I'm A Perfectionist, And It's Hurting My Kids

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
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Scene: It’s a Tuesday night (or really any school night). You had a plan in mind of how this night was going to go. Dinner at 6. Baths at 6:45. Homework done by 8. Kids tucked in, teeth brushed, stories read, lights out. Done.

But somehow it’s 7:45 and the dinner dishes are everywhere, most of them still full of chicken nuggets. No one has had a bath. And you haven’t even looked in their homework folders yet.

Unfortunately, no one cares about this deviation from the plan but you. Your kids are engaged in a full-on fight-to-the-death nerf gun battle or wrestling match or game of hide-and-seek in the basement. And their father is in the thick of it. Everyone is laughing and running and shouting and probably very sweaty. And not one person down there gives a teeny tiny shit about Mommy’s “plan.”

And now you’re pissed. Because guess what will happen? They’ll have to stay up late now to get their homework done, which means they’ll be cranky tomorrow. And they’ll be stinky. And what about their nutrition? The little one ate like three nuggets for dinner! Why are you the only disciplinarian, the only homework monitor, and the only one who knows they need to eat a vegetable and wash their armpits?

Why doesn’t anyone else care about the stuff that matters?

Because what’s happening downstairs right now, in this moment, also matters. Maybe just as much as that other stuff. Maybe more. Maybe your spouse has worked long hours lately and the kids haven’t seen him much. Maybe your kids have been fighting a lot the past few days and are finally getting along and enjoying each other. Maybe they’ll have to stay up late, or maybe the homework won’t even get done at all.

Maybe not everything has to be perfect and go according to the plan.

This scene has played out in our house many times, and each time, I get anxious. I get frustrated. I feel like I’m not being heard, and I continue to maintain my stronghold in the “un-fun parent” category.

When you have three young children and are married to someone who doesn’t really stress about rules or routine or bedtime or vegetables, you are often the “strict one” — and unfortunately, the grouchy, impatient one too.

Because here’s the thing: the homework does have to get done. The kids do need to go to bed. And eat real meals. And practice personal hygiene. They know it, and my husband knows it. And I think they rely on me to reign them in, be the bedtime police, and the police to all the other things as well.

But what I’ve come to realize over the years is that I need them too. I need them to break my rules once in a while (even if it causes me a headache). I need them to remind me that staying up past bedtime on occasion to make memories like “the most epic nerf gun battle EVER!” with their dad is just as important as a math worksheet. I need them to remind me that yes, we all might be a little grumpy tomorrow after losing an hour of sleep, but that we’ll all recover.

I need them to remind me to be fun.

Because when you’re a perfectionist, or neurotic, or tightly wound, or a super-fun cocktail of all three, being “fun” is hard. Fun means spontaneity. Fun cannot always be “planned” or strategically timed for once the chores, and baths, and homework, and well-balanced dinner are all complete.

So unfortunately, my kids don’t think of me as fun. They think of me as lots of good things—reliable (I’m always there), responsible (I always make sure their lunches are packed and they have their snow boots, hats, and gloves for recess), and knowledgeable (I always know where the tape is and can find a library book, a ruler, and a new bottle of ketchup in 10 seconds flat). They know I’ll always take care of them and make sure they’re okay.

Fun, though? Probably not. That’s Daddy’s role.

And that kind of sucks.

The truth is, having a plan in mind of how life is going to go and having said plan go to shit is not conducive to my strict, type-A brain. Sometimes I can take a breath and have a little “It’s going to be okay, the world is not ending” chat with myself. But the more likely scenario is me yelling downstairs at my family in a death-growl, “I SAID IT’S BEDTIME!” and hearing the joy get sucked right out of the room in that moment.

Yes, there are nights when the death-growl needs to come out, because no one is listening and there’s shit to do.

But there are nights when it’s not necessary, and it’s really just because I don’t have control. And those are the nights I regret. Those are the nights I wish I could relax a little and veer off-course without everything melting down. I just don’t know how.

An article on Psychology Today suggests a few steps moms like me can take to let some of our neuroses go and find more joy in the unexpected. “Think ‘People First’,” the article says. “Instead of focusing on making yourself, your children and your world perfect, put your heart into connecting with the people you love.”

Remembering that my kids’ childhood is fleeting, it’s important to connect with them, rather than barking at them every minute of the day so I can check items off my to-do list.

Other recommendations include: Letting kids “learn to be who they are rather than what would look best.” Also, remembering that “they need a little hurt and a few bumps in life to become that wonderful person.” And finally—and this one’s tough: “Have fun and/or be around others who do. Smile authentically; get dirty and let children get dirty and play.”

That’s not to say that I toss my checklist entirely. Kids need to know that they have responsibilities. School work is important. So is having a normal bedtime and taking care of our health.

But when I look back on a battle I chose to wage, I have to ask myself: was it necessary? What would have happened if I didn’t bring down the hammer on this one? And if it was necessary, can I let up a little next time to make room for laughter and joy and unplanned wrestling matches and crafting projects and a game of catch on a Tuesday night?

For my kid’s sake, I’m sure as hell going to try. Even if I have to add “be fun” to my to-do list.

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