The thing I hate most about being a perfectionist is that I know I’m not perfect - and that really gets on my nerves.
When it comes to others I’m always the first to offer advice, wisely suggesting friends shouldn’t ‘beat themselves up about stuff’, or should be ‘kinder to themselves’, whatever the hell that means. But until now I haven’t accepted that this might apply to me too.
Whilst I wouldn’t say I was a competitive child (my brother would probably disagree with this but arm wrestling doesn’t count, surely), I always had an inner gladiatorial spirit that insisted I get things absolutely right. Every time. At primary school my teachers would laugh at my painstakingly copied out homework and yes, the day Tippex was invented was one of the happiest of my life. As an adult I was incredibly ambitious from the outset – always tugging at my boss’s arm for the next promotion and the chance to show that I was the best goddamn employee he could possibly ask for.
And then I became a parent. Wow, there’s nothing like having a baby to send a perfectionist into a crazy, uncontrollable spin. Suddenly you are confronted with something that demands you ‘give it a go’ even when you have no clue what ‘it’ is. You’ve seen the movie trailer so you think you have a vague idea of how things are supposed to happen, but then it turns out you’re watching the wrong film - more Groundhog Day than It’s A Wonderful Life.
I’ll be honest, I found those early years really hard. The lack of sleep was a killer but it was the lack of what I saw as natural ‘maternal instinct’ that I struggled with most of all. I couldn’t help but focus on all the areas that I knew were my weaknesses; not just what I couldn’t do (let’s not go back to those dark days trying to get the bloody Quinny to fit in a Mini – FYI, it will but only with the seats down, hope that helps), but what I didn’t think, or feel, as well.
The inevitable practicalities aside, it was the boredom I found most difficult to cope with. Moving back home to Devon whilst we had a kitchen extension built didn’t help matters – the highlight of my day was literally walking to the Co-Op for a KitKat - but even when I was back in London, surrounded by friends and my newly extended ‘dream home’, I never experienced the alleged euphoria that I had expected from the movie trailer. This became a constant source of worry for me – perhaps I just wasn’t cut out to be a mum? I knew I loved my precious bundle of joy, and yet I was happy to leave her with my Dad and stepmum when she was only 8 weeks old to return to London briefly for work. Yes, I cried all the way to the station, but once I was on the train (KitKat in hand, and this time with a properly hot cup of tea and a magazine to accompany it) I felt a strange sense of calm and even relief. I had handed over responsibility – albeit temporarily – and God, it felt good. What did that say about me? As a market researcher I’m used to asking questions in different ways, but even I ran out of ways to rephrase that one in my head – the answer was always the same: I was a crap mother.
I now know I'm not the only 'Crap' Mum out there...
Happily, even though at the time it felt like everyone else was enjoying the epiphany they had all been waiting for, years later I now know that I wasn’t alone. One of my closest friends recently told me how her husband once came home to find her, slightly manic but euphoric, with her 2 month old twins dressed from head to toe in tiny home made paper outfits. I have seen the pictures, they had hats, accessories, shoes, the lot – man, she was at a loose end that day.
Perhaps if my boredom had helped me reach such creative heights I might have felt differently, but for me part of the problem was that I went to bed every night (briefly, before getting up again – and again) feeling like I hadn’t actually achieved anything. Having enjoyed being a working woman for 15 years I was used to a sense of fulfillment, of tasks being completed, signed off and occasionally even appreciated. ‘Why mother thank you so much for looking after me, entertaining me and ensuring I have been sufficiently fed, watered and rested today’ said no baby, ever. Equally, I couldn’t bring myself to see my kids reaching their first goals as ‘my’ wins – surely they were going to walk and talk of their own accord, and that amazing Duplo talent, was that really my brilliant parenting skills in play? Probably not.
As they get older of course this changes. There is no longer the sense of panic that if you turn your head away for one split second they will dive head first with the grace of Tom Daley from the changing table (yes, this happened to me), or pick up your hair straighteners when they are still blisteringly hot (again, I hold my hands up). Occasionally there might even be a heart lifting ‘you’re the best mummy in the world!’ Oscar winning moment if you really get it right, although admittedly I often manage to win the parenting Razzie award equivalent too, sometimes even on the same day. Going back to work has also given me a better sense of perspective and allowed me to enjoy those moments of more grown up ‘achievement’ that I missed so much in the early days. In short I haven’t felt like quite so much of a failure.
No more pretending Mums are Angels
Interestingly, it is actually my recent separation that has finally shown me I need to stop metaphorically punching myself in the face every time something goes pear shaped. In itself it has been a time of personal scrutiny, a time to admit that I haven’t always tried my best, and that I could have worked harder to be a better wife, a better mother, a better person. But you know what, who couldn’t say that? There was a song in the 80’s that said ‘it’s got to be perfect, it’s got to be worth it’ but they got it wrong – they’re not the same thing. Trying to create the perfect life for you and your family is admirable, but is it really worth it? What is the true cost of aspiring to something that ultimately doesn’t actually exist? Perhaps if I hadn’t been so keen to have it all and get it all so right on every level things might have been different. Ouch – another self-inflicted black eye, must stop.
For now I am going to settle for the fact that my current school report would definitely read ‘could do better’. I might be distracting my friends, talking too much and not paying attention in class but I reckon I’m getting the basics right and at the end of the day I’m optimistic my results won’t be too bad. I just don’t have the time or the headspace to get everything right, and certainly not to worry about what others might think about my choices. The other day when my online shop arrived I realised there was nothing in it that could actually be heated up (well, technically you can have warm red wine but only really at Christmas). Instead of agonising over what my booze heavy selection said about me (beyond the obvious) I just sat down - with a nice glass of red - and did another shop, consciously ensuring this time that it was a) a bit more nutritionally balanced and b) included something to clean the bathroom with. Job done.
So that’s my way of dealing with things for now: don’t sweat the small stuff. Unless you’re answering the door in an egg stained dressing gown and sending your kids to school with a MacDonalds in their packed lunch box you’re probably doing OK. And if things do go a bit pear shaped, try not to get too worked up about it. You can always try applying a bit of mental Tippex - tequila and a few laughs works perfectly for me.
"Julie's sharp nouse and her brilliant sense of humour help to untangle your scary mess. And then all of a sudden you are zooming down a road of possibility that you didn't think was ahead of you. It's quite extraordinary " Lizzie A
"Everyone needs a Julie, whether you realise it or not (and if you are in a rut as deep as I was you won't!) Remember that thing you always wanted to do but life just...got in the way? What if I said you could reclaim some of the old you, have your wonderful family AND have the career you always dreamed about? You'd say I was mad, totally mental! So would I have 6 months ago before I met Julie. She asked questions, listened to what I really wanted and made things I thought of as really scary very achieveable" Katie S