I remember the moment I first became a perfectionist. It was a cold winter evening around 6 p.m. My father had just returned from work and was taking his first real breath of the day behind his faux granite bar with the padded tangerine vinyl facade. I sat across from him on one of the matching vinyl bar stools in my Lanz of Salzburg nightgown, my long locks pulled tightly into a neat ponytail. I am 9 or 10 and have just received my mid term grades. I can’t wait to show them to my father. We had a rule that we had to wait at least 10 minutes from the moment he walked into the house before we bombarded him with all of the critically important information we had gleaned throughout the day. My 10 minutes were finally up.
“Dad,” I eagerly started, “Wanna see my report card?”
“Of course,” he smiled with the warmth that assured me of his sincerity.
I showed him my prized tally of grades that reflected how hard I had worked all semester. “Almost all ‘As’,” I boasted. “Just two ‘Bs’ in social studies and shop. And that’s just because I was scared to use that circular saw.”
My father perused the report card closely, his expression as neutral as a high stakes poker player. “Well,” he said gently, “If that’s the best you can do…”
I remember the sinking feeling in my chest. I felt unsteady, as if someone had pulled the carpet out from beneath me. I nearly toppled off the barstool. My best? Well, of course that’s not my best. I can do better! I can! I am smart and worthy of your love. I will never disappoint you again! Never!
I actually said nothing out loud. But the horror of all my self doubts screamed so loud inside my head that I couldn’t hear anything my father might have said to lessen the sting of his comment. “If that’s the best you an do…”
I never got another B in school. I drove myself like an animal. I could not accept anything lower than an A from that moment forward. Throughout middle school, high school, even college, I never forgot the stabbing pain of my father’s disappointment at my better than average academic performance. I had let him down and it would never happen again.
Clearly this sits at the core of many of my “issues” to this day. I cannot tolerate letting people down. I will go to ridiculous lengths to finish projects, follow through on obligations, and complete even the most insignificant tasks with the fierce dedication and commitment of a soldier whose mission it is to save the world from the forces of evil. It’s really a sickness.
I have also achieved many amazing things in my life and past careers. I cannot blame my father without also acknowledging that he lit a fire inside me that enabled me to fight relentlessly and never accept mediocrity. A gift? A curse? I’m really not sure. Perhaps a little of both.
Which brings me to today. My kind, smart, funny, creative 12 year old son, Levi, got his 6th grade final report card. “Mom,” he asked the moment he entered the car, “Do you think that 2 “Bs” are bad? I mean, if everything else is an “A”?” I struggled to answer. Clearly there is a right and a wrong response to this question that will set my son up for either a lifetime of failure and disappointment or years of stellar achievement and accomplishment. I am dumbstruck. What to say?
“What were the “Bs” in?” I ask non-judgmentally.
“Hebrew and Social Studies,” he answers. “And my social studies teacher was the hardest teacher at the school.”
“I certainly don’t think that’s bad,” I stammer, “I would have liked to have seen all “As” of course. But it could have been worse. Are you happy with these grades?”
“Well, I really wanted to get all “As”,” he shared, “But I think I’m pretty okay with how I did.”
“Great,” I tried to smile genuinely, “As long as you’re satisfied with yourself. That’s all anyone can ever ask of you.”
But this particular issue about grades seems even more potent for me. What is a parent supposed to say? Truthfully, I was disappointed that he didn’t get all “As”. But I’m pretty sure that’s because I have a skewed view of reality that doesn’t allow for me to make mistakes. So how can I overcome my own issues in order to accept my son for who he is, even if sometimes who he is isn’t perfect.
I have to tell you, I spend an inordinate amount of time wondering which of my many maternal missteps will poison my children’s developing psyches. I have truly developed this type of worrisome brooding into an art form. Whether its a careless public comment about an unzipped zipper or an insensitive wrist slap as one of my boys reaches for their fifth brownie at Thanksgiving dinner, I am certain that I am, or will be, the reason my children end up deeply disturbed, depressed, or at least depicted in numerous chapters of the DSM-VII (or whatever number it is by the time they’re in therapy.)
By accepting our kids as they are, are we encouraging them somehow to be less than they are capable of becoming? Does that even make sense? I want my son to be happy and well adjusted. I also want him to work hard and achieve because he has the capacity to accomplish great things in his life. How do you instill work ethic, determination, and tenacity while also allowing for imperfection, error and the occasional foul-up?
This is hard, parenting. I want to do it right so badly. But I don’t even know what right looks like most of the time. Anybody have the answer to this one?