Everywhere we look we confront mistakes — signs with misspelled words, computer programs that crash, customer service agents who can’t find our account. While many of us accept these annoyances in life, perfectionist often feel anger towards others who don’t seem to care about getting things right. In reality, we should celebrate them — for they are helping so many mothers burdened by ongoing guilt.
Many moms are like movie directors, hoping their attention to detail will produce children who shine when they mature. When I watch the bonus features in movie trailers, it always amazes me the amount of time, effort, care and money spent on the minutia of every element of creating a movie — especially animated movies. During the description of creating the cute alien Q*bert in Adam Sandler’s “Pixels,” animators explained how they created more than a dozen versions of the character to get it just right. This kind of attention to detail takes considerable time and money, something major film studios have.
Many of us wish we could spend this much time getting everything in life just right, but we come to realize — especially after we have kids — that we can’t. We can’t even come close. We can’t even complete a lot of the things we do day-to-day “pretty well.” As life becomes more complicated and more crowded with tasks and obligations and just plain desires to spend time with kids before they become teens and then adults, we end up doing so many things “good enough.”
I think it’s one of the reasons perfectionists have such a hard time feeling good about their parenting, and one of the reasons so many mothers feel so conflicted about what they should be doing and how they should be doing it. Of all the things that we do in our lives as women, we often want to get this one right more than any other — feeling as if someone else’s life depends on our pursuit of being the “perfect mother.” Or, at least we don’t want the sneers of the other mothers who seem “perfect.”
First of all, memo to all moms: Mothers are NEVER as perfect as they seem on the outside. Sure, there are a lot of really great moms who do really great things. Often they are good at several things – but they’re never really good at everything. Just because you see a mother who is fit and always wearing the latest styles and her kids are athletic champions and honor students, you may not know that her home is a wreck. Don’t assume every mother who has it together on the outside also has it together on the inside.
I read that Facebook’s headquarters has a big sign declaring to employees that “Done is better than Perfect!” It’s a motto that is fitting for many companies that compete in a constantly-changing fast-paced industry. In the social media space, if you don’t keep up with competitors’ innovation, prepare to become obsolete. It’s true for news media too, where it’s far more important for local television stations to get an accurate story on the air during the newscast when it’s timely, than to spend an extra day interviewing more people and shooting more footage and editing it more creatively and airing it after the story has already been told by all of your competitors — even if you tell it better.
But this doesn’t apply to every industry. When we are sitting on an airplane, we are betting our lives that the pilot wants to land the plane perfectly, not just on time if that means coming down in a severe storm and crashing as the jet skids off the runway. In this case, done is not better than perfect.
The same is true if we are going in to the hospital for surgery. We don’t mind if the surgeon takes twice as long to remove a cancerous lump if we find out later that he had to be sure he got all of the malignant cells.
We want perfectionism in our doctors, in our pilots, in our mechanics, in our electricians, in our food producers — in those people we count on for our safety and health.
It would seem we should want perfectionism in our mothers, too, and many mothers are striving for this every day. And that effort is actually moving us away from achieving it — because the impossible standards we set for ourselves as mothers can’t be achieved while living the rest of our lives fully. We can’t be perfect mothers and also perfect wives and perfect employees and perfect friends and perfect homemakers without putting our own physical and mental health so far down the list of priorities that it jeopardizes our sanity and self-esteem. Martyrdom is not the path to perfect mothering.
Mothering is not the only thing comprised of thousands of tiny tasks that should be done just well enough to finish without worrying about perfection.
When do we want to lean towards perfection? Those times when our children’s survival could depend on it: Insisting on car seats and seat belts, eliminating choking hazards, locking up guns, cooking meat thoroughly. When should we let go of the goal of perfection? We shouldn’t beat ourselves up if we forget our child’s annual physical, order pizza once a week because we’re too tired to cook, throw a party in our home before it’s decorated to our liking, or have dust bunnies hiding under every piece of furniture.
Artists struggle with this concept often. My son and husband are both wonderful musicians who like to write songs, but they rarely let anyone hear them — continually stuck in the never-ending cycle of working on a song to make it better, so it is officially never “done.” My daughter writes fantastic fiction but refused to submit any of her stories to a contest because she insisted they were not as good as she could make them — but she never had the time or inspiration to improve them. So I made a deal with her that forced her to submit one of her stories by the contest deadline, and she won the contest — representing her school district in a statewide conference.
I don’t usually push my kids to do things they don’t want to do, but in this case I did it — not so much for her to take home a prize — but more for her to take in the value of letting go of her perfectionist tendencies. After all, I know where she got them from. I’ve been working for more than a year on several videos for a television show I am creating to engage working mothers with inspiration and information. Striving for perfection in our career is typical for many working moms. But perhaps we would achieve even more and find greater satisfaction if we bring to our work environment all the lessons we’ve learned as parents.
I might as well get some value out of the years of guilt that have led me to accept that I must balance my perfectionist tendencies with the frustrating realities of “good enough” mothering.