Thursday, January 20, 2005

Ungreat Expectations

When I was a dreamy child, unaware that the world as I knew it was about to shatter(aka The Divorce), my mother gave me a small jigsaw puzzle for Christmas. The puzzle featured a darling puppy and the saying, "Blessed are those who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed."

That may have been the beginning of my wrestling match with expectations and disappointment. I disappointed myself in so many ways when I was a child. I wasn't skinny enough, outgoing enough. My clothes were hand-me-downs, my parents had old cars (we christened one truck "The Ugly Truck"), we were weird because we went to a Pentecostal church and when we watched "The Donny and Marie Show", we had to turn the channel when Donny sang because rock'n'roll was straight from the pits of hell.

Oddly, I wasn't disappointed with my parents for their rotten choices. I figured it was all my fault somehow.

So, you can imagine how disappointed I was with myself in so many ways. I was neither as cute as I thought I should be, nor did I play the piano as well as I wished, nor was I cool and worldly. I wasn't a very good Christian if you considered a good Christian one who read her Bible every day and prayed out loud for hours at a time. I was embarrassed to be different. And embarrassed to be tall, for that matter.

And when my parents divorced, I tried really hard to wipe the slate of my expectations clean. Very, very clean, so there was no shadowy trace of my expectations that grown-ups would be dependable and life would be predictable and I would be safe.

The problem was, I couldn't erase The Perfectionist that refused to die inside of me. The Perfectionist expected 100% on every school assignment and test. The Perfectionist insisted that I make no mistakes, that I toe the line of proper behavior, that I take no chances, lest I be humiliated and mocked. The Perfectionist demanded that I make correct choices, choices with only good consequences. The Perfectionist never let me forget that fateful day when I turned on the oven to bake without checking inside it first. I melted all my mother's Tupperware, which she said was a "stupid" thing to do, which I took to heart. I was stupid. My mother even said so.

The Perfectionist didn't get the whole "Blessed are those who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed" philosophy. Instead, she just expected stuff (a lot of stuff) from me because, really, who can I control? Me. Only me. Yet, I continued to disappoint myself with my occasionally blemished skin and my unflat stomach and my failure to get into jazz choir in high school. I was hard on myself for these shortcomings and often told myself what a dismal future waited for stupid girls like me. I had it all figured out. No one would ever marry me, let alone date me. My 3.96 grade point average would keep me from scholarships and good colleges and I'd end up a bitter, old-maid.

I only wish I were kidding. My bright future was obscured by the looming shadow of The Perfectionist.

Somewhere in college I came face to face with The Perfectonist and we came to an agreement. She'd have to move out and find her own place because there wasn't room enough for an actual life if the Perfectionist were hanging about, pointing fingers and making dire predictions.

But, despite that eviction notice, The Perfectionist lurks about torturing me with self-recriminations and self-doubt. Now, she focuses on Motherhood. The Perfectionist expects me to be better than I am. She expects me to be patient and kind and gentle and wise. She cuts me no slack. She whispers meanly in my ears, points out my flaws. She also takes notice of other mothers who are superior to me in so many ways. I can't even bear to list them all.

Some days I can't figure out if my expectations are too low or too high. Are my kids struggling with school work because I don't push them hard enough? Am I pushing them too hard? Should I force them (ha, as if I could!) to write neatly and legibly? Should I just ignore the areas of weakness? Do I coddle them? Should they do more? Or less? Are they more capable then I suspect? Less capable? Do I make excuses for them?

Why isn't there a middle ground where I can find some firm footing? I feel like I'm sliding around in mud, barely staying on my feet. This would be funny on America's Home Videos, but I am not amused.

I'm just muddling through, wishing that four small people weren't following me, expecting to place their feet into my footprints. I want to say, "Wait! Hold on! Maybe we should have taken that left turn back by the stream? Or is that the path over there just past the crest?" Sometimes, Babygirl is so close to me, following, that I bump into her and knock her down.

This motherhood gig is tricky. That's why I'm kicking out The Perfectionist. I mean it. It's hard enough to find my way across this pock-marked land without having her snicker when I fall down.

And I'm kind of mad at my mom for giving me that puzzle. What kind of message did that imprint on my pliable young psyche? What kind of message do I imprint on the minds of my children? Which message will be the one they remember and blog about in 20 years?

(There she is again. The Perfectionist will not leave. How rude.)


Blogger Anvilcloud said...

Another wonderful piece of writing.

It seems we share a Pentecostal past. Being a Pentecostal can be tough on a kid.

However, I didn't suffer from your Perfectionst affliction. I leaned the other way and was, rather, an underachiever, which is a very silly thing for a person to be. Since then, however, I can see perfectionistic proclivities in some of the things that I undertake. But just some.

4:12 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

Sometimes, Mel, I feel as if you are writing about me! I have never really considered myself a perfectionist, but I did expect a lot from myself and now, today, as a mother, I feel as if I am failing miserably. It's a tough job and to make matters worse, I. too was out of diet coke with lime yesterday!!

6:31 AM  
Blogger Trish said...

When I first got married and had children, I had a Perfectionist in my head, who looked startlingly like my mother-in-law. And for the first several years, I struggled -- unsuccessfully, I might add -- to be that perfect wife and mother. Instead of perfection, what I ended up with was depression. And it's taken me a long time to get out of that dark place and realize I don't HAVE to be perfect. I've learned to step out of the footprints left by others to make my own... and have made a mental note to remind my children that when they're grown, they need do the same.

8:10 AM  
Blogger QQ said...

Just stopping by to say hi! I still read....I am just too lazy to sign in to leave a comment :)

4:40 PM  
Blogger Stacy said...

Don't expect anything and you won't be disappointed. How often I heard that growing up. Not as a guideline for me to live by, but from my mother muttering it to herself....after I had disappointed her in some way. Both of my parents were perfectionists and expected perfection from me. Judging from the number of talking-to's I received, I very rarely lived up to those expectations. I still don't and at 40 I still agonize over every move I make in life, wondering what my mom will say.

4:19 AM  
Blogger I Am The Walrus said...

Some day, hopefully soon, the Perfectionist will move on and Acceptance will move in. It's a hard battle between the two of them, but if you keep searching for Acceptance, she will show up.

5:40 AM  
Blogger Judy said...

Another wonderful post.

I did manage to kick out the perfectionist in me. But, the dreamy child came skipping back, and never seems to get anything accomplished.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Square1 said...

I'm wondering if my perfectionist is pulling a double shift to come torment you too. She just torments me in different ways... calls me a loser for not going to school before starting a family, tells me I'm lazy when I stay at home with the children, tells me I'm neglectful when I work. I've tried kicking her out, but she's very good at finding ways back in... sort of like a cock roach.

2:28 PM  
Blogger Tina said...

It took me a long time to realize that I was hiding a perfectionist inside of me...I am...

I seem like soooo far from one, that it couldn't be possible...but she's in there...driving me insane.

If you kick the perfectionist out permanently, let me know exactly how you did that...

3:31 PM  

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