One of the things I’ve been working on lately is perfection. And not in the sense of achieving it. Quite the opposite, in fact.
I think a lot of the parenting talk fuels our perfectionism. All the blogs and articles and books and courses. Some days I feel like they are so needed if only we’re going to walk ourselves through this parenting thing without losing our minds and hearts, while also doing right by our children; other days it seems to me that what we need is not a guide on what to do, but on what to avoid. It would be a lot more simple, and a lot less type-A. Like the Hippocratic Oath of Parenting: JUST DON’T MESS THEM UP.
I’m not really blaming the proliferation of parenting advice, nor the myriad of education philosophies and methods. I think it’s great that we’re all thinking a lot more about what sorts of humans we want to raise. Also, let’s face it, I’m one of the top consumers of said advice and philosophies. I love them! I find all the ideas and methods and studies fascinating. I love the way Maria Montessori was so ahead of her time in her ideas about children. I love how we focus more on evidence-based parenting, especially with babies and pre-schoolers. I adore the feeling of coming to a new realization about something my child is going through and how to approach it. Sometimes I feel like thinking about parenting and education was why I was put on this earth, if ever there was a reason.
What I’m ambivalent about is the way parenting has become something to excel (or fail) in. We want to be perfect parents. Anything less than perfection, will really not do. The problem of course, is not parenting’s problem. It’s a human problem – we do this with anything worth doing. Any occupation or work or craft – we want to excel in it, we demand perfection of ourselves.
I’m sure there are lots of parents out there who are gentle with themselves, and with their children, and who struggle – because we all do – but don’t beat themselves up about it. I trust there are many people who work hard on something they love, with the full realization that their best will be good enough. I salute you! For knowing how to do it, and for actually consistently doing it (which is really the main thing).
It’s certainly not that way for me, or hasn’t been. And if you’re anything like me, you will know how it is to constantly feel like you’re just not good enough, and to aim so high that you’re always, inevitably, coming up short. If you even have the guts to start the work at all.
I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, and her thoughts on perfectionism really hit home. Perfectionism is not something to smugly admit to, like it’s a beautiful flaw, but rather “perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified.” This makes sense to me, and explains also why sometimes we expect so much of ourselves that we end up not even trying, for fear we won’t live up to our expectations.
We want to do parenting really really well, like, better than our parents did, and just like the books say you should. And so we try and we fail because no one parents like the books, and perfection is unattainable, and even though we know this we still, somehow, believe there are others out there who have reached its glittery heights and we want to get there too.
Except no one has. Not a single person you follow on Instagram or know in real life or read about in parenting books, is a perfect parent. Or, for that matter, a perfect anything. It seems obvious, but I don’t think we really recognize this enough. Because deep down we think that at least that ONE person we know or follow on social media is actually doing it perfectly. And so should we.
Another thing I realized is that perfection is actually, ultimately, not really about the results. Because we all know it’s unattainable, by definition. So the results are really not the point. Perfection is really a lot more about perception and pleasing others, two things we can never ever control. Brene Brown talks a lot about perfectionism and makes the point that it is in fact shame in another form, it is us telling ourselves we are never good enough.
I should probably mention that Montessori doesn’t have the best track record with imperfection and good enough. Maria Montessori uses the word “perfect” A LOT. She mentions man’s inner drive to “perfect himself” and how humans work to attain perfection. She praises perfection in the environment and the educator’s lessons, perfecting of the senses through work, perfection in writing, I could go on; in her defense she also admits that her method is far from perfect, and is in fact a constant work in progress.
I can see why perfectionists might be attracted to Montessori like moths to a flame; I feel like the outer image of order and beauty and perfection is what initially lured me in. I still am not so sure that Maria Montessori would be ok with good enough, given how often she uses the word perfect in her writings. And I’m also not sure what she meant by perfect – in many cases it comes across as if there is a peak of development that every child will ideally reach. I’m not sure I’m a huge fan of this kind of language. But equally we need to take her writings within their historical context, and maybe look at the spirit behind some of her thoughts rather than the literal words.
I choose to focus on these words from The Absorbent Mind: “Nor is the purpose of life to perfect oneself, nor only to evolve. The purpose of life is to obey the hidden command which ensures harmony among all and creates an even better world.” I believe what she is saying is that we should aim to be our best selves, but that that is not an end in itself, but rather a part of the much bigger journey of connecting to what binds us as humans.
I choose to embrace good enough, imperfect, even lazy Montessori because I choose to see myself and my children and the children I educate as a constant, daily work in progress. I think this is what Montessori meant when she said, “Life is activity and it is only through activity that perfection of life can be sought and found.” I think she meant we can only improve if we act upon the premise we are all works in progress. I think that this is why independence was so important to her – because we can only grow if we are independent.
Here are two things I hug super close in parenting and in life: that we are all just doing our best with the knowledge we have, and that most of us are, probably, good enough. And by most of us, I don’t mean everyone else apart from me (as I would have meant in the past), but everyone INCLUDING ME. I am good enough.
Imperfect and good enough are my new parenting and life aims. I love the way Elizabeth Gilbert puts it, because she gives perfectionism the finger while also saying, Imperfect doesn’t mean giving up, or not working on yourself, or not trying your best.
She says, “You must learn to be a deeply-disciplined half-ass.” I mean, what is more gloriously lazy and imperfect while also encompassing all the hope and sweat and tears and turning up every single day that we put into the things (or people) we love?