I can picture an ideal in my mind for nearly everything I attempt. As an example, If I’m scrubbing the floor, the ideal would be that every hair and crumb is removed, all scuff and dirt marks eradicated, and if I really am honest about it, that the stove and refrigerator were moved so that I could get at the hidden surfaces. I would use a non-toxic, environmentally friendly cleaner, and also vacuum the baseboards along the floorboards so that the dust would not flit onto the floor. And the streak-free shine would last for more than an hour. Or a day.
This is the ideal. These days, my floors see a vacuum once or twice a day (depending on the day and degree of mess) and perhaps a quick Swiffer. They still are perpetually crumb-filled and smudged. I have a toddler to love now; mess is the “new perfect.” I wouldn’t trade my messy floors for my shinier pre-kid days, no way!
I can picture an ideal for my relationships, my marriage, my role as a mother, for my writing, and when I was working, for my work life and career trajectory. I can always see something that could be shined up a little to be made “even better,” and while this skill often endears me to employers as I have tidied and streamlined work systems in the past, being a fixer and idealist can often leave me with a feeling of dissatisfaction when the “perfect” cannot be achieved and with a feeling of dissonance when my skills or time do not permit me to achieve my vision. It can also leave loved ones feeling like they can never measure up to my high standards, creating distance instead of connection. Learning to check my ideals against my priorities (love, happiness, sharing, positive experiences, connection) allows me to keep a better sense of what is important, and what details should be relegated the dream world where all good but unattainable ideals go after they are rejected for a more sensible balance.
If you ask my mother, I’ve always been this way. Apparently, when I was very young, I would meltdown frequently during family holidays or outings when the reality fell short of my expectations. If you ask my beloved and ever-sensible husband, I still have high expectations. Of him, of my daughter, and most of all, of myself. These expectations can leave me feeling like a pressure cooker, with all this something going on inside, with no where for it to go. Until I seize control of myself, and take the lid off, and let a little (or a lot) of the expectations go.
When I was pregnant, anticipating my daughter’s arrival, I washed and folded her baby washcloths and organized them in the hall closet by type of fabric and pattern. I lined up the edges perfectly. I loved opening that closet and seeing everything neat, tidy, perfect, and waiting. These days, I fold them, barely, and stuff them into a caddy which hangs on the back of the bathroom door. And I could care less (mostly), because just getting the laundry clean is the “new perfect.”
Before I became a mother, I had visions of creating themed days, where I would create projects and activities based on a theme (like a classroom) to interest my little tyke. These days, I feel happy when enjoying a giggle with my daughter as I read her books while she sits on the toilet for a half hour, or when she takes her graham cracker bunnies and mixes them in her play kitchen for a special bunny drink. I love the play she directs; it is imaginative and often funny, and when I plan one of our fun projects and activities, it is with a combination of both fun and learning in mind, rather than an idealized theme.
When I see a mother who has a child outfitted in clean, crisp, elegant play clothing, I think, “Wow, how does she do that? I wish I could.” Then I smile to see my daughter in a mismatched outfit of her own selection, or a size too big purple dress, red shoes, sporting a Dora Band-aid across her chest (these days, she has to wear one on all her clothes, including her pajamas), with a food smudge on her cheek. Because watching her learn to make her own choices and create her own style is the “new perfect.” Because mess comes along with satisfying play, and a happy, healthy, thriving, and even messy toddler is the “new perfect.”
In short, my ideals are ever-changing. When I have some expectation in my head, I am learning to stop myself and say, what is the ultimate goal of this task or experience? I know that if I don’t check myself, I have a tendency to set myself up for failure and disappointment. These days, when I let go of the ideal, I am often surprised by an increased sense of peace, balance, and well-being. Because perfect isn’t always the ideal. Sometimes, imperfect is the real perfect after all.