I first realised I had a problem about two years ago, when my third son was born. His older brothers are twins, and people often commented that twins are a handful. They certainly are. But, if twins are a handful, with three I just don’t have enough hands. That’s when I understood that I needed help.
The problem with perfectionism is that it comes from the illusion of control. When I think I’m in control, there’s no reason why things shouldn’t be perfect, and if they’re not, it must be that I’m not trying hard enough. If something is not the way I want it to be, I can just make it better using my control of my world.
This illusion was deepened with my first children. I figured: these people came from me. They basically are me. If there’s anyone I can control, it must be my own kids.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for that illusion to shatter.
Rashi, the great Biblical commentator, talks about Eve’s punishment, the pain of rearing children. He doesn’t say it refers to the physical pain of childbirth, but rather the emotional pain of raising an independent person. Whatever preconceived expectations you might have for your children, they will always surprise you. They might even disappoint you. And the perfectionist in you can throw its own temper tantrum at the proof that you really aren’t in control.
So I had to lose the perfectionist.
It’s hard work, letting go of the illusion of control. It’s a delicate dance between setting limits and allowing space. I have to learn how to build appropriate boundaries for my children to thrive within, without crushing their individuality by control.
Here’s an example. It’s late Friday afternoon, and we have a crowd coming for dinner. The table is set, the children have bathed and are ready for shul, and I am wearing my Shabbat best. Everything is ready, and there is perfect calm as I light my Shabbat candles to usher in this holy space in time.
Or rather: the remains of the children’s supper are spread all over the kitchen floor, the two-year-old has helpfully rearranged all the cutlery on the table, and I’m chasing after scattering children, still in my dressing gown, trying to get them to put their shoes on. But Shabbat is still coming. Even if I can’t have perfect calm around me, I can be calm inside as I light my candles. Because it’s okay if the table isn’t perfect. And it’s okay if there’s a mess in the kitchen. But it’s not okay if I don’t light Shabbat candles because I’m trying to get everything else perfect.
Of course, the challenge is not to go to the other extreme. Mess on the floor is okay, for a while, but cleaning up is also important. That’s not perfectionism, that’s just basic life skills. But, if my focus is on the mess – if I insist on there being none – then the mess becomes about me. It feels like a deliberate insult to my sense of perfection. So when I focus instead on my children, and we sing the “clean-up song”, and have a race to see who can get the most lego pieces into the box, then it’s about learning. And growing. And becoming.
It’s not just my children who learn important life-skills, then; I too learn something invaluable – to guide instead of control, to accept imperfections while encouraging growth. And I remember that, just as I cannot control my children, I really can’t control any aspect of my surroundings. All I can control is myself – my responses – and my belief that G-d has everything under control. And then I take a step in my journey to beat perfectionism.
Gayle Apfel is a data analyst at Acceleration. She holds a degree in maths and physics, and a master’s degree in maths, from the University of Cape Town. She spent a year at Neve Yerushalayim Seminary, in Jerusalem, and is the mother of three boys.