The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.
Tao te Ching
Pigs are perfectionists.
I love generalizations, don’t you? They sit there in all their platitudinous splendor, FEELING true and tidy and summed up like perfect little equations on the blackboard of reality. Axiomatic.
But really, show me an incredibly disorganized home and I’ll show you a perfectionist almost every time.
I speak from experience rather than judgment, here. The pig is me.
Throughout my twenties and thirties, my world was chaos. I let dishes and laundry accumulate, the mess in my car overflow the floor wells, the papers on my desk grow like unstable high rises built on a fault-line. The chaos of my surroundings reflected itself in my emotions, my relationships, my parenting, and my work. The guilt of not “getting it right” ate at me and fueled ongoing feelings of inadequacy, sleeplessness, and the inevitable short temper.
I feared that my daughter was growing up thinking it was normal to have fast food for breakfast because there was no time to shop or to cook. Her homework may or may not be done, because I never modeled completion in my own tasks. Completion? I couldn’t imagine what complete looked like, I just held some vague image of a perfectly organized world, as misty in my mind as the peaks of Mount Olympus. And as I looked around at the impossible ungodly clutter, I could never even find the place to start. Hopeless conundrum.
Secretly I knew that with all this disorganization as her influence, she would grow up to be the parents’ worst nightmare: an epic failure, a beacon forever casting light on the truth of my bad parenting.
Something had to be done.
By nature I am a problem solver. Each time I would gaze upon the chaos, I would plan amazing and wondrous organization systems that would solve those problems forever. Periodically I’d throw myself into action, cleaning a kitchen until every surface sparkled, every bit of glassware was placed in the cabinets in perfectly spaced crystal rows, the drip trays under the oven coils were shining like mirrors, and the floor was spotless enough to invite a visit from Mr. Clean and his sexy bald head
Or I might tackle the laundry, not only washing every bit of dirty clothing that had accumulated over the weeks but also emptying every drawer and hanger and rearranging the closets until my wardrobe hung by order of type and season (not to mention weight-loss intentions… “by January I’m sure this dress will fit again, and by May…”).
Or I might create a multi-colored filing system complete with tickler files and prioritization tabs and sort every bit of unopened mail into its perfect vertical resting place.
I believed I had turned over a new leaf and life would now be better… even perfect.
My daughter would be surrounded by activity, cleanliness, and efficiency. By osmosis my newfound perfection would immediately turn her into a straight A student who makes her own bed and flosses her teeth. If I could only maintain my new inner June Cleaver or Martha Stewart, her teen years would be destined to be spent with the two of us giggling together over boys she liked, shared dreams for her future, mutual manicures, and the general goodwill experienced between mothers and daughters in a happy shiny world.
But after each herculean effort I’d fall back exhausted, never having enough time in the day to live up to the system I’d created. Who could?
I practiced visualization techniques. I imagined this woman who keeps up a perfectly organized life. I deluded myself that if I imagined her well enough I would become her? Her kitchen is always spotless. Her size 6 clothes are neatly pressed. As she surrounds herself with her perfectly cleaned and organized things, she has time to take up painting and poetry while cooking 4 course meals and sipping tea from delicate china cups on her spider-free veranda. Because of her consistent and patient parenting, her children proudly march their perfect report cards before her loving eyes. They would be living legacies to her charity, her kindness, and her never-ending supply of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.
However, as I held her in my inner eye, envisioning myself slipping into her reality, I pretty much wanted to kick her in her meticulously waxed nether-regions with my pointiest shoes (which were, of course, buried in my closet under a mound of too-small clothing which I was sure one day would be cleaned, pressed and donated to charity). I really hated that bitch.
I wish I could point to a moment in time when it changed. I want to be able to sum it up in a perfectly tidy little story of personal growth, inner awareness, and maturity that will inspire future women to lay down the mantle of oppressive perfectionism and rise, free of their shackles, to live lives of peaceful self-acceptance and competence.
Therapy helped. Therapy always helps. Those who fear therapy and its stigma need to realize that great therapy is like a spa treatment for the mind.
The only moment I can pinpoint is when my therapist said two words to me. Two liberating, life-altering, magical words that rung like incantations in the air around me.
She was talking about mothering. I had been weeping over my failure to be the perfect SUV-driving cookie baking soccer mom, and she assured me that my mothering had been “good enough, and good enough mothering is a hell of a lot better than most kids get.”
My insecurity should have rejected it immediately, but I sat transfixed by the potential inherent in those two words. Good enough mother… good enough friend? Good enough housekeeper? Good enough employee? Was it that simple? Was it possible? Could I be “good enough” and be happy?
Through fits and starts and trial and error, I put “good enough” into action. Giving up delusions of Mount Olympus took conscious effort and some mourning for what I still wished could have been. But I was willing to try.
And slowly, against the odds, it worked.
I discovered that a “good enough” filing system with just a few folders puts an end to paper avalanches. A “good enough” laundry system means that clothes can be washed and put away, as long as I am willing to let shirts touch slacks and blues can be hung next to reds. A “good enough” kitchen gets you cleanly wiped counters and plates you can find and eat from without fear of botulism.
While my inner anal princess still wishes the glasses in the cupboards lined up, like with like, in little military rows, I’ve learned that it’s ok if a coffee cup sits next to a water tumbler. The world does not tilt off its axis and go spiraling into the sun. Who knew? It took time to accept this good enough world, but it wasn’t long before I noticed that there were no mounds of dirty clothes, no stacks of unwashed dishes, and I actually had time and energy to run through with a dustrag to make a “good enough” pass at the furniture. Miraculous!
And most miraculously of all, “good enough” parenting can actually produce a child who finishes school, isn’t strung out on drugs, and only has piercings in places that aren’t too frightening or questionable in intent. And if there are any tattoos, I don’t know about them and that’s “good enough” for me.
I still hope that dress fits by May, though. You can’t lose ALL your dreams.
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