Perfectionism

“Mommy, will you fill up my bottle?” She snuggled up to me and asked, tacking on after a second, “Please?”

I had been sitting on the couch flipping through articles on my phone and enjoying a lazy cup of Sunday morning coffee. I looked at her, considered it, and agreed, “Sure, Baby, but you’ll have to move off my lap.”

She moved and I got up and filled her bottle and handed it to her, then sat down at the computer. “No!” She yelled. “Fix it! It’s not full. It’s wrong! Fix it! You can’t have the computer. You have to sit. With me. Fill it up!”

“Fiona,” I said calmly, “Nicer voice, please.”

“Agg!” She screamed. “Mommy, fill up my bottle!” She threw the full bottle at me.

“Fiona,” I said, “We only throw balls.”

She screamed again and tried to scratch and bite me. I guided her hands and mouth away, and reminded, “No biting. I will not let you bite me.”

She screamed and ran to her room crying. From behind her closed-door I could hear her crying and declaring that it wasn’t full. That she didn’t like Mommy anymore. That Mommy didn’t love her, and, at louder intervals,  that it wasn’t full.

I sat down at the computer and surfed the net for a while.  Listening and considering and keeping my cool.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned it, but I really hate conflict. For me, it’s triggering. The sound of yelling makes me anxious. I need more therapy. Especially for parenting. Especially for parenting my child. So, for a few minutes I sat at the computer and let her rage in her room.

Part of trying to figure out how to cope with the increasing number of tantrums that we’ve been facing has been trying to work out what things are triggering tantrums. And there are three things, after a week of simply not letting myself get too worked up over the intensity, while digging furiously through the internet and books, that I’ve observed: limits, communication, and perfectionism.

It’s hard. It’s hard to see past the screaming and violence when those things are triggering to me. It’s hard to see past the tantrum and the behavior to the motive, to the reasons that my child is temporarily feral. Motives and reasons that are bigger than just brattiness.

I picked up the bottle and looked at it. It was full. Not all the way up to the ring at the top, but it was full. And, at the same time it wasn’t absolutely, completely full.

She had an image in her head of what was going to happen when she asked me to fill her bottle. It was perfect. I was going to fill up her bottle all the way to the top and then sit back down where I had been and let her snuggle and touch my tummy while she drank the whole thing. When I didn’t sit down on the couch, it wasn’t perfect. When her bottle wasn’t full, it was worse.  Less in the bottle meant less time to relax, less time to snuggle and it was just too much when I wouldn’t fix it when she said. She told me what she wanted and I didn’t give it to her.

To her, it was a horrible travesty of neglect. It wasn’t perfect, so it was horrible.

And, yet. And, yet, she can’t throw things at me, hit, scratch, and bite me when she doesn’t get the perfect picture that she holds in her head of what she wants. It’s not something I’m willing to tolerate. And when she doesn’t get perfection, it doesn’t mean that she should hate everything and declare her day horrible, her mommy horrible, herself horrible. Life is not an all or nothing game. There is an enormous amount of good in the world that doesn’t measure up to our internal picture of perfect. Learning to be happy with good when you can see perfect, is a vital skill for a happy life.

Knowing the lesson that she needed to hear, I got up and went into her room. She sat sobbing on her bed. I rubbed her back gently until she calmed.

“You feel really mad and disappointed, huh?” I asked her.

“Yeah!” She glared up at me.

“Because your bottle wasn’t full all the way to the top?” I continued and handed her said bottle, still with empty space at the top.

She glared at the bottle and started crying again. “Yeah. It’s not full!”

I petted her back until she calmed. “So it doesn’t match the picture in your head of what you wanted?”

“Yeah!” She said, looking at me in surprise. I don’t think she realized that mommies have idealized pictures too.

“It’s okay.” I said.

“No.” She said firmly, “It’s not right. It’s not full.”

I smiled, because this is the lesson, “Baby, I know that sometimes you have a picture in your head of something you want and when you get it just like that picture that’s called “perfect”. But lot’s of times you can’t have it just like the picture. Sometimes it isn’t perfect.”

“Yeah.” She glared at me.

“And it makes you feel disappointed and mad when it’s not perfect, huh?” I asked, gently.

“Yeah.” She agreed sadly.

“Do you think that something can be good, even if it’s not perfect?” I asked her.

“No.” She said, definitively.

“So, if you’re expecting ice cream, but you get a popsicle, are popsicles bad?” I asked.

She looked at me with squinty-eyed suspicion. “Yes.” She said slowly.

“Because your “perfect” picture was ice cream?”

“Yeah. Because I want ice cream not popsicles.”

“Okay.” I said, “But that leaves lots of times to be sad and disappointed and angry, because most of the time things won’t be perfect.”

“Oh.”

“But, you know what, even when things aren’t perfect, they can be good and that can make us happy.”

“No.”

“Yes, but it’s something we have to learn. We have to practice it. It takes work. Sometimes we have to say to ourselves, “It’s not perfect, but it’s still good.” And stop thinking about the perfect picture in our heads and just enjoy the good things.”

“But it’s not perfect.”

“Nope.”

I waited. Letting her think. Letting her decide. Letting her absorb the idea of good being enough. She stared at the bottle of water in her hand, the wheels in her head turning loudly, a mutinous frown on her face. She sighed and a look of giving up crossed her face and she settled against me, drinking her bottle.

“I love you, Baby,” I hugged her close.

It’ll take time, probably a lifetime, of fighting the desire for things to be perfect. When you can see how great things could be if everyone danced to your tune and everything went just according to your plan then it becomes exponentially harder to just be in the moment and take the good and enjoy it. But it’s worth the fight. Because popsicles are tasty and the good life is wonderful and perfect will only ever leave you disappointed.

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