For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a perfectionist. I’ve struggled with accepting myself as good enough, with accepting my identity in Christ. And now, as a mother of two young kids, I have to wrestle with how to combat this perfectionism in my parenting and in the example I set for them.
I can trace my perfectionism back to when I was in fourth grade. I wore gold-rimmed glasses and a plaid jumper, part of our school uniform. Our classroom smelled like chalk dust, pencil shavings, and old metal desks. It was Friday afternoon, and the sun poured in from the large windows. Our 14-person class buzzed with whispers and murmurs.
“Hush!” said Mrs. Sterling, shaking her gray-topped head. “These are your report cards. They are in order, so just take the top one and pass the pile back.”
Several classmates peeked at the report cards, and the gossip swept across the room like wildfire.
“Poor Bethany, she’s the only girl who didn’t get straight As!” Jennifer (not her real name) croaked, her blonde bob bouncing as she peeked back at me as if to say, “I hope you heard that.”
Her mocking tone set off my 10-year-old-sized endocrine system. Heart pumping, fists balled. That’s it! I’m never going to let her say that again! I’m going to get straight As from now on.
I spent my evenings on a wooden dining-room chair, underneath the harsh overhead lights, doing math equations or practicing spelling words until my butt was sore and my eyes were squinty.
My struggle for perfection continued through my high school years and beyond. At my small liberal arts college, I met other perfectionists. We spent our nights and weekends chained to library chairs, noses to books, lungs barely exhaling beneath the quiet roar of pages turning, fingers typing, brains churning.
Now as a wife and mother, my perfectionism comes out in different ways.
I obsess over the cleanliness (or lack of cleanliness) of our home whenever guests come to visit. I feel guilty if I haven’t spent enough alone time with my husband. I feel guilty when my toddler watches too much TV or doesn’t eat enough veggies or when I order pizza for dinner instead of cooking a meal. I read my toddler at least 10 books a day and bristle with pride when the doctor tells me his vocabulary is advanced for his age.
When I had just one kid, at the end of the day I felt like I was doing a pretty good job as a parent. I was doing enough. But now I have a 2-year-old boy and a 2-month-old girl. I get to the end of the day and feel like I’ve barely survived some days.
I often feel like my parenting is just putting out one fire after another. Changing one diaper, then another. Sweeping up crushed Goldfish crackers then scrubbing green crayon off the walls. I know that my parenting is supposed to be purposeful, building the character of my kids. But a lot of days, it feels like I’m just chasing my tail, or rather, chasing my toddler and nursing my baby.
One day, I was completely exhausted, trying to do it all. I plopped down on the couch and prayed, “God, I don’t know how to do this. I can’t do this.” I was then reminded of something important.
The thing Jesus says is the most important thing: love God and love people.
I had a eureka moment. I realized that was all God was calling me to do as a parent, to train up my kids to love God and to love others. All the small things—the books and grades, the nutrition and exercise, the messes and discipline struggles—don’t matter that much. It’s not that they don’t matter at all, but they aren’t the main thing.
I felt a weight lift off me. “God, help me to raise my kids to love you and to love others,” I prayed. I pray that prayer every day now. I take deep breaths and pray it when I feel overwhelmed, when I feel perfectionism trying to take over.
I still struggle daily with perfectionism. But now, I’m beginning to find rest in focusing my life and my parenting on that one truth.