When I was younger, in my certainty-loving, ultra-controlled churches, there was a right way to hurt and a wrong way. Comfort and compassion were for those who had done no wrong, who had been brave, who had managed to save a few people on their way out of the burning building. Comfort and compassion waited to see how you would handle your grief.
Asking questions or pointing out flaws, especially of those in authority, turned into a me-problem. My tone. My disrespect. My ingratitude.
Prophets are told their anxiety disqualifies them. Anxiety is the thing that tells you something is off, friends. Of course prophets have anxiety. Maybe not chronically, but also, maybe chronically.
Helpers are told to withhold grace. They must choose between quenching the spirit and obeying authority while everybody waits for the hurting person to say the magic words.
I believe we can do better, but we have to get rid of some things first. We have to get rid of certainty and hierarchy. We have to welcome back the prophets, and embrace mystery and belonging.
Tolerance of question-askers and mess-makers is not the goal. Those are the prophets, the new day welcomers. They are essential. They should be celebrated.
I’m 38! The most exciting year! Just kidding. There’s nothing magical about 38. Except that this is the year my book comes out. If you’d told 18-year-old or even 28-year-old me it would take this long to meet this particular life goal, I’d probably have felt a little sad, to be honest. I’ve always wanted to write a book, and 38 sounded ancient.
But it’s not. Thirty-eight is just old enough to really get into some healing. To know what I mean when I say “perfectionism is killing you.” If I’d started this journey before 38, I could not have enjoyed it. It’s taken me exactly this long to prepare myself to be able to handle my life. My messy, joyful, sometimes making it harder than it needs to be life.
Until now, a book would have joined the pile of other amazing things I was not able to enjoy. It would have been, like everything else, a living contradiction: you have everything you want, Bekah. Why can’t you enjoy it?
Because it could be better. Life, the book, the kids, the marriage.
Because I could lose it. Life, the book, the kids, the marriage.
Because I’m too busy trying to maintain it, thinking it all depends on me. Life, the book, the kids, the marriage.
My knuckles blanched white on the steering wheel, I found no joy in climbing the mountain of perfection. This year, I hope you and I both find a road less icy, less steep, where we can enjoy the ride. Maybe even an exit ramp, down hill, wide lane, with gorgeous views and places to stop for photos and picnics. Or even a gas station for some junk food.
The first, rebellious thing we do is to say, “what if I have the thing I’m still striving for?”
What if I have goodness?
Even if the goodness is just opening our eyes to another day, or putting our heads on our pillow at the end—that’s the start of an exit ramp. To hear God’s declaration that we are good. Creation is good. God is good. That’s the beginning of an exit ramp from the mountain that tells us it’s never enough, always in danger, and up to us to maintain it.
I want more health, more wholeness, more security and equity for everyone as well, don’t get me wrong, the work doesn’t stop. This is not weaponized contentment, an admonition to be happy with your lot in life. The mountain isn’t the work. The mountain is the reason for the work: the belief that the goal is to reach the elusive top.
The work is what we’re here to do. But I want my work—life, book, family, marriage—to be joy, not perfectionism. I’m taking notes from adrienne maree brown’s vision of Pleasure Activism. And Diana Butler Bass’s spirituality in Freeing Jesus. And from my own, riotous children.
So I hope that you enjoy hundreds of things this year, whether they are tiny daily graces or huge life goals. I hope we all see progress, and enjoy each step forward. I hope we have victories, and stick around to enjoy the after party.
This is the first in a multi-part series in which I talk about mental health through metaphors in the natural world. Because mental health should be part of our natural worlds. As much as we tend our skin, muscles, and bones we should do for our brains and nervous system. Our spirit, God’s Spirit, is not apart from the stuff of the earth—it moves through it, is a part of it.
A few weeks ago I went birding for the first time in a long while. It’s so rewarding to look at birds when the trees have no leaves. Even though the idea of bird watching in full blossom of spring is nice, it’s hard to see through the leaves.
In 2013 I started birding when I joined our area’s Master Naturalist program. I was 29, and, as my friends joked, living someone’s grandfather’s best life. I wasn’t retired, technically. I was working in travel marketing and writing more and more frequently for a startup nonprofit newsroom that would become the San Antonio Report.
I was retired in that I was exploring things I’d never done when I was pursuing a brief, ill-advised career in ministry. I had neglected hobbies not because I had been consumed in more important things, but because I had been conditioned not to be curious. Instead of being curious, I had been keeping busy.
I had come to believe that the most valuable use of my spare time was reading the recommended books and attending church social functions at large houses in nice neighborhoods, all involving some subcategory of the church population (women, singles, etc) making small talk over buffet food, or sitting down to listen to someone in authority talk about sin in a way specific to the assembled demographic.
This was what I wanted. A cohesive, singular social group where everyone affirmed my life decisions. We would all grow old together, honing our beliefs and behaviors. I was living a leafy life, full of external symbols that everything was fine, with no time to notice the birds in the trees.
When I left total immersion in church culture by way of the spectacular collapse of my ministry career, I was in the same social place as the empty nester retiring to a warmer climate—but the angry type of retiree who shouts at youths.
My calendar was empty. My job was just a job, not the kind of “calling” I’d thought I had (that would change once I got over myself). Nights and weekends felt like a void, so I filled them with writing and, eventually, birding. Others might have gone for heavy drinking or carousing, but I don’t do things that interfere with my habit of reading before bed. Yes, I was born this old.
My first two birding experiences were designed to get me, a beginner, hooked.
At Mitchell Lake, a manmade wetland system south of San Antonio, birds stop over while returning from their winter homes in Central and South America. More than 98% of migratory birds travel through the funnel of Mexico and South Texas before fanning out across the US to their summer habitats.
Mitchell Lake is a rare body of water in the dry plains of South Texas. In the spring it is a birder’s paradise, with exotic and common water fowl, predators, and song birds. They land in the various ponds and tanks, easy to spot and identify.
On that first trip, I didn’t need to look into the trees, because there were so many birds to see out in the open. My head was spinning from the variety of plovers, cormorants, and flycatchers, which I was only just learning to differentiate from a “duck” or a “bird.”
A few weeks later, as part of my Master Naturalist volunteer hour requirements, I manned the children’s blind at the Kreutzberg Canyon May Day celebration. Sitting in the large plywood box with a plexiglass window overlooking some bird feeders, I helped about 40 squirming children spot their first painted bunting, the most gratifying of all song birds.
Male painted buntings have brilliant indigo heads, scarlet backs and bellies, and tiers of green and chartreuse along their wings. My friend Tina has one tattooed on her arm, an homage to their daring beauty. (Tina is also a daring beauty and bird lover.) The female painted buntings, like the rest of the bird kingdom, are more practically dressed, but even their shades of green seem impossibly exotic for South Texas, alongside the subtle grays and browns of our mockingbirds and wrens.
Seeing a painted bunting would make even the most screen-addicted indoorsman consider taking up some casual birdwatching.
Some of the May Day kids would get frustrated if they didn’t see a bunting right away. Their exhausted parents, happy to sit in the shaded blind for a while, tried to ease the children into a peaceful sit-and-watch, but the kids were clearly anxious that they were missing the good stuff.
I knew how they felt. My own jaw was perpetually clenched as well. I too was anxious about everything I was missing. Not in the bird blind, but in life.
Professionally, I was starting from scratch while my grad school peers were finally starting to land adequately paying jobs in exciting cities. They were getting promoted, and I had barely started “putting in my time.”
I was angry. I felt like my entire life had been a set up.
Growing up, nothing had been more important than Jesus. Our lives revolved around the church. I went to Christian schools. By the time I was 23 I had attended over 2,000 worship services. When I dreamed big, I dreamed about doing big things for Jesus.
By contrast, the “world” outside the church was dangerous and full of compromise. Succeeding there could mean trading your soul. Of course I had wanted a ministry career! (Here I deleted a loooong digression about how “succeeding” in ministry might be more dangerous to your soul than Wall Street, Washington, or Hollywood.)
But “want” is a scary word for women in conservative religious traditions. In “wanting” to write, teach, and build an actual career, I was a grenade with the pin barely in for most of my time employed by the church. Of course it didn’t work out!
(Here I deleted another looooong digression about how preacher bros will tell you they don’t have a “career,” they have a “calling” or a “ministry,” and it operates by different rules, different metrics. In theory, sure. In practice, that’s complete bullshit. Demand receipts.)
Not only was I starting from scratch, but I was doing so with a lot of pent up anger. Therapy became a regular part of my life.
Gaining language is a critical part of every journey. I had to open myself up to words like “kingfisher” and “chickadee” and “scissor-tail” in order to be a successful birder. Meanwhile, I had to open myself up to words like “bitterness,” “disappointment,” and “anger” if I was going to have a balanced life moving forward.
As leaves — the rules and rhythms of church life, the social values of the polite people who went there—fell from the tree, it was becoming easier to see some of the birds in my trees.
“Birds” like my need to hear, “this is the right answer,” in order to proceed.
Like my mistrust for any voice other than condemnation.
Like anger and hurt.
The leaves eventually came back to the tree as I began to enjoy my new career path, downtown marriage, and travel. Lots and lots of travel. It was a springtime of life again, and I was busy frolicking, tending here and there to the birds I knew about, but only when I felt like doing so.
I knew about the angry birds (ha!) in the tree, the cynical birds, the bitter birds. But I had no idea what else was in there. Other birds are harder to see.
This is true in nature as well. The dense, old-growth ash juniper trees that terrorize allergy sufferers throughout central Texas are home to the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. They are hard to see.
Ash juniper is abundant, but each warbler needs its own mature tree. Real estate and ranching are competing with them for space. Texas Parks and Wildlife conducts surveys to track the population and ensure their habitat is protected.
When I showed up at Honey Creek State Natural Area for the surveys with my basic binoculars, wide-brim sunhat and short-sleeve hiking shirt, I quickly realized that in wilderness birding, this was not the right look. These were not the sunny walkways of Mitchell Lake or the tended blinds of Kreutzberg Canyon.
After three early morning hours of crawling through uncleared brush, trying to get closer to the dense corona of ash juniper, my arms were red and swollen with irritated scrapes, my hat had nearly garroted me several times, and my binoculars were banged up from where rocks and my own knees had knocked them around as they swung wildly from my neck.
Surveying warblers relies almost entirely on sound—their song sounds like “La Cucaracha.” It’s easy to spot, thankfully, but while we walked, the more experienced members of the team would quietly pick out the numerous other song birds in the early morning symphony, going only by sound.
Sounds in general are difficult for me. I cannot “just ignore” things I don’t want to hear or focus on only the things I do want to hear. Birding by sound requires the ability to do just that, and more.
The birder stands in silence, letting sounds of rustling leaves, babbling brooks, and distant highways pass in and out of their consciousness. If surveying for the diversity of species on a piece of land, birders log the species of each unique song.
When surveying for the population of a single species, rather than diversity, the listening game is upped, considerably. Birders must know the territorial range of a bird. Once they hear one bird, they must know how far away will they have to go before hearing another. At the edge of one territory they stop and listen. They listen closer to determine the direction of the call, and whether the bird is on the move.
It is almost impossible to bird by ear while preoccupied or distracted. Unless you live in the most dense urban jungle, birdsongs are part of earth’s constant cacophony. They are the ambient noise of morning, springtime, and idyll. To find the one she is looking for, a birder must be, above all else, present.
I am not good at being present. In addition to being a generally loud place, my mind is either worried about what it should be doing or longing for what it could be doing.
And thus, I misplace things constantly, miss critical details, and probably should drive less.
I once drove 30 miles past my exit on the freeway because my mind was replaying a distressing conversation I’d had at the event I’d just left. People would sometimes use the term “spacing out” to describe this full-bodied distraction, but that sounds blissfully opposite of what I am usually doing in my head, which looks more like a cross between the trading floor at the NY Stock Exchange and the tilt-er-whirl at the county fair.
Once I had kids, I became even less present.
My career was starting to gain steam when I decided to go ahead and get pregnant. I was 30, and several friends had recently shared their difficulty getting pregnant in their late 30s. They advised me not to wait too long. I don’t regret taking their advice, because the egg on deck turned out to be Moira. I am certain that I only had one egg in my entire stash with the mix of confidence, pizazz, and intensity that is Moira Sage McNeel. I’m really glad we fertilized it.
My heart expanded to accommodate her, so intense was the love…but it was always present. My whole mind, whole heart, and whole attention were no longer available to anything but her.
But even she did not get my undivided presence, because the unbearable scarcity of time leaked into most of our moments as I wondered “is she happy enough with that teething ring for me to try to get some work done?” “Will she nap long enough for me to finish this story?”
Choosing to work as a mom—not needing to, but choosing to—was controversial in the world I came from. Women were encouraged to give into the ravenous, all-consuming desire of children who say Machiavellian things like “don’t go to work, mommy. Stay with me!”
The leaves had once again begun to fall off the tree as I saw my birds of insecurity over how to discipline her, and my perfectionism birds needing to prove that a working mom could still be a super mom.
But my daughter was amenable to coming along on reporting assignments, errands, and a work trip to Argentina. Her need for me seemed to be mostly a mild preference. I could actually “do it all” with her.
She left enough leaves on the tree for some birds to hide.
Two years later her brother arrived, just as her intensity hit full-on two-year-old. I didn’t have feel like I had time to go to counseling when I needed to. The tree was stripped bare.
From our first night in the hospital, Asa has not been able to sleep unless he is touching someone, preferably me. I had to wear him in a sling at all times. If he had his way, we would hold hands forever. As a baby, he would stare deep into my eyes until he fell asleep. This morning, four years later, he told me, “I want to just be everywhere you are so we’ll never be apart.”
It’s as sweet as it sounds, and I feel so lucky to be loved like that. Also true: I’m very, very tired.
He forgets nothing, and has a will of iron. He weened and potty trained himself with almost no intervention from me or any other adult, so I’m certain one day he’ll use it all for the greater good.
My heart expanded again to accommodate him, but my energy did not. My career kept growing. My children were beautiful. My marriage was strong. But I was completely unable to enjoy it. I could not keep the leaves on the tree.
This was different than the first winter. It wasn’t a strong gust of disappointment and sudden change that cleared the leaves. This time it was just the tree, unable to hold on in the middle of everything going fabulously.
For most of 2016 and 2017, I was a bald pile of nerves and pathos, hastily swept into the shape of a human each morning, only to unravel into tears, keening, stuttering, and pacing by night.
Things were grim.
If you knew me in this time, and you are thinking “I had no idea!” don’t worry. If you suspected and pushed, like my husband did, I probably bit your head off. The worse off I am, the less likely I am to show it, the less I want to talk about it, except to tell curated stories about how I’m taking it all in stride. Pro tip: I’m NEVER taking it all in stride. Where do you think those intense, iron-willed children came from?
Inherent to my particular disposition is the compulsion to “power through.” It took four years for me to get the kind of help I needed, and the tree remained bare until then. Once I got myself back into therapy (a more intensive version this time), it was time to take a look at the birds deep in the branches.
First I saw the anxiety twittering on the bare branches like a kinglet, nervously hopping from branch to branch just in case a meal is buzzing by. Then I heard the cry of sensory processing issues, shrill and defiant like a jay. Then the obsessing and compulsions like the phoebe, which bobs her tail to let the predators know she’s onto them.
I had a lot of leaves on my trees before I lost my first career and had kids. Lots of rules I could keep, lots of activities I could do, lots of people I could consult. Warmed by long days of sunny consensus, my leaves converted all that agreement into frenetic energy and hid my inner self from observation.
If my leaves had not fallen off, if I had had the evergreen life I wanted, I never would have known the birds that lived in my tree. If everything thing had not fallen apart, and if I had not then fallen apart when everything else was going great, I never would have gotten a clear view of my deeply held beliefs, some of which, it turns out, are fully developed neuroses.
As I’ve gotten to know their nuances, not just the bright buntings, but the shades of wren-brown and dove-grey, the birds in my tree have become less confusing, and easier to predict. There’s nothing wrong with an evergreen life, but I’m thankful that mine has included at least two bleak winters. I’m thankful for a season in which there’s no way to miss the birds. Now that the leaves are coming back, the birds are still in there, so it’s good to know what they are up to.
The ongoing work of rooting out perfectionism in my life and habits—and replacing it with Gospel truth—was going really well. I was finding my joy in the work, not the praise for the work. I was finding it easier to shrug and say, “That could have gone better.” I wasn’t freaking out whenever I had to talk to someone from my past about why we are making decisions so out of line with the way “we were raised.” I was more comfortable thinking, “not everyone is going to like you, agree with you, or even respect you.”
So. Much. Rooting!
And then school started.
A new school. A school where my children would trade free-spirited attire for uniforms. Trade Montessori exploration for dual-language rigor. Trading a school where our socioeconomic lifestyle is the norm, to a school that is intentionally diverse in that regard.
First were the fears: will they think my children are spoiled? Entitled? Undisciplined? Will my kids feel “weird” because they look different than most of their peers? Will they react poorly to the Spanish immersion?
And if they do…will they be seen as “bad kids?”
The first week did a lot to assuage my fears. Things seemed to be going swimmingly. Then came the bad reports. I won’t go into the details of our week of discipline issues and struggles to get to the bottom of what appears to be an adjustment from Montessori, coupled with a bright, strong-willed kid’s spirit.
The important part is that it took our family into the next phase of perfection detox. Or rather, it threw us into the deep end of that phase and held our heads under for a week.
I regret to report that on day one, the bad report caught me off guard. instead of listening to my kid and talking about it rationally, I let my own shame (“they must not discipline their kids”) run the show.
I knew it, I thought, we should have been harder on them. We should have been more authoritarian, because now they will have no respect for authority. They are going to be labeled a bad kids. One of them going to go to jail.
(I’ve been reporting on the school-to-prison pipeline, which will make a neurotic mess out of anyone.)
I took that shame—which is not based in fact, we totally discipline our kids—and tried to appease my own psyche by cramming 5 years of deferred harshness into one ride home from school.
I pushed until I got the tears I thought were appropriate. I roared. I growled. I latched on like a hungry animal and did not let up until my poor sobbing child was just “sorry.”
And friends, let me tell you, to add to my guilt: out of those deepest sobs, my kid was able to say, “Mommy that voice that you are using is making my brain freak out and I can’t think.”
My small child, the one I feel it necessary to eat alive, is telling me that I’ve activated their amygdala and am now working against myself.
This might be among my bottom ten parenting moments. No, bottom five. Easily bottom five.
It’s not that kids never need the hip check or attitude adjustment. And it’s not that those things can’t involve tears and tough love. It’s that the entire interaction was based on my fear, my embarrassment, and the unresolved issues I have that I’m not “doing it right” when it comes to parenting.
The fear that I’m not spanking when I should.
The fear that I’m letting my kids have too many choices, and letting them ask “why?”
The fear that I should not be reasoning with them.
Notice I’m not even mentioning my husband, who has just as much to do with our parenting choices as I do. He’s an amazing parent, and I take joy in how present and accountable he is. Dads are critical to identity formation and human development. But in the world of parenting shame and regret, I, like many moms, bear it alone.
Dads aren’t socially accountable for the scars, the baggage, the neurosis caused by their interactions with their kids. Dads have been allowed to, if they want, just be themselves, however destructive that may be, and it will be buffered and balanced by Mom. Mom, in the model of the 80’s and 90’s, is the expert parent, the one who has to get it right.
The converse, in this model, is true as well. A competent dad can’t make up for a failing mom, and if your kids are “bad,” you, Mom, aren’t getting it right.
But I reject that. And so I began the work of replacement.
As bad as that first day was, with 5-year-old Bekah snarling at her children, the next few days were a slow climb to “better.” Not great. But better.
Day two: The basics. My view of my children will inform their views of themselves, and they need to see that my love is not contingent on their ability to follow directions.
Not just my love, but my delight in them. The Bible says that God sings over us. He delights in us because we are his…even though we elicit other emotions (anger, sadness, etc), the delight is deeper, it comes from a more permanent place. My kids need to know that I don’t begrudge their place in my heart. I relish it.
While a stern word is merited sometimes, they should never feel like my kindness toward them is something to be given or taken away based on their behavior. Even if my affection is the thing they want most, and taking it away would be the best motivator to make them behave, it’s not on the table. Hugs are not gold stars. Hugs are air.
So I had to decide: is having lunch with my daughter a reward, or an expression of love? Is snuggling with my son before bed his privilege, or my delight?
Day three: Putting it into practice. My children should never expect criticism from me. They should expect love and acceptance. In that context correction stands out, catches their attention, and helps them make better choices.
This is also the day I called in the reserves. I reached out to friends who have experience with small children, their own and those they teach. I asked them how they would address the issue, and what I should be thinking about as I prepare for each new report.
Shame isolates us. I think it isolates moms in an especially cruel way.
So many women have been defined by motherhood, with the fruit of their labor being the performance of their kids. In that economy it’s hard to fight perfectionistic parenting. Which draws us deeper into trying to prove how awesome our kids are…which just exacerbates the anxiety of the other parents. I don’t blame social media either. This can happen in the pick up line, on play dates, at birthday parties, at church. This happens wherever kids, like prize goats at the fair, are being lined up for ribbons, real or imagined.
In order to reach out to friends, I had to remember that my identity doesn’t come from having “awesome kids.” It comes from being a loved child of God. And he loves me no matter how my kids behave. Better yet, he loves THEM no matter how they behave.
My kids know this. If you ask them who loves them, even right after they get in trouble, they will say Mom, Dad, and Jesus (in random orders). Then they will go on to add grandparents, aunts and uncles, caregivers, and their teachers.
Day four: Advocating for celebration. I looked for ways to build on my kids’ views of themselves as “loved” so doing good things and blessing their teachers with cooperation might fit with their imaginations of themselves. If they are kind, brave, curious, creative people…then they can do the things that match.
Day five: By day five, we had turned a corner. We were joyful, talking constantly about how we could show love and respect, and what are the benefits of focusing in class. We were practicing self-control at home, but in ways that were not punitive or high stakes.
Our journey is just beginning. We have many years of school, of bad news, bad reports, bad grades, lost games, lost uniforms, lost homework. But even if these are daily occurrences for the next 13 years, it will not change our love for our kids.
I also anticipate lots of “bad reports”, precisely because our kids know that they are loved and accepted and celebrated. I never doubted my parents love, but somewhere along the line I picked up an approval addiction, and believed the lie that I had to perform to be accepted. So much of my own good behavior is based on my addiction to approval, and my need of external confirmation to justify my existence. Good grades. Good daughter. Good friend. Good worker. Good wife. Good mom. And good becomes best, and best becomes perfect, and suddenly, anything short of perfect is worthless.
If my kids’ identities are more secure, they will probably experiment and push more. They will not hide their failures. Which means I will have to learn to deal with them. I will have to grow up all over again, this time with two sets of impressionable eyes watching me.
I’ve rotated between the usual lenten abstinences for years. Dessert, alcohol, meat, soda, dessert, alcohol, dessert, dessert, etc. I’ll be honest, that usually there’s a ulterior motive of shedding a few pounds, or kickstarting a healthy habit.
A few years ago, I was introduced to proactive Lent, wherein you replace the thing you’ve given up with some discipline—Bible reading, service, prayer, Scripture memory.
This year, I decided to think really hard about what to give up for Lent, and what to replace it with. Thinking really hard these days, for me the working mom, usually happens when I’m woken up at 3am but a tiny elbow to the jaw, or on the way to pick my kids up from school.
Simultaneously, but not coincidentally, I’ve been getting very serious about the destructive perfectionism that has crippled me since having children. I was a perfectionist long before children, but I was functional. With baby one I became, shall we say, compromised in my abilities. Baby number two sent me into full fragility. But because it was perfectionist fragility, you may not have known.
I didn’t ever think about myself as a perfectionist, because I’m not super detail oriented, not obsessive about the condition of my house, appearance, or children. However, my perfectionism runs along a deeper, subterranean channel. The definition of perfect was set during my childhood from a mix of family and cultural expectations: perfection is effortless, universal, well-rounded admirability to which I must be totally oblivious and toward which I must be totally ambivalent.
“She doesn’t know how pretty she is.”
“It comes easily to her.”
“All that and a heart of gold.”
“With all she has going for her, she could be totally full of herself, but she’s super down to earth.”
When I wished on stars as a child, I wished that I could be skinny without trying. My worst nightmare was to get the “most improved” trophy in sports, because effortless mastery, not hard work was my goal. In 8th grade a girl who (probably with good reason) wanted to hurt me found the perfect insult, “She’s perfect, and she knows it.”
“She knows it.” That clause turned what would have been a sort of weak, gen-x-ish insult into total melt-down devastation.
The other way my perfectionism revealed itself by its shifting goal posts. Whatever I lacked, whatever superlative I could not effortlessly achieve, that became the one thing that mattered. If I deliver my children to school clean, fed, and rested, but didn’t volunteer to be a reading buddy—then I’d immediately remember that article I read about how “parental involvement” was the single greatest determiner in a child’s success. If I was invited to moderate a panel at a public event, but saw an unflattering photo of myself doing it, I heard a voice saying, “It’s so sad that someone who has to be in front of people is so unphotogenic.”
I couldn’t enjoy my professional success, my lovely children, my delightful marriage, or my totally functional body because I always lacked…something. And thus, lacked the perfection I really wanted.
The turn of screw there is that we live in a culture where experts vie for the final word on sleep, child rearing, diet, sex, budget, philanthropy, race relations, education, worship, and how to clean your mother f-ing house…you cannot win that game. It is intrinsically impossible to live according to the experts, because they contradict one another. And before my Bible-people say “just live by God’s rules” don’t even get me started on the contradictory things I’ve been taught from various pulpits in my life.
At the heart of perfectionism is a powerless subjectivity, a need to fit everyone’s description of perfect. It’s a world where you are your own worst enemy, because becoming aware of any strength nullifies that strength, so you have to focus in stead on your weaknesses. Non-perfectionists see this as a quest to “perfect” the weaknesses, and, yes, that is part of it. But deep deep down, dwelling on weakness is the safe zone. It’s the place where I will not come off as arrogant, where I won’t risk ruing the admiration I receive by becoming aware of it.
This perfectionism is crippling my parenting, stealing my joy, and hurting my family, so I’ve been on a multi-year journey, slowed by postpartum anxiety, to get free.
Which brings us back to Lent 2019.
I gave up dessert.
Allow me to explain.
In Amy Poehler’s (highly-recommended) autobiography, Yes, Please, she talks about “the pudding” as the accolades and awards that can crowd out an artist’s focus on her work. The subjective preferences and shifting tastes that can cause someone to compromise what they know is good for what will get them recognition. In her world, that’s the temptation to make “Oscar-bait” and the Emmy version thereof.
While she admits, “pudding is delicious,” Poehler also cautions against it’s seductive, distracting nature, and reminds us that, “The doing of the thing is the thing.”
She compares awards and all that to pudding because it’s totally superfluous and we don’t need it. Sugar burns fast, and you’re left wanting more and getting very little from it, except a fleeting high.
My perfectionism runs on the pudding. In my world, that is retweets, “some personal news,” fellowships, headlines, good stuff in the comment section, mentions, cover stories, “we are happy to announce,” hand-clap emojis, people recognizing me at the coffee shop, invitations to speak and moderate, and best-of lists. It runs on comments about my kids. It runs on compliments about everything from my appearance to my signature quinoa dish.
These are the subjective signs that tell me I’m getting it right, and when they aren’t there, I’m lost. And remember, I can’t give those things to myself…that doesn’t count in perfectionism.
Now, giving up the pudding itself would be impossible in my world because it would involve wearing a sign that says, “don’t compliment me or my children.” Getting off social media would help for about 10 minutes, but I use social media for work, so it would get me in the end. Plus, I was like this way before social media. (That being said, I do have parameters in place to help social media not run me into depression for a multitude of other reasons.)
Plus, I’ve been really hurt in the past by people who tried to send me into affirmation-detox. If you know someone who struggles like this, do not withhold praise “for their own good.” You’re not God and you have no idea what you’re doing.
Anywho, instead of giving up the pudding, I needed to change the way I thought about it. So I’m using a Lenten fast to remind me to think about my worth, where it comes from, who made me, why he made me. A natural physical reminder would be pudding, but I don’t eat pudding. At least not frequently enough to merit giving it up for Lent.
So I gave up dessert. Dessert in addition to being a reminder of “the pudding” is what I go to when I feel like I’ve earned a treat. What I go to when I feel like life is hard and I’m not getting enough of “the pudding” elsewhere.
Giving up dessert this year is my reminder that I don’t need “the pudding” to enjoy my work or my family. And that my worth is anchored in something that doesn’t burn up fast like sugar. Lent is part of a larger journey to free myself from perfectionism and find a constant, strong sticking place for my eyes, my confidence, and my peace.
If I had one fear going into motherhood, it was that their hungry little mouths, and needy little souls would be the death knell of my freedom. In fact, when Moira was born, I went through a period of mourning for my afternoons of deep contemplation, for the concept of “browsing,” and the ability to lose track of time.
The beginning of a baby’s life is hard for the mom.
I felt like I had about 45 minutes between breastfeeding sessions in which to cram in all of my personal maintenance, and graciously thank all the well-wishers and meal-bringers. Life had never felt more scheduled, crammed full of nuts and bolts.
But looking back, I realized that something miraculous began in the midst of that.
I became freer.
First, before this starts sounding like tales from the joyful martyr, let me say this: I’m writing this in a coffee shop, processing my thoughts, and sipping tea. My first baby’s season of hourly scheduled needs is over. A second baby’s is about to begin, but I don’t think I’ll need to mourn so much, because I realize how quickly it’s over. …