Imperfection is the uncomfortable sensation of not living up to one’s expectations. For me, it looms at every corner, from my inability to remember moldering laundry in the washing machine, to scheduling two work meetings at the same time. The venue or the level of importance does not matter, imperfection is always by my side.
Many parents come face-to-face with imperfection around mid-July. After all, nothing showcases sketchy caregiving like bored kids, long days, and ninety-eight degree weather. And this year, I was no exception.
One afternoon, after sending my boys upstairs to play while I tried to get a little writing done, I made an imperfect choice: instead of taking those moments to really rock out some quality work, I turned on Married at First Sight and snuck a few of my children’s Reeses peanut butter cups.
Of course, I was found out and ended up divvying out chocolate as penance for my sneakiness. And, later that evening at the dinner table, my oldest, Charlie, took on the role of informant with zealous glee: “Mom let us eat all our chocolate for lunch, and she was on the couch. Like a lot.”
“Not a lot. Just while I was working.”
“You weren’t working you were watching that show with the crying girl in her married dress.” My husband cocks his eyebrow at me, and I consider telling him it was our wedding video, but I make a wise choice and just offer up more mashed potatoes.
There is a wide gap between what I want to achieve as Ultimate Wife and Mother and Writer, verses my messy reality.
But then one day, as I watched my children write thank-you cards for their grandparents, it struck me: my boys’ messy scrawls and wonky spelling would be regarded with adoration from the grandparents. My children practiced imperfection at a ninja level every day, and nobody was berating them about it. Why can’t we learn from this?
I decided that imperfection and I needed to mend our relationship. I began to regard it as a normal part of anyone’s daily regimen. We should schedule a visit with it on all our calendars: “Take vitamins. Walk the dog. Mess up on something,” and repeat.
And, what if imperfection could actually be a way not to hinder but improve our lives? Taking this perspective, imperfection is something that can promote healing. But how can we embrace imperfection when we are in the habit of trying to avoid it at all costs? Five ways:
1. Analyze Why We Need to Be Perfect. We don’t get better just by being better. We can’t just wish imperfection away, nor can we hope it will disappear if we close our eyes and click our heels. We embrace failure because living any other way is basically impossible. We have to deal with it. This is tough, yes, but it tends to get us moving. This might mean taking a hard look at why we feel we must be so perfect. Is it envy? Competition? Do we have a past event that we are trying to erase, or redeem? Once we can see the truth of it, we can start to live in the moment, more comfortable with our own endeavors. I yearned for perfection the most when I started eyeing other moms. I would nervously look at others not for help, but for endless comparison – and it was toxic.
2. Fess Up and Acknowledge Failure. Apologizing to a nine-year-old can be tough. You’ve already failed him, and then voicing an apology only embellishes the failure. But, in that moment, with the Reese’s cup as a peace offering, my son and I smiled at each other. “I’m sorry. I’m pretty tired out today,” I told him. My boy and I are closer for it. When I acknowledge even my flimsiest efforts, like my stumbled apology to my kids, or my repeated attempts to communicate better with my husband, I am practicing being human. Practice makes nearly perfect.
3. Put it Into Perspective. I have come to the conclusion that a lot of life means healing from life. Life is hard. It hurts. We are humans and we are hurting. Once I accepted that my main job on this planet is to heal and help others in their healing, I don’t really find my existence so full of fails. Perspective is key. If I look at my boys and their messy thank you notes, I see learning; I see potential. I see a lot of eraser marks, and that’s ok. I cannot write myself off simply because I have more years on me. I too am capable of learning. I too have potential.
4. Take What You Need and Leave the Rest. I have found inspiration in my own terribly written articles. Why? Because I was brave enough to ruthlessly cut up my work and start again, saving only the integral parts. Letting go of the past is courageous. It only emboldens us and reminds us how organic and original and new our lives can be. Out of the ashes come beauty.
Sometimes, however, my most terrible days leave little leftover for inspiration, but they do often lead to laughter, which takes me to:
5. Laugh at It. Most of our most colossal screwups have been matched, if not out-done, by others. Be brave and tell your story. Allow the laughter, and then wait for the other voices to chime in, because they will. It is here, amidst the frailties and the mirth, that we find community.
Dana Bowman is the author of How to Be Perfect Like Me (available on August 21). She is also the creator of the popular Momsieblog and leads workshops on writing and addiction, with a special emphasis on being a woman in recovery while parenting young children.