It is natural to want to comfort your crying infant, I’d even go so far as to say for most people it is a normal reaction. But, when my infant daughter would get upset there were times when I felt almost panicked, wanting desperately to calm her down; especially if there were other people around. I was so self-conscious, I felt like everyone was watching and judging as I tried to breastfeed and manage a brand new baby. There were times when I was actually envious of people who were bottle feeding and could hand the baby off to someone else. That’s some irony for you, there are women who feel guilty because they can’t or don’t breastfeed. I was breastfeeding (and figured out much later) that I was feeling shame over my perceived inept mothering skills and guilty for feeling ashamed. I never said anything to my husband at that time, I would just give him this look of total desperation. It sounds ridiculous now, but I remember trying to will him to fix the situation somehow. I'm not sure what I wanted him to do, maybe ride in on his unicorn and spread rainbows of calm and co-operation over my daughter and me?! While my husband is my equal partner in this relationship and does his fair share of parenting, he could do nothing to ease the laundry list of assaults I was subconsciously launching against myself
During a family gathering one time, I left the big group to sit in the quiet family room and nurse my daughter. My mother-in-law came along to keep me company. I didn’t mind, I’d breastfed around her before. But, on this occasion I was having trouble feeding and calming my daughter down. I remember her saying to me that I was a lot like her with her first baby. She just wanted everyone to like her daughter, to think she was a good baby. I remember thinking my mother-in-law was crazy. I wasn’t like that and everyone loved Hannah, why would I want everyone to like her? I was nothing like my mother-in-law.
Except that I was exactly like her.
I wanted everyone to like my daughter and think that she was a good baby because if they didn't, I believed it reflected back on me.
It has taken years for me to unravel the impact of my perfectionist tendencies on my experience with motherhood, particularly in those early years. I’ve thought of that conversation with my mother-in-law thousands of times and have repeatedly reassured myself that she was wrong-until recently. It’s funny, who knows how many conversations I’ve had with my mother-in-law in the 24 years that I’ve known her, but this conversation stuck with me. She had my number long before I did. What I’ve come to learn about myself in those early days, was that a crying baby meant that I wasn’t a good mom, that I couldn’t handle motherhood, and that everyone was judging me. I wanted everyone to think I was a great mom with a perfect baby, perfect family, perfect home, perfect life...that is a lot of pressure. Mind you, none of this was at a conscious level, my perfectionist is stealthy.
In the fifteen years since my daughter was born, I have done my work. I have shone a light on my inner perfectionist and followed the trails of where she has and continues to show up in my life. I believe that unchecked perfectionism can be a silent killer of the soul. I was in a pretty dark place before I really got to know my inner taskmaster. I let her set unrealistic expectations of what motherhood should look like. When I couldn’t live up to those expectations, I felt unworthy and it was hard to enjoy and be grateful for my family from that place. Today I am more in control of this relationship. I watch for her and try to harness her power for good. After all it is her drive and energy that got me through the major accomplishments in my life such as college and graduate school. If I don’t let her run ramrod over me and spiral into thoughts of how inadequate I am, she and I make a pretty good team.
Do you have perfectionist tendencies? If you are really honest with yourself, has she (or he) gotten in your way? Where has your joy been lost to your inner perfectionist dictator? Tell me in the comments. I’d love to hear.
Here is to all of us recovering, reforming, and less than perfect perfectionists!