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Perfectionism Is Killing Me

My only regret about reading Debora Spar’s recent article about why women should stop trying to be perfect is that I didn’t read it sooner.

Like many so many women I know, I used to think being a perfectionist was my best professional asset. And it was. I finished college in three years and graduated with high honors. I got my Master’s degree in less than two years as a graduate assistant. And I nailed a job as an Assistant Professor of Music and the youngest Director of a Music Therapy program in the country.

But then I got pregnant. And being a perfectionist became my biggest downfall. I’m just lucky it didn’t do more damage than it already had.

Before having a child, I never thought much about cloth diapering and exclusive breast-feeding, a few of the myriad choices that I made in my attempt to be the best and do the best for my baby. It didn’t matter to me, anyway, that I was waking up at all hours of the night to feed the baby and change her diapers. I did laundry a few times a day, and, because I thought my breast milk was affecting my baby’s stomach and behavior, I did a total elimination diet that left me eating only a few different foods each day for almost six months.

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After all, my mom parented pretty much alone—and completely emotionally—as my dad was often away on business.

I ignored smart suggestions from my husband, like trying disposable diapers or taking my baby to a doctor to see if she had reflux. I was the mom. And I knew how to take care of my baby.

I cried almost every night. It was probably because I had raging postpartum depression, but because it manifested as anxiety and control, I sobbed in the quiet of my baby’s room, while I rocked her to sleep in the middle of the night. I didn’t seek treatment. Don’t all moms just want the best for their babies?

My perfectionism caused me to not to get help, because, in my mind, that meant failure.

Maybe that’s why I breathed a sigh of relief when I read Spar’s words, which emphasized how women need to make choices that give them more support, not isolation, to help alleviate the challenges of having a baby.

These are conscious choices, mind you, and ones that might require sacrifices.

I wish I had traded in cloth diapers for disposables in order to make my life as a new working mom with no sleep and a husband who worked 12 to 15 hours a day a little easier.

I should have taken my daughter to a specialist and perhaps put her on medication for reflux. It might have actually been best for both of us if I had weaned her.

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And while I can’t live near my family, Spar’s article gave me permission to rid myself of the guilt that came with not having a close social network: the part-time babysitter, the extra two hours my kids sometimes stay in aftercare so that I can get work done and the times I’ve asked the neighbors to watch my kids in a pinch.

I understand that to some moms, these decisions seem so obvious. Of course you should take your daughter to the doctor. How else could you go to work without child care?

But I’ve talked to so many mothers who have made similar decisions and still feel guilty.

We feel this way because it has somehow been drilled into our inner cores that we need to be perfect. And worse, we have to do it all on our own.

I’m not saying that women can’t do it all. Heck, I think there are women out there who might be pretty close to perfect. I know I thought I was pretty darn close. I worked part-time and took my baby to my office so I could breast-feed her between classes. And I breast-fed my oldest daughter until she was 2 years old, and cloth diapered her until she was potty-trained.

But I was suffering. My marriage was suffering. And the truth is that my baby would have been fine if I had done things differently. In fact, she would have been more than fine.

If I could give a gift to every new mom staring lovingly at her sweet bundle of joy, I’d tell her that it does indeed take a village. There’s no gold medal for being perfect. There are no extra points for doing it all on your own. The more the merrier—happy child, happy mom. And that’s really all that matters.

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