By Rachel Wiley
Perfectionism is a disease I’ve suffered from all my life. It started when I was a child when I realized that nothing I ever said or did could or would please my dad. In his eyes, I was stupid, ugly, annoying, and a constant fuck-up. Being told these things about myself from such a young age meant I internalized these messages about who I was as a person, and didn’t love or value myself at all. I spent most of my life reacting to these messages, first as a rebel: You think I’m a fuck up? Fine, then I might as well be one. Drinking, partying, skipping school, and participating in all sorts of unhealthy activities when I was a teenager. Nothing was off limits. No authority figure could ever control me.
Then, I had a few life-changing experiences that caused a complete turnaround. None more significant than when I was 18 years old and found out that I was pregnant with my son. Everything changed. When he was born, I felt as though I had given birth to my whole heart and all my love was wrapped up in this 8lb. 10oz. baby boy. I knew that I wanted to be the best mom, because that’s what he deserved.
I went to college and got the best grades. I became the perfect mom: reading to my son every night, making sure he had the right amount of tummy-time, going to a lactation nurse because nursing was the “best” choice according to the AAP and parenting blogs and articles I spent my free time reading. I researched healthy brain development, took him to toddler gym, and attended M.O.P.S. at church (in spite of all the other married, older, judgy moms I always encountered).
I was keenly aware that people judged me as a mother because I was young and unmarried. People told me I was selfish, that I should’ve had an abortion, that I was going to be on welfare forever, that my life was over. I felt like I had everything to prove. This only intensified when I had my second child two years later, and was now 21 with an infant and a toddler, in college full time, and working on top of that.
In my effort to become the perfect mom, I also tried to be perfect in every other way. Perfect wife when my partner and I did get married, when the kids were 2 and 4 years old. Perfect teacher when I started my career (which I chose instead of being a writer so that I could provide a stable home for my kids, and spend as much time with them as possible). Perfect person. I ate healthy, worked out every day, and wanted to be the best at everything I did. People would often ask “How do you do it all?”
The truth? It was exhausting. I was drowning. I realized it wasn’t sustainable.
I started to wonder who I was when I was really being my authentic self. I didn’t even know who she was.
One day, I was sitting in a training and was asked about what legacy I wanted to leave my kids, and one that I did not. I immediately wrote down Authenticity / Perfectionism.
I realized in writing it down that perfectionism was the exact opposite of authenticity. I knew I had to change.
My effort has been to figure out who I really am when I’m not trying to be perfect. This has made me uncomfortable, and others around me uncomfortable. It has been difficult to really and truly let go of others’ perceptions of me.
If I am truly happy and being who I really am, it actually makes me a better mom. It’s also a better example for my kids to see that I’m doing my best, and that’s okay. I don’t want them to grow up to be plagued by unrealistic expectations and demands and trying to please everybody else and sacrifice their own happiness and identity in the process.
These days, I take more time to write. I love to dance and spend time with friends. I love to have grown-up dinners with thought-provoking conversation, I love music and going to concerts. I love to attend workshops and lectures. I love art and attending museums. I love my social justice activism work. I love literary arts. I love yoga. I love traveling. This is me. AND I love my kids and my partner. Spending time doing all of the things that I’m passionate about without them doesn’t change any of that. It just means that I finally love myself enough to choose me too.
I love my kids more than anything in the world. They were the ones who taught me about true, unconditional, selfless love. In learning that lesson, it only makes sense that I would begin to love myself that way as well.
I am choosing to be a mom who is more than just a mom. Who is imperfect. Who is no longer allowing herself to be defined only by her ability to fit into the definition of what a perfect wife and mother looks like, according to our patriarchal society. Who believes in the power of women to be anything we want to be. Who is deciding that the best thing she can do as a mother is to show her children what a strong, independent, authentic, empowered woman looks like, in spite of the fact that our society has never wanted women to know their own value or worth. A mom who is determined to fight for equal rights and against toxic masculinity, so that BOTH my son and daughter can grow up in a society where women are seen as more than their ability to be a perfect wife and mother and little else.
“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” –John Steinbeck East of Eden