger snap out of control, or any other reaction you wish you didn’t have?
Do those expectations increase when you are visiting with extended family or with other parents/kids?
Did you answer ‘yes’ to any of these? If so, welcome!
What can you do? First, know your Perfect Child expectations. List them so they are in your awareness. My friend made a list while we sat together that day:
Always be nice to others.
Always look nice – hair contained, clothes clean, trendy outfits.
Be good at what you do. If not, try harder until you get better.
Cooperate with adults. Do what is asked.
Eat good foods, sleep enough, make healthy choices.
Be engaged and curious, but only with what’s age appropriate.
Keep your room and play areas clean and tidy.
Don’t get angry or have outbursts.
After she made her list, she started laughing. We both realized how hard that was for us, let alone our children. After all, Lydia was only 3!
My friend committed right there not to hold Lydia to her unrealistic standards and ideals. It was only causing her stress. She made a new, gentler list that contained more realistic guidelines toward respect and kindness, which were her main goals. She asked if she could check in with me for accountability and I agreed.
Some parents hold themselves to an even higher ideal than their child. They want to be a conscious parent who is kind, nurturing, reflective, focused, firm but flexible, relaxed, and devoted to bringing out their child’s best authentic self. They want to have a clean house, attentive partner, disposable income, healthy meals, and calm environment.
Parents, and more often mothers, strive to these ideals while often facing great challenges – inadequate sleep, full-time jobs, financial stressors, imperfect kids, underappreciation from partners – as well as cultural values of efficiency and productivity over wellness, connection, and unhurried calm.
In an article by Beth Berry on her blog Revolution from Home, she cautions about the unrealistic expectations parents place on themselves to be conscious, creative, gentle, and connected – all while having very few support structures in place to make this doable.
Berry writes, “Increasing expectations of health and thriving while decreasing support structures simply goes against the laws of nature. We wouldn’t cut a tree from its roots and expect it to produce even more shade or fruit than when it was connected to its source of stability and nourishment.”
It’s very difficult for isolated, exhausted parents to meet cultural parenting standards. The price of striving for the unattainable often includes shame, guilt, high anxiety, and lack of peace of mind.
What to do? First, look outside of your nuclear family for new ideas.
Find a mentor family. Who is doing this parenting thing in a healthy way you admire? Observe their choices. Ask them questions. Try their strategies.
Look to families who have a child with a similar temperament to yours. Discuss how they have handled parenting challenges.
Also, infuse some new priorities into your family system:
Aim for consistency – and be kind to yourself when you must switch gears and make a new plan.
Seek silence. This is important for your own self-reflection. How can you get a few more minutes a day?
Get Sleep. This is the number one priority to help you be a better parent. What do you have to say no to (maybe just leave those clothes on the closet floor) in order to get more sleep? You might be at a time in your life when the laundry piles up more often than you like. Maybe you can work a few less hours, enlist a friend, or hire some help.
Find a community rich in support, where you can be honest with your experience. Community might look like a friend or two, a play group, or an organized parenting class.
As you bring the light of awareness to the shadow of perfection, be sure to shine some of that light on all that is going well. Gratefulness has been proven to help lower anxiety and increase peace of mind. As you watch your child mess up their clothes in the dirt, be grateful for their happy laugh.
Annie Keeling, MFA is the Parenting Specialist for Nevada County Superintendent of Schools. She teaches Triple P Parenting classes throughout the year. Contact Annie to find the next class near you: firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-268-5086.
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