“Perfect” and “parent” are two words that don’t belong anywhere near each other. They’re like “sexy” and “root canal.” Just as no one should try to throw a tea party in a dungeon or put on a fresh coat of mascara during an enema or give a TED Talk treading water in a tank full of electric eels, no one should try to be a perfect parent. Because being any kind of parent is like running a marathon through a shit-filled swamp with a backpack filled with talking kittens on your back. It’s very fun and exciting and scary, but you cannot do it perfectly. There will be claw marks and shit stains and tears. You will manage pretty well for a while and you’ll say to yourself, “This is working! I’m pulling it off!” right before your nasal passages start literally flooding with shit.
Every time I stop trying to be perfect and start focusing on enjoying myself instead, I’m a much better parent. But saying that parenting is about pleasing yourself in 2016 is like a wife talking about pleasing herself sexually in 1955. Back then, your job was to serve your man. Likewise, parents today are supposed to serve their children, full stop, transforming them into little Renaissance athletes with quick minds, excellent fine motor skills, and a million and one passionate hobbies. Mothers in particular are seen not as sentient beings with their own needs so much as always-smiling, activity-loving, craft-obsessed lunatics who hover around the clock like a hazy cloud of maternal memory foam on wheels, one that not only separates the vulnerable child from the harsh outside world, but also makes sure that child can block a goal, swim like a fish, play the piano, and understand long division. (But not, you know, handle a broom or wash a window or anything that actually makes anyone else’s life a little easier.)
This quest to be perfect and raise perfect children creates anxious kids who believe that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. And also? It’s torture. Throw in a culture that fixates on achievement and constant improvement and the relentless pursuit of your “best life,” and you’ve got a recipe for unrelenting disappointment and misery — miserable overtested, overscheduled kids who are learning, more than anything else, to hate themselves for their faintest moments of self-doubt or darkness or tiniest worries or smallest mistakes, and miserable, overtaxed parents who hate themselves because they’re not super into crafting or cooking elaborate meals or prattling on about Barney the Dinosaur while following their toddlers in fast circles around the house for hours at a time.
I will admit that I did sometimes aim for perfection a few years ago. Because I’m a masochist, I usually tried it when my husband was out of town. Once I was four days into one such stint, chopping raw chicken into bite-size chunks for a healthy stir-fry dinner in an unusually immaculate kitchen while marveling at my incredible ability to Have It All, when my older daughter, age 5, yelled for me from the living room. (I had been checking on the kids every few minutes, but the chicken had take a few extra minutes to rinse and chop.)
“I can’t come right now, I’ve got raw chicken on my hands.”
“MOMMY. YOU HAVE TO COME!”
I ran into the next room and discovered my 2-year-old daughter standing on an armchair with her diaper off, smearing shit all over the back of the chair.
My brain stalled: Smeared shit. Raw chicken. Do something, asshole. But do what? Grab shitty baby with chicken hands? Run away and wash hands and leave shit-smearing baby to smear more shit? Every option seemed terrible. So I just stood there, waving my raw-chicken hands in the air and screaming, “FUCK FUCK FUUUUUCK!”
And what would the perfect mother do in this scenario?
I’m pretty sure that the perfect mother would pull out a gun and blow her own brains out. Because I’m not perfect, I survived. Survival required screaming bloody murder while painstakingly disinfecting the entire universe as all children and dogs paced nervously, fearing for their lives. Eventually my screaming transitioned into hissing, “EVERYTHING IS FINE, THIS IS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD, JUST DON’T MOVE AND DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING.” Once the two kids and the entire room were cleaner than they’d been in months, I put the raw chicken in Tupperware, ordered a pizza, and then, finally, explained that Mommy tries to be calm but sometimes Mommy loses her shit completely but that doesn’t mean Mommy is homicidal. Mommy is a human and humans make mistakes and also smearing poop around is completely unacceptable and can never happen again, but screaming is also unacceptable and Mommy is very sorry for screaming so much. At which point my older daughter probably interrupted me to ask if we were going to do something other than talk about what a fuck-up Mommy is.
Now, you can think, “That’s messed up” and “That will never be me,” and I invite you to hold these delusions close to your heart for as long as you possibly can. Let’s hope that you’re right. But you never really know how you’ll react until your own personal version of parenting Armageddon rains down on you. And it’s most likely to rain down at the exact moment when you’re trying to be the most perfect.
In fact, aiming for perfection leads to bad choices. Like you try to hang out with your toddler 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even though you’re someone who truly is not suited for a rigorous, unforgiving lifestyle of washing sippy cups around the clock while discussing asinine purple dinosaurs. Or you try to run for PTA president, even though you strongly dislike most parents, most teachers, and most associations. Aiming for perfection tempts you to become someone you’re not. Trying to become someone you’re not might challenge you and teach you a few important lessons and open up your world to new experiences, but it also might slowly erode your sanity and sense of well-being and ability to remain calm and accepting under duress.
It’s okay to have your own preferences and limitations. Others will surely cast aspersions on these preferences and limitations, but stand strong! When my kids have friends over, for example, we will not have an elaborate craft planned. So their friends will ask me, “So what are we doing?” as if I’m the cruise director of the ship. And I will say, “Whatever you guys decide. I’m going to be reading this book.” Or we might throw a birthday party and afterward, all of the children will be looking around for the tiny bags filled with plastic bullshit that it is their God-given right to receive at the end of each and every child-centered function, and I will have to inform them that plastic bullshit is fucking bullshit, and moreover, assembling 30 bags filled with plastic bullshit just because everyone else does it is the very apex of high-capitalist conformist stupidity.
But sometimes I fill bags with plastic bullshit anyway, because I’m weak.
The point is, parenting is all about avoiding being pushed past your limits. It’s actually a little bit odd to blindly do exactly what every other parent is doing at this particular, idiosyncratic point in history at this specific locale. You have to chart your own path while reminding yourself, over and over, “I can’t get this exactly right,” and also, “Am I trying to do too much?” and also, “What can we do together that I might actually enjoy for a change?”
And when everything is going wrong, when the world is collapsing and your nasal passages are rapidly filling with shit, you have to learn to say things like, “Okay, this is terrible, but it doesn’t mean I’m a terrible parent” and also “No one is dying, we just need a Super Soaker full of hand sanitizer.” Kids need to know that everyone has different tastes and proclivities and limits (including adults!), and everyone keeps making mistakes and learning from them, over the course of their entire lives. That’s just how life is.
You can give up on being a perfect mother without calling yourself a bad mother. People do that so often these days: “I’m not perfect at this, so I must be bad at it.” Teaching kids to accept themselves relies on interrogating your own black-and-white thinking about what is and isn’t acceptable. You give kids confidence by modeling both confidence and self-doubt for them without making either trait feel bad or unforgivable.
Being a human means trying and failing. You try to stay calm, but every now and then you melt down. And sometimes you have to be quiet, even though you feel like saying more. And sometimes you have to work hard, even though you really want to lie down on the rug and eat those sweet Hawaiian potato chips with the fucking sugary salty shit on them. You don’t feel like exercising today, but you’re going to do it anyway because it might cheer you up. You didn’t like what Daddy just said, but you understand that he’s tired from his long day at work. (Okay, you did make a face just then. That was immature of you. You shouldn’t have done that.)
You don’t have to be wise and honorable every second of every day just because you’re a parent. Every single weak moment doesn’t mean that you’re failing. Paying attention to your preferences and limits doesn’t mean that you’re selfish. You can try to do better and also accept yourself for who you are, right now. These things aren’t incompatible with each other. You are merely trying to be happy so you can model happiness, which is actually your first and most important job as a parent. Your kids need to know what happiness looks like.
You might manage to be reasonably happy, but you will never be perfect. So put perfect out of your mind. Put on your backpack filled with talking kittens and head out for that shit-filled swamp knowing that things are about to get messy, but you will survive somehow. Try to enjoy yourself. You’ve got this.