Think about all the things you know that are perfect. The sway of long grasses in the breeze. The way the sun rises day after day without your even asking. The symphonic sound of the ocean beating the shore. The crisp red color of a blooming rose. Throw in the the looks of your house on a Monday morning and the whole thing goes to shit. Here in my suburban home, I hear lots of my friends and neighbors talking about how overwhelmed they are, and they use cataclysmic words to describe it, like “hellish,” “killing me,” and “horrendous.” See, I think we are all trying to get the brass ring, the holy grail of perfection. And it’s making us all a tad insane.
So, I used to think I couldn’t be a perfectionist because I was so inherently flawed. I procrastinate frequently, measure myself with a somewhat unrealistic yardstick and long for a stamp of approval. Until I realized …tah-dah!… these are the hallmarks of perfectionism. This is not an issue for just a few of us, it’s an unsaid problem in terms of our collective suburban culture. It’s exhausting. I have written about this before, but let’s just come clean here and now. I’m waving the white flag, friends. Perfectionism is not achievement. Not even close.
Did you ever play the game “Perfection”? Where you had to get all the fucking shapes in the proper holes as the timer was tick tick ticking and you could never get it done in time before the whole thing popped up and scared the hell out of you? Doesn’t the suburban juggle sometimes feel that way to you? Get the kids to school, run to work, finish that report, go to the market, clean on the fly finally making it to practice only to get scolded by the soccer coach that you forgot to bring snack? Yikes. At the risk of sounding like I am complaining, it feels a bit, well, overwhelming. Aware that we are lucky to have such blessings as being able to send them to good schools and provide nutritious food, we regard these challenges as hurdles we must attempt to scale. Did our mothers read the nutrition facts on the Wonder bread? Doubt it.
Others have written about this preoccupation with being perfect. Brene Brown writes: Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because it doesn’t exist. It’s an unattainable goal. Then there’s Judith Warner’s 2006 “Perfect Madness” about how mothers create anxiety by obsessing over having the perfect child. Recently, blogger Alva Noe wrote an essay on “Are You Overwhemed? You Don’t Have To Be.” Her assertion is that the 24 hour news cycle not only bombards us with information, it frightens us into hyper-stimulation. She calls it the New Perfectionism. We are sucked into thinking that the terrorists will kill OUR kids, that pesticides on vegetables are poisoning our families, that the newest and latest parenting tome is the answer to our child’s bedwetting and that our marriage could be SO MUCH better if we just adhered the following 20 bullet points. And also, if we don’t take the bull by the horns, subsequent imperfection, anarchy and mass hysteria is ALL YOUR FAULT YOU LAZY COW.
Another book recently addressing this issue is Kaitie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives. If you’ve never read her work, she is razor-sharp in assailing all forms of American culture. Her latest book is a collection of essays on how our culture has bent uncomfortably to the puritanical and conservative. One of my favorite parts is how we all find the chain-smoking, bed-hopping and overtly drunken characters in Mad Men to be so damn refreshing. Charming, even! Sometimes, she suggests, it’s good to be bad. To not tow the line. To not try to be so goddamn healthy all the time. On my recent moms-only trip, I relished the lack of structured exercise time as well as the abundance of chips and guac and margaritas. (Don’t ask me any more about it, though. It’s in the vault.) It’s kind of dull to never fuck up.
Practicing being a perfect suburbanite has in fact, not led to me actually being a perfect suburbanite. I still resist the PTA. I often forget to send lunch money. I wonder what other people think. I let my kids eat macaroni and cheese more than a few times a week. And it’s not organic. My yard is currently overgrown and full of weeds. I have cellulite. I don’t throw fabulous kid parties. As I get older, I am more likely to appreciate that Voltaire is right: Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. What does that mean? For me, it means that I make a healthy lunches most of the time, and write lovey dovey notes in them a few times a year. It means that I wear scruffy clothes and no make up to the store, but can work a cocktail dress when I want. It means that hosting a dinner party can mean take out pizza and beer. It means that the short walk that puts a smile on my dog’s face is better no elevated heart rate at all. It means embracing the messy.
And, through this blog and through writing, sharing a commonality with all of you. The suburbs. Us.
Are you perfect?
Thanks to Barbara Paulsen of Mt. Hood Mama Photos. Her photos are the most perfect parts of this essay.