Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Pain of Perfectionism

Author and columnist Anna Quindlen describes one of those unforgiveable but inevitable parenting moments when her daughter walked out of her school and shared the news that she had received a 97% on an exam. Her mother's first comment? "What did you get wrong?"

My parents never demanded perfection, thank goodness, but they always challenged my sister and me to "do our best" or "work to our potential." Time and time again we demonstrated that we were capable of perfection--or at least working/learning to the test in order to earn top marks--and gradually it came to feel as though being a lifetime valedictorian was a must, simply because I could. I've had more than my share of momentary knock-downs, instilling a sense of humility and reality. One such moment I get to share often, as it took place during my graduation from college, and I happen to work presently with college students. Throughout college I had held a 3.9 or higher grade point average, the GPA required to graduate Summa Cum Laude. I couldn't have told you what the words meant, but I knew it was what I had to be. Imagine my surprise as I was walking across the graduation platform listening to the words, "Jennifer _______, Magna Cum Laude." I'm amazed the photo doesn't show my jaw on the ground as I'm shaking hands with our college president. I was convinced they had announced it wrong, offended that I wasn't getting my just recognition, until I opened my diploma folder and received one of those oh-so-tacky notes indicating my diploma was being held for new printing with the proper graduation honors and would be sent in the mail. My final GPA, all thanks to a B+ on my senior thesis? 3.895--I had missed my anticipated honors by five thousandsth of a point. And you know what? Not a thing changed. I was still me, I was still loved by the same people, my graduate school acceptance wasn't rescinded, and so on. I was glad I had missed it by such a miniscule, ridiculous amount, as it drove the point home--landing on either side of that 3.9 mark was meaningless. What had I actually LEARNED along the way? Hmmmm....much better question.

Perfection in my present life takes different forms. I felt like a very natural mother before becoming pregnant with my second child. I had never raised my voice, I felt creative and stimulated by being with my child, I felt fairly able to balance my part-time work with my full-time mothering. Then, I learned I was pregnant only days after my in-laws were in a near-fatal car accident on their way to visit us. My mother-in-law lived in our home for seven weeks while my father-in-law was hospitalized in various area hospitals. Day after day as I swallowed the continuous bile floating around my motion sick mouth, we were shuttling between home, work, the hospital, and a dreadful sense came over us that our previous parenting confidence was rapidly diminishing. Truth be told, it's been diminishing ever since! No, I have long since let go of parenting perfection. And perfection as a partner? I'm wise enough not to strive for this either. There are too many apologies exchanged in any given week in our house to presume I have such an unrealistic sense of myself or my relationship.

I could actually sometimes argue that perfection has all but been scoured from my soul, but then it rears its ugly head again. In February, soon after starting this blog, I shared that I had been contacted by super-duper university to interview for a high profile position. After a long, long day of interviews I returned home only to burst into tears within minutes of walking through the door. Though every paper aspect of this job was right, the heart aspect was simply not--I was not prepared to make the personal and familial sacrifices required to take it on. Day after day passed and I wasn't contacted, and I became more and more relieved that I was not likely the final candidate for the job. I knew in my gut that it wasn't right, but I was worried that the rightness of how it sounded and looked would be more of a temptation than I could resist.

Any remaining worry was finally put to rest last night when I received an email indicating an internal candidate had been chosen for and had accepted the position. Along with the email came some words of feedback I had requested, as I have an upcoming interview for a similar position with another university. The words of praise were strong and many, and there were only a handful of comments reflecting areas where I was not as strong. Interestingly, all the areas of concern were out of my control--I haven't yet directed my own program/office/center (true--no way to make the case another way), I don't have recent experience at a large, complex institution (true--I've worked at a small liberal arts college for ten years, can't alter how that looks), and so on. To simply recap, I was learning that a job I did not want had been offered to a candidate I had met and really enjoyed, I received heaps of praise on my experiences and how I presented myself, I learned a few key facts that shut me out of the process and knew they were beyond my control, and yet, I still felt discouraged and had a little nagging "What could I have done differently?" thought all evening. Perfectionism--it's ugly and dehumanizing and manages to always keep me from feeling I am simply enough as I am.

What is uglier for me now is seeing the same perfectionism in Kyra at such a young age. She has a voracious appetite for books and letters and words, and we go through reams of paper (environmentalists, forgive us--we attempt to use recycled as often as we can!) with this budding young author/artist. Often she will request that we spell for her words she wants to write and include with her pictures. Recently for teacher appreciation week she was writing the word "TEACHER" and had reached the "R" with ease. For some reason, though, the look of the "R" just set her off. She burst into tears, dragged the marker with a heavy hand across all the letters, ripped the paper and said, "NOW I HAVE TO START ALL OVER!" Neither Matt nor I had seen a thing wrong with the letter. It's as though she has this genetic wiring to expect the impossible of herself and to sometimes give up trying at all when she can't reach her aim. A few nights later she was writing once again and stumbled across a couple of letters. She corrected herself quietly and looked up at me saying, "I didn't get upset at all, Mommy. Look at how nicely I fixed those." Improvement? Maybe. But I suspect she had just shifted her expectations from the perfection of letters to the perfection of pleasing her mother. She knew I was bothered by her earlier reaction, and she was simply trying to meet my expectations.

How on earth can I let my children know they are enough, just as they are, when there is a nagging sense I still carry that I must justify my existence with achievement??? One of those imponderable questions I'll be thinking on for a long, long time....

2 comments:

Sue Sehulster said...

Your entries really make me exercise my cob-webbed mind! I think we all have a touch of perfectionism in us -- just some more (far more?) than others. I believe we are created in God's image, to whom the word "Perfect" is a given. You and I have always been a bit on opposite ends of this one (oh, how I remember your thesis B+! NOT easy), yet I always appreciated having a roommate who could stretch me in new ways. I was so interested in your tale of Kyra's spelling, and your reaction to it. Not long ago you shared a similar pang in response to another trait of hers -- the "shy" little girl at the Princess party. Not being shy yourself, it's very difficult to know how to "handle" a trait so unlike your own. But now you're faced with your OWN trait in her, with an equal degree of Parental Angst. I understand! I see the same kind of perfectionism in Aidan, and I wondered if all kids do that (apparently not). He is Donnie Jr. on so many levels (not easy for me!), perfectionism included. Our pleasant afternoon spent coloring on the kitchen table is so often ruined when he throws a fit because he cannot find the brown marker -- his horse MUST be brown, or else he won't color at all. "You're only 3!" I protest. The artwork of his tiny peers are all over the place at church: purple faces, a red sun, black grass, etc. Oh, but NOT Aidan! Now he's learning to write his letters -- he takes a plastic letter magnet off the fridge and places it next to him on the table so he can copy it. But heaven forbid if his shaky letter looks anything different than the original! Oh, the frustration I feel ... but how can I nurture this when I don't necessarily feel it myself? When a Hallmark Card says that being a Mother is the toughest job in the world, I say AMEN to that! Let's let Kyra and Aidan figure it out together, and we'll go to a spa. :)

GRAMPA PETER said...

THANK YOU JENNIFER FOR THIS INSIGHTFUL BLOG. I HAVE BEENFFAR FROM PERFECT IN MY OWN LIVING, YET AS A CHILD ALWAYS STRAINED FOR THAT. NEVER QUITE LIVING UP TO OTHER'S EXPECTATIONS, NOR MY OWN. I WAS MUCH TOO EAGER TO PLEASE MY PARENTS, MY PARISHIONERS, MY FAMILY, AND FEEL AS THOUGH I HAVE FAILED ON ALL ACCOUNTS.
NOW AT THIS LATE POINT IN MY LIFE, I KNOW THAT I DON'T HAVE TO BE PERFECT, CAN'T BE. DESPITE OUR SHORTCOMINGS AS PARENTS, AND THERE HAVE BEEN MANY, OUR CHILDREN FAR SURPASS WHAT WE MIGHT EVER HAVE EXPECTED. I'M PROUD OF OUR DAUGHTERS, AND OF THE MOTHER WHO GAVE THEM LIFE, AND NURTURED THEM. I TRIED SO HARD TO PLEASE EVERYBODY, THAT I PLEASED NO ONE.
GOD LOVES EVEN ME AS I AM...AND LOVES ALL OF HIS CHILDREN. THANKS FOR SHARING THIS WITH ME.