My very nearly eight-year-old played Flounder in an amateur kids’ production of The Little Mermaid musical this weekend. I expected to be emotional (lots of welling up and wiping away tears: check!), proud (heart wildly drumming seeing her so confident and happy on stage: check!) and tired (check: it’s been months leading up to this, four performances in one weekend and I wasn’t even the one that involved!).
What I didn’t expect was to be revisited by my lifelong frenemy, perfectionism.
Perfectionism snuck up on me as I found myself assessing her and weighing up whether I felt this was something worth encouraging her to invest her time and energy in, in the future (I do think it is). I could justify going through this process by saying that our shared resources are limited so it makes sense to think about where her natural gifts lie and funnel into those.
But in so doing, I caught myself viewing not only her but all my children as less than my equal. I suspect I’m not the only parent who falls into the trap of treating their children as products to be invested in rather than full-blooded people with the right to pursue things simply because they bring them joy. When Laurence tells me he wants to do something, I don’t interrogate whether he’s likely to be the best at it. I just want him to be happy.
But I struggle to do this with my kids and I wonder whether it’s because I struggle to do it with myself. I have a lifetime of avoiding the possibility of failure. If I suspect I won’t be good at something instantly then I’m likely to either not try it at all or procrastinate until fear of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To complicate it further, success for me is very much in the eye of an external beholder. So it’s not just a case of avoiding trying something because I’m afraid I won’t live up to my own standards but because I’m constantly self-assessing based on the feedback I feel I’m getting from others. This is all pretty toxic territory for me to make camp in myself let alone invite my kids into, even if unwittingly.
It’s not all black and white. Perfectionism has helped motivate me to fine tune things, to push myself further, to increase my knowledge and even my empathy. But it has also been a stick to beat myself with.
When I break down, feeling that I just can’t manage being a mother, it’s usually because I despair at finding putting principles into practice terribly hard. I find it difficult to mobilise out of feeling overwhelmed so I can turn mistakes and shortcomings into learning.
I disconnect from others when I imagine they don’t see what I want them to see. This is not a healthy way to be human. I don’t want it for myself and I certainly don’t want to model it for anyone else, especially the little people I love most.
I have been trying to tackle this. I’m also very good at becoming perfectionist about not being perfectionist, which is unsurprisingly unhelpful. And even as I began to wallow in annoyance at myself for struggling this way, my almost eight year old showed me the way out.
When we debriefed the experience of being in this play, she talked about it only in the terms of community and the way it made her feel. She was telling me that thing had value because it was fun. The only way to start shifting out of the endless cycle of self-assessment is to take risks by learning to play.
In a sense, every time I write something here or elsewhere, I am risking not saying something in the way I want it heard and maybe even risking you not liking what I’ve said. But it’s still a bit of a comfort zone because I’ve had a fair bit of practice.
When I stepped back this weekend and saw what I was doing with my little-not-so-little girl at a time when I should have simply been enjoying what she was enjoying, I realised that I must take bigger steps to rip up my own straitjacket. And actually, taking the stage myself will probably be a start.
Over the past months I’ve been writing a collection of poetry, Dreamworlds: Everywhere at Once, about how moving countries and transitionary experiences can change us. I’ll be sharing poems from this collection at Penzance Literary Festival next month and hopefully popping up a booklet here too.
This experience taps into all my triggers around perfectionism, self-assessment and being enough. It has been and continues to be an insistent invitation to stop hand wringing and learn to play.
I know it’s only a start and that prising free of perfectionism is likely to be a life’s work but… I’m not about to get perfectionist about that either.