Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Happy Birthday to Me: A Post on Motherhood and Perfectionism

Yesterday was my birthday.  28.  Wow.  I don't think I ever imagined being 28.  It leaves this year feeling vaguely open and mildly exhilarating.

This is also the first birthday where I am a mother.

I mean really, it doesn't get much better than that.

Now, I have been blessed with one of the sweetest, most well-tempered and easy babies I think in existence.  He takes his naps and (finally) sleeps through the night and eats with only a reasonable
amount of mess and smiles and plays and is healthy.  I love being a Mom.  Pretty much the greatest thing a parent can ask for is a healthy, happy baby. Having said all this, parenthood is it's own crazy, wild ride.  Children are largely unpredictable and irrational.  They are complex algorithms with ever changing variables.  They bring a greater range of emotion than previously known--there is so, so much more joy, but there is also the potential for so much more pain.  And you can't weight your options before you take the plunge--it is a leap of faith in the truest sense of the word.  I was trepidatious about the rigors of motherhood and becoming a mother myself because I also suffer from perfectionism.  I had always wanted to be a momma, but life's experiences had made me cautious.

Perfectionism is defined as "a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable; especially : the setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness."  A lot of people could blame my Mormon upbringing as to how I contracted this disease, or religion in general but I think it's just one aspect of the human condition: everyone has it to some degree.  Perfectionism isn't about competition, it's not about being better than someone else, it's about being the best you can be.  And sometimes that pressure can lead to depression or other neurotic behaviors.  If it was just Mormons or Christians who suffer from perfectionism, we wouldn't live in a world where there is a thing called Karoshi (the Japanese term for literally working yourself to death) or The Mommy Wars.  It's a symptom of the modern age, and if you ask my parents they will tell you I just came packaged this way.

My entire life I've felt like it was my job to save the world, and any attempts to either live fully to my personal expectations or just "fuggedaboutit" have left me gasping for air, for I am no Atlas (or Donnie Brasco for that matter).  Sometimes feeling like I'm carrying the weight of the world has led me down paths of great despair and depression, and much of my late teens and early twenties were marked with bouts of varying degrees with occasional interventions of medication and counseling.  The last five years have been a wonderful reprieve, feeling I've gotten a bit of a handle on things using a combination of Vitamin D and Jesus.  Also repeating early and often: "you can't do everything, but you can do something."  A dollar to this charity, a kind word to a friend, taking care of my baby: I try to focus on what I'm doing rather than what seems to be falling outside of my grasp.

I also met a man who shares a lot of my same world views which has allowed me to feel I can share the burden.  He too is quite a perfectionist and I wonder if it's not a genetic malady since I already see traces of it in our son.  We've also had a great amount of success in helping the other keep their perfectionism in check: sharing strategies, cheering each other on, and just talking through things.

Despite all this progression, becoming a mother has given me a combination of feeling a greater responsibility to make a better world for the next generation, and a fearlessness I have never known.  This combination, the internet, and my personal belief system has led me to recently think I have the audacity to actually make the world a better place.  Ether 12:4 in the Book of Mormon:

"Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God."

There are days when I love my perfectionism--it's made me a better student, a better employee, a better wife and mother, a better artist, a better Mormon, and a better person.  Being a perfectionist gives you great satisfaction with getting things done.  All the world's great movers and shakers were perfectionists--who wouldn't want to rub shoulders with those folks?  And since I'm a generally happy person with a laid back attitude, you'll only begin to notice my perfectionism up close.  Unless you happen to catch me when I'm having a bad day, or a bad year.  I am sincerely grateful to my friends and family who have stuck by me despite my myriad quirks, emotionality, and sometimes overbearing passion.

But there are days when I just wish I could not care so much.  Perfectionism means never being satisfied with yourself.  Perfectionism can be debilitating and easily mistaken for laziness--I've collectively spent many hours just spaced out trying to solve my personal problems or issues of the world.  I forget things, I'm a self proclaimed space cadet.  It makes it hard to commit to things for fear that you won't be reliable or something will fall through the cracks.  Analysis Paralysis is my middle name, but I also thrive on organization.  

Perfectionism makes it easy to judge people who don't seem to be trying as hard at life as you are.  It takes a lot of effort to maintain a consistent personality so that I can make and keep friends (people don't like it when you step out of the box that they've put you in).  It's hard to speak my mind when I see two sides to every argument.  Note: Mitt wasn't a flip-flopper, he was a perfectionist (and a moderate) but that is another post for another day.  In my world everybody is right and everybody is wrong at the same time.  I can see how every action both helps and hurts.

Perfectionism can sometimes feel like noblesse oblige on steroids.  People think you're self righteous.  In a word, it's exhausting.  The only difference between a Perfectionist and a control freak is the former tries to do so without seeming, whilst always checking their intentions and outcomes.  Sometimes I feel I must be the only person who has 17 moral dilemmas before lunch time.  Some days it's hard to tell if being a perfectionist is an aspect of the natural man or my divine nature as a child of God.  In any case, I'd love to have just a day when I could not feel like I'm carrying an angry minotaur ready to jump out and devour my whole life.  A day when I just didn't care.  A day when I don't feel I have to manage something within myself.

If you deal with perfectionism, it's easy to see why people self-medicate.  It is also why I love watching TV.

So this year I decided for my birthday I was going to give myself a day off: a day free of actual or lingering guilt.  A "mental health day" that wasn't preceded by a breakdown.  A day free of the little voice of shame saying that I'm not enough: not doing enough, not being enough, not fixing enough.  A day where I don't worry about the rest of the world.  A day with just me and my little family.  A day where I didn't berate myself for not getting things done: the laundry (I wasn't even going to DO the laundry!), the dishes cleaned (I would leave them in the sink!), my church calling, my work, or feeling a responsibility to fix the problem of sex slavery in the United States.  I'll take on the rest of the world next week.

By eleven o'clock I gave up.  The energy it took to try and not think about those things was way more energy than I wanted to spend on what now seemed like a fruitless quest.  Not to mention it was stressing me out.

I decided to get out of the house.  Walking has been therapy for me for many years, but I left the stroller in the car and the car was with my husband at work.  There's a small park near my house I often take the baby to play in the grass and get some sunlight.  I grabbed the little guy and left my phone and computer (which kept pinging with Facebook birthday notifications--oh if only my high school self could see me now!) and worries behind.

The thing about your thoughts is that they are not so easily shed as a coat, or your keys, or your phone. A great quote is from Wallace Wattles, whose only legacy to the world might just be this quote, goes as follows: “There is no labor from which most people shrink as they do from that of sustained and consecutive thought. It is the hardest work in the world.”

As my worries and thoughts and stresses crept up I started to get frustrated.  I felt the feelings of despair creep from behind the curtain.  The thoughts that can easily drag me into a downward spiral of depression and anxiety.  I tried to focus on my son: his sweet chubby hands palming at the grass.  His cute marble eyes squinting when they flipped upwards.  His "hair feathers" blowing in the wind.  I let myself feel proud for letting him eat a leaf but not a cigarette butt.  I watched him pull himself to standing and then start let go: he is figuring out how to walk!  I felt that rush of joy only a parent knows in seeing your child accomplish something new.  He was standing!  I called out: You're standing!  You're standing!  You're learning to walk!  We exchanged proud smiles and then as quickly as it began it was over.  He plopped down and started crawling again.  But while my son seemed to instantly find satisfaction and distraction in eating leaves I grew frustrated: why can't I feel that joy all the time, whenever I just look at him?  Why does it take so much work to feel like I'm loving him?

And then my years of training myself to dispute my own thoughts kicked in:  because if you felt this way all the time you wouldn't appreciate it, it's a gift more than an accomplishment.  Don't get frustrated with yourself, look how far you've come.  And it's true: learning to manage my perfectionism has meant developing the ability to walk a mental tightrope: if I do too little with my time, I feel worthlessness.  Too much and I'm overwhelmed.  I'm doing better to walk by faith, and not by fear.  I continued to cajole myself: Do your best to relax, soak in the sun.

I moved over to the other side of my baby so that I could face that great fiery ball in the sky.  I lifted my face and closed my eyes to it's warmth and power, another strategy I've developed over the years to help me cope with life.  Face the Sun, I repeated to myself.  Face the Son.  Vitamin D and Jesus.

I thought about the Sun and the Son.  The Sun is fiery miasma of incandescent plasma with the power to kill us all if the atmosphere gets too thin.  They both give light and life to the whole world.  The Savior was perfect and complete, our redeemer and exemplar.  I'm fairly certain he was filled with a deep passion (THE passion) we can't even begin to fathom (although I don't think His rampage in the temple is quite the excuse for righteous indignation I've heard people cite too often).  He is the only person for whom we can honestly say, "He has done no wrong."  His sacrifice for me is pretty much the only reason I am able to get up and out of bed in the morning.  His is the only hope I have for any happiness in my life.

"I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" (John 10:10)

I too have this fire in me I can't seem to squelch.  Attempts to do so have led me easily and quickly to a melt-down and an inevitable "bad day."  On good days I figure I'm not supposed to root this out of my being--that it was given to me for a reason and I should use it for good.  I'm learning to embrace my perfectionism and channel it for betterment.  Over the years and through many, many experiences of trial and error I've gotten better at honing that fire into a blow torch full of utility rather than the destructive potential of a forest fire.  I'm slowly getting better.  I hope someday I can feel like it's not so much work to be happy, especially since I've been blessed with a truly fantastic life.  The guilt that so many in the world do not have the blessings and resources that I do is part of that daily, crushing burden.

Back at the park, I scoop up my son and wrap him in my arms.  As we turn to head back home and face the rest of the day I look up one final time.  Soaking up the last drops of optimism I can glean from it's rays, I think to myself: Yes, I am learning to walk too.

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