While I'm making confessions, I would like you all to know that I am not perfect and never will be. I know this sounds a blindingly obvious statement, but it's my equivalent of a first AA meeting. 'I am Mum and I am not perfect.' I grew up believing that if I worked hard enough at at anything, I could get it 'right'. I would never have used the word 'perfect' to describe anything I produced and would have acknowledged that perfection was not possible, but I was taught to do my best, and somehow I never felt that I'd done my best unless I couldn't see any way to make my work better. And I looked harder than most. I was a perfectionist. My poor mother would tear her hair out trying to persuade me that I'd done enough work on a school project -- and as a teacher she would know -- but I always just 'knew' that she was wrong and I could make it better if I kept trying. And you know what? It worked, at least in educational terms. I worked stupidly hard and I earned good results throughout school and university and won a pile of awards and scholarships, and then worked in academic publishing doing a plum job and feeling proud of my efforts there. The flip side was the late nights, the torn-up essays, the missed time that I should have spent enjoying myself, but also the feeling of abject failure in areas of my life where I couldn't make myself better just by working harder. I would never be a netballer. I got hit in the face by a baseball. I fell over a hurdle on athletics day. (None of this was helped by the fact that I was very short-sighted, but nobody picked it up until quite a long way through primary school, by which point my fate as sports failure was sealed.) I also had big, curly hair, that didn't do anything the other girls' hair did. Mousse and gel were invented (yep, I'm ancient) and still my hair did the wrong thing. I was built more solidly than some of the girls and although a starvation diet at the beginning of my teenage years sorted that situation for a while, it wasn't something I could maintain, so food became another area of failure. In later years I became what was then called a 'health food nut' and now seems to be a 'clean eater' (value judgement alert!), then an obsessive gym fan and then a runner, which were great for however-many days or months I lasted, but then left me feeling I'd failed when I had an off day. I wasn't perfect and that bothered me. I was stuck in a life where I set my own standards, and those standards were impossibly high.
Why does any of this matter? Because my Big Boy is a perfectionist. And because perfectionists come unstuck when they enter the adult world, and particularly when they decide to share their lives and homes with others.
So, first of all, The Big Boy. When he started school and wanted everything to be perfect, I was proud of him. (There, I said it. Bad Mummy.) As the years went by and I watched him tear up anything he deemed imperfect and declare himself worthless every time, I suddenly saw that it was all wrong. I had no idea how to fix what I saw as the natural instincts of a clever child, however. He had to make a poster about sharks in Year 2, and his wonderful teacher, knowing that he needed extremely clear learning objectives to prevent endless internet research and mental self-flagellation, sent home a note to say he should find three facts about each of three kinds of shark. I twitched. Surely this wouldn't be good enough? Surely that doesn't mean 'knowing about sharks'? But I kept my twitches to myself and while the poster was torn up once or twice for aesthetic reasons, we didn't have the crisis over what should be on it. We even managed to enjoy part of the weekend instead of sobbing and stressing our way through the entire 48 hours. The following week, the Deputy Head saw the poster and stopped me in the playground to tell me how great it was. In my head I screamed that she was another of the 'doesn't get it' crew and that he could have done so much more and wasn't achieving his potential, but The Big Boy himself was, for once, relaxed. I'll always remember this little episode, as I realised that this parenting lark was going to involve some intense 'relearning' on my part, for both our sakes. (I also lost a twin during the conversation with the Deputy Head, and had a panicky ten minutes until I found him up a tree. Kids have so many special ways to transform an otherwise normal day into an unforgettable event.)
Relearning, then. I wasn't doing too well with relearning or in fact any form of change at this point in my life. The Big Boy was in Year 2 and the twins were in Nursery. Life was completely out of control. I hadn't slept through a night for about 8 years, and was living on chocolate buttons and diet coke, despite stressing constantly about the kids' nutrition. I had added at least fifty percent to my pre-baby weight and BMI, I was not exercising, I had lost my make-up bag, the house was a tip, I forgot everything I ever needed to remember and I was miserable. Everyone else in the whole wide world could do parenting and adulting and humaning better than me. And the harder I tried, the more I felt that I was failing, because things weren't getting any better.
A year after this I started my ADD-vance course on SEN parenting. The first week was not 'keep them safe' or 'help them cope', but 'parental self-care'. We had to put on our own oxygen masks before those of the kids, or, to use a different metaphor, we couldn't pour the entire jug of energy out for our kids and leave ourselves with nothing. A whole host of ways to teach us our that our families would fall apart if we didn't look after ourselves. The theory was good, but I, Little Miss Knows Better, assumed that I could never do it, because I was too useless to stop my son from biting me and I needed to sort that out before I could begin to consider my own needs. So although I became a more confident parent and began to wrap my head around the whole SEN aspect of our lives, I didn't learn about myself. In fact I decided to be a perfectly informed SEN parent and got myself into debt by buying endless books about my children's conditions. I then felt a failure for not reading them all. Around and around on the same old roundabout, until it spat me off the side.
I'm not sure what happened next, or how things have slowly shifted, but I do remember reading a wonderful(ly sweary) book called Unf*ck Your Habitat: You're Better Than Your Mess. What jumped out at me was the author's claim that many people who live in relative squalor are frustrated perfectionists. We can't keep on top of things to the standard we like, so we give up. Yes, yes, and YES. So much of my struggle after having kids was that I couldn't control anything any more, I couldn't just work harder to make things better, and that even if I had time, I was living with the curse of Other People, who don't do things my way (or do things at all). If you're going to be slightly overweight, why not be huge? If your make-up is going to be rushed, why bother with it at all? Who cares about any of it anyway? The freedom in giving up is immense, and trust me when I say that there is plenty of small stuff I will never again sweat. But if you give up your push for perfection without addressing the impulse behind it, you will never feel any better about yourself. And somehow seeing my son start down the road of hating himself has changed me. I have to change for my own sake, but I need to help him to understand and change too, before he hits adulthood and has a thoroughly imperfect experience of life. And so I realise that the self-care week of my ADD-vance course was the most important lesson I never learned. My penance is this crazy non-drinking, all-blogging endeavour, with sponsorship going to ADD-vance so that they can keep on running the courses and trying to teach Mums to stop at 'good enough' and then go for a manicure or play on a phone or take a nap.
I know I'm on my way, because I'm blogging and I don't care that I'm not copy-editing or proofing my posts or using reference books just to get my thoughts down. Imperfect and sober. Watch out world! (And thank you to ADD-vance x)