Getting Stuff Done means Letting Go of Perfectionism

I had never considered myself a perfectionist until one evening in Kazakhstan when I was cooking dinner for a group of fellow Peace Corps volunteers at my apartment.  When it came time for dessert, I took the cake out from the Soviet-style oven (a tiny oven that heats low and uneven, which you light by sticking a rolled-up piece of paper lit on one end through a hole in the bottom while simultaneously turning on the gas) and saw that it was a lumpy, hideous disaster.  It looked like no cake should, and I was too ashamed to serve it. When I told the others that we won’t be having dessert after all because the cake looked terrible, Jen, one of the volunteers, said, “You’re a perfectionist, aren’t you?”

I was completely taken aback.  Me, a perfectionist?!  No one had ever called me that before.  After all, I associated perfectionists with being Type-A personalities, anal retentive, super-clean-and-organized, and never happy with anything.  That’s definitely not me, and my husband would wholeheartedly agree, judging from the state of the house, the top of my desk, or the way I cook (I could never follow the advice “clean as you cook.”  I mean, I’m too busy cooking!).

However, I realized the perfectionist side of me definitely creeps in it when it comes to writing or doing something else creative.  Back in the day when I used to write letters to my friends by hand (yes, those of us over 30 actually did this), I would start over if I didn’t like my handwriting or the way a sentence sounded – I’d just crumple up the piece of paper and start with a fresh one.  With this blog, I write a first draft which I need to edit over and over again before posting a copy that I’m happy with.  That’s exactly why I haven’t written as much as I’ve wanted to lately (hmm, 3 entries in the past 4 months?).  It’s not for lack of ideas on what to write, writer’s block, or the lack of opportunity to sit and write.  It’s finding the time to go back and read, edit, rewrite, reread and edit again.  At least 10 times.

The same is true for my creative pursuits.  A few years ago I enjoyed making my own jewelry with silver and glass beads.  The problem is that I never actually made anything because I didn’t like my creations enough to finish them (plus it got very tedious with all those little beads).  Same goes with the countless scrapbooks I’ve started – Turkey trip, India trip, Kazakhstan, Baby #1, Baby #2.   They are all sitting on my shelf unfinished because it takes too much time for me to make the pages look just right (also very tedious), which is stupid considering I’m really the only one who will ever look at them.

Now that I’ve taken up sewing , I find that my perfectionist tendencies are again impeding my ability to finish any projects.  A couple of weeks ago, the sewing teacher showed me how to construct a tote bag.  I brought the almost-completed tote bag home with only the straps left to sew on.  But after a few days of looking at the bag, I decided that I didn’t like how it looked.  So I ripped out the seams and tore it apart.

The thing is, I need to let it go.  I can’t be perfect at anything these days because with two young kids, there’s just no time to strive for perfection with anything.  I need to approach my projects the way I approach parenting (the one area in which I never strove for perfection).  I realized early on that there’s no such thing as the perfect mom or the perfect way of raising a child, so I gave up trying.  There’s nothing more humbling than raising a child and constantly being reminded that you’re never going to get everything right all the time.  Sometimes “good enough” is, well, good enough.  Once I realized that, it took the pressure off immensely.  After all, it’s not like I’m at a paid job where I’m being evaluated and critiqued (except maybe by my husband, but he doesn’t count).  I’m being my own worst critic and I just need to stop.  It’s more important for me now to get these things done than to do them perfectly.  Post a blog entry every week whether I think it’s perfectly written or not (it never will be).  Finish those scrapbooks even if I don’t like the layout of the pictures.  Cook without following the recipes exactly.  Invite friends over even if the house isn’t totally spotless and orderly.  Clean out the closet even if I don’t have the perfect organizing materials.  Just do it and don’t worry about the outcome because it’ll end up fine (like my kids, I hope).  At the very least I’ll learn by trial and error.  Maybe if the pressure is off, I can actually enjoy these things as well.

Am I being an underachiever?  Do I get a failing mark for my half-assed effort in these things?  Perhaps.  But at least this way I can finish that darn tote bag.

Stay-at-home vs. Working

I think there’s a point in every new mom’s life when boredom sets in and she contemplates going back to work.  Mine hit after 3 months.   Three years and two kids later, I am still at home full-time.  I have been keeping my eyes open for a job, and go back and forth about whether I want to go back to work now.  I am one of the lucky ones, though.  I actually have a choice.

I could talk about how much staying at home sucks, and that my brain is atrophying while my education and experience go out the window along with my sanity being with the kids all day.  But I won’t, because honestly, it’s not a bad gig.  I can choose what to do each day while my husband is forced to go to the office.  I can decide to do fun-kid-stuff like go to the zoo or museum, or fun-me-stuff like go shopping.  I can even opt do nothing and stay in my pajamas all day long at home.  I can plop my kids in front of the t.v. when I want a few minutes of computer time to check e-mail and Facebook.  I can eat the same lunch that my kids eat, such as mac and cheese, hot dogs or chicken nuggets (easier than making a salad for myself).  In the blissful hour or so that both kids are napping, I can work out (highly unlikely), watch Food Network or Travel Channel, or take a nap myself (most likely).  Really, what’s there to complain about?

Obviously it’s not great all the time.  I still have to change diapers and wipe poopy butts a few times a day.  I am pretty much a servant to my kids – getting them meals, snacks, juice, toys from the top shelf, etc.  I have to figure out what to feed my kids all the time so that I’m constantly thinking about what their next meal or snack will be.  I have to find various ways to keep them entertained so I don’t resort to sitting them in front of the t.v. for hours and hours.  I have to do piles of laundry each week, although I swore I would never complain about that here in the U.S. after having to do laundry by hand in the Peace Corps (which included wringing wet clothes out and hanging every single piece up to dry).  And the terrible-twos-and-threes tantrums that I deal with on a regular basis make me want to go running back to crunching numbers on SPSS.

Seriously, though, I do want to go back to work eventually, and it’s not only because I have to pay off my exorbitant school loans.  I actually enjoyed working (not too many hours, though), especially when I worked abroad in international health and development. Unfortunately where I live now, opportunities in my field are limited and the job openings are few and far between.  And even before applying for a position, I have to ask myself if the position is interesting and meaningful enough to make it worth being away from my kids (not to mention pays enough to cover childcare costs).  I am worried down the line about my candidacy for jobs the longer I stay out of work.  After all, long gaps in employment are a big red flag, even (or especially) for new moms.

My husband tells me that I have my whole life to work and to take a few years off to raise our children.  And I know that once I start working, I’ll long for those days I stayed at home.  So for now, while the job market is still bad and the kids are too young for school, I’ll enjoy this time at home.  After all, the first few years are so amazing in terms of their development, and as the cliché (which I’ve heard a thousand times since my kids were born) goes, they grow up so fast.  And being with them as they grow is a gift that I won’t take for granted.