Learning To Be Good Enough

cenotes

The Yucutan cenotes: one of my happy places.

Whether kin of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon or media-bandwagon-hopping, I am seeing it discussed everywhere lately, from the Times parenting blog to Fast Company. . .  it’s apparently Winter 2015’s “introverts and lumbersexuals”:

Perfectionism.

I wish I could say I am a reformed perfectionist. Unfortunately I am an active perfectionist. I know that it’s “not necessarily a personality trait to aspire to” as Terri Cole points out in last week’s HuffPost Canada article. I am working on it.

A former boss of mine had a sign that read “perfect is the enemy of done.”

This, too, I know (though can any writer or editor ever truly reconcile the two?)

I grew up with a parent who never even asked what my grades were, although diligence in all things was certainly expected. I was the one who felt absolutely crushed at not attaining the A. Truth be told, anything less than A+ is disappointing (which made college’s omission of this option rather tragic for me). Interestingly, I often expect, require, and desire the accolades even if I haven’t worked particularly hard for something. My mother will tell you that this is because everything “came easily to me.” (Which is certainly not true of sports, which I dreamed day and night of being a star in).

Perfectionism creates a deep fear of trying things we might not be good at, or alternatively a deep conviction that we’re just not good enough at what we’re trying. Either condition is ripe for creating crippling anxiety. (And in the case of sports, an additional vicious cycle of inactivity and weight gain).

I can trace some of my perfectionism to having an older brother who was practically worshipped in my family, who was good at literally everything he ever tried. He won a creative writing prize at college with his first short story. His art was entered into shows in school. His poetry was good. As a teenager. In his second language. He was an athletic star in every sport but basketball (he being only five foot three), a talented musician, a brilliant orator and debater.

I am still not sure how I am supposed to live up to that.

Especially, you see, as he died young. And everyone knows that the pedestal grows even higher for those we have lost.

I felt for a long time that since he was my mother’s favorite it would have been so much better were I the one to go. Which is a heavy burden for a child, I suppose. Part of me thought that if I was smart enough and talented enough I could somehow make her as proud and heal some part of that devastating wound. But I rebelled and rejected her, too, perhaps so fearful of not being perfect that I might as well go ahead and be the worst.

When I finally graduated from BU after sixteen years of night school, although I’m not one for gowns and caps and all of that jazz, I was excited to walk across that stage and have them say “magna cum laude.” So my mother could hear it. Two B’s in my entire college career, Ma! At a renowned university! (Where, may I toot my horn, it is apparently harder to get an A than most places!)

The Dean stumbled over my difficult name and missed the honors section of the card, apparently. There was no announcement. My boyfriend, knowing how much I’d been looking forward to my mother hearing the news, turned to her and explained what had happened.

“Well, of course Desiree got honors,” she scoffed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I cannot identify myself by how excellent my grades are, or how many accolades I get at work for a job well done, right now. I have to find other ways to measure my own success, and perhaps this has given me the freedom to be good enough. I promised myself I would volunteer when I got laid off, and I did, for over a year for a local parks organization I love. I was proud of myself for following through, for doing something meaningful, for working to improve my skills during the lay-off period. Then my boss retired, and I had to spend several weeks caring for my (other) brother who had been in a bad accident and then helping my mother who had her hip replaced, so I resigned. I accomplished what I set out to do, and I will find another organization to donate my efforts to, but it was enough for now.

Even if I haven’t found a new job yet, the right one is out there for me and I will keep looking. I’m not worthless because I don’t have full-time work. I have found my own “worth” again, in being a better mother and sister and daughter and partner, in making music and in writing, and I will find a way to balance those things and cobble together some kind of income. I am learning that I don’t have to be perfect. I can be good enough, which is a much happier place to be.

Sisterhood Of The Cluttered Vanity

I am a naturally messy person. I diligently intend to cultivate the habits of neat people, and when they are as simple as making the bed, sometimes I even succeed with some regularity:

(Painting by Nathalie Mermet-Grandfille)

(Painting by Nathalie Mermet-Grandfille)

Being a Virgo (and I do go in for that sort of thing), I really prefer organization. I actually love organization. I could marry it. Perfectly aligned outlines, and color-coordinated Post-It flags, lists and containers with labels, and generous amounts of clear space for the eye to rest. . .

. . . So I am constantly at odds with myself. (It’s an excellent internal environment for breeding anxiety, in case you are interested in the mechanics of that sort of thing.)

While I wouldn’t say I “enjoy” cleaning like the (possibly questionably sane) folks who say it’s “therapeutic,” but finding a place for everything and putting the things in those places does provide me deep satisfaction. It also provides me deep guilt. (Hey, there’s a great new dartboard movie title; maybe a Catholic Church piece?)

When I have successfully arranged my possessions into like groups in a frenzy of de-cluttering, I am confronted with some profound questions:

-How does a person own two tu-tus and not know about it? How could it be it that both of those tu-tus are purple?

-Why have I wasted a zillion and a half dollars buying twenty-seven sparkly eyeshadow palettes in the same color range, no fewer than sixteen “miracle” foundations which provided nary a benefit never mind act of God, and enough razor cartridges to make bare as a baby’s bottom an entire rugby team?

-How many trial-size shampoos can a person possibly own? The answer is correlated to the number of tiny refillable travel shampoo bottles that person has purchased (in order to avoid buying more disposable trial size shampoos) that can never be found on the frantic eve of a trip.

-Why do I even own a curling iron?

Maybe these things proliferate when we’re not looking, like reverse shoemaker’s elves running around making a horrible, regret-inducing mess.

Just as soon as I tackled the clutter recently and promised myself I’d buy no more hair products until the gajillion I have are gone, my new hairdresser, a curly hair expert, goes and tells me I should eliminate dimethicone from my styling regime because it’s drying my curls out. Guess what every single hair product in my arsenal contains? So now I have to buy all new products. It’s a never-ending cycle. (First world problems,  as they say!)

In my quest to live a life guided by grace, one of the simplest things I keep nudging myself in the direction of doing (with varying degrees of success) is just buying less. Bring less into the house and there are fewer opportunities for my inner Tasmanian devil to wreak havoc and thus for my anxiety and guilt to arise. Everyone wins! Except capitalism!

Sometimes that doesn’t mean buying nothing. . . I’ve come to the realization that it can mean splurging on one nice leather handbag instead of repeatedly buying inferior plastic ones that have to be thrown out. That crazy lady digging around in those dress tiers to find the fabric content label is me. . . I no longer buy things just because I am attracted to them: I almost always put down the polyester.

I am at least cognizant that four crystal balls is really enough for a gadje.

crystal

If I manage to keep all of the things together in their thing places, flaunting their too-much-thingyness, the visual reminder may someday be enough for me to remember that enough is enough.

Buy what you love. Keep what brings you joy. Savor its beauty by treating it with care.

“Use it up, wear it out;

Make it do, or do without!”

“Take My Wife. . . Please!”

I gave my boyfriend a fridge magnet that reads “Marriage is having someone who will die for you. . . If you don’t kill them first.”

1399743_10202825790224779_934501217_o

The famous Henny Youngman one-liner in the title, like all great jokes, is funny because it is true. So many couples drown in mutual resentment. To paraphrase either Henry Rollins or Chuck Palahniuk (the quote is lodged in my mind but its source proves elusive), they are “killing each other with the mundanities of daily life.”

We are not married, it is true, even after nearly ten years together; I am probably the more reticent one, having already given it an abysmal attempt once before. . . But my reluctance is largely financial, since it cost me almost twenty grand to get out of the last one.

I do believe in marriage, though, even if I have no parental model and my own first was a failure. Not necessarily the religious or paperwork sort, but at least the idea of finding someone you don’t mind spending forever with. Strike “don’t mind”: WANT to.

I grew up with several incredible examples in my extended family of cousins-once-removed and family friends. Emily Esfafani Smith’s Atlantic article Masters of Love ( http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/happily-ever-after/372573/ ) discusses a longitudinal study of what observable traits make a difference in the “three in ten” of those who have wed who “remain in happy, healthy marriages.”

Unsurprisingly, an undercurrent of mutual support seems to be key, but I had not thought about the body language aspect: That couples who do not last often do not physically turn toward one another when communicating. (A simplification of an excellent study and a fascinating examination, to be sure. . . It is worthwhile reading!)

Anecdotally rather than scientifically speaking, the loving, lasting marriages I know of seem to be what I think we all hope for: Best friends forever. A clever division of labor never hurts, either. My aunt has made all of the (delicious and precisely, impeccably planned) meals and my uncle has done all of the dishes for some thirty-nine amicable years.

My boyfriend’s grandmother’s near last words to us were “take care of each other. Love each other.” Which, naturally, sent both of us into sobbing fit. Then we remembered that she had previously told us that the secret to a happy marriage is just finding “someone whose bullshit you can put up with.” Which helped us to smile through our tears.

My favorite boat captain and his lovely wife will tell you, more specifically, the secret is DATE NIGHT. Raising their son while living and working in the most isolated of places for many years, they made it a point to schedule some special time away from their usual routine every single week, without fail. It seems to be like exercise. . . Keep up the habit and it is easy to get moving. Slack for a while and suddenly re-starting seems insurmountable. Thirty-plus years in, she still smiles at him like she knows a secret, and he still looks at her like she is the prom queen he can’t believe he has scored.

Something else I have noticed: Each of the individuals in the good marriages I am thinking of is creatively or professionally fulfilled. More so than most of us who have settled for careers quite far from our passions! I wonder whether it is partly that they are happier overall because they are pursuing meaningful work and have encouraged each other’s artistic or otherwise satisfying activities (despite the potential economic consequences)?

My uncle insists that his wife (she of the perfect dinners) “solved most of my problems by marrying me,” and their incredible unity through the most adverse of experiences makes me suspect he may be the one person for whom Rebecca Webber’s Psychology Today article “Are You With the Right Mate ( https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201112/are-you-the-right-mate ) might ring hollow. For the rest of us, she points out, there is almost certainly no one person who will magically not annoy us or make us question if we have made the right decision. We can fantasize about a mate with different habits or characteristics or someone who just wouldn’t be so. . .

. . .But that person does not exist. If not that idiosyncracy, then some other. A bugaboo you haven’t even conceived of.

My man and I have our share of issues and miscommunications (someday I will write all about the Headless Chinese Porn Affair; quite a hoot, in retrospect) but goddammit, he’s smart enough and nice enough and I like him! (And for many other reasons which don’t fit neatly into an SNL reference).

I hope we will be one of those forever couples: that we continue to teach each other and (rather eerily) share tangential thoughts, that we find a way to divide chores mutually satisfactorily, face adversity sharing our strength as well as our grief, cherish each other, communicate openly, and support one another in becoming who we each hope to be.

Teen Mom

My Facebook news feed is filled with the gummy smiles of infants and the bizarre over-sharing that is a relative stranger’s sonogram (oh, thank the stars there was no social media in my day!)

My friends are all having babies at the appropriate time. In the NorthEast, that means our 30s. . . .Whereas I had mine at eighteen.

teenmom

The girls I grew up with, and women in my adoptive family, were decidedly not teen moms. College and career came first. My birth mother, though, had my brother when she was seventeen. I was with her in New Mexico for four of my five “formative years” (if the psych textbooks are to be believed), so maybe a part of me was stuck back in a place where it’s fairly or even perfectly normal to get married and have babies (or have babies and not get married) right out of high school.

I had some major complications during my pregnancy, so after I was a week in the hospital in Florida, where I was living, my estranged family had me med-flown back up to Boston (just me, the pilot, and my two cats, who had followed behind the ambulance in a taxi) so I could be treated at Brigham & Women’s. If you’re going to be dying having a baby, it’s a good place to be.

I was followed closely there, and every week when I entered the OB/GYN unit, I felt the stares. Stares from suburban women in sensible haircuts and their corpulent, balding husbands, and stares from pairs of sixteen-year-olds with slicked-back ponytails and braces and bright blue eyeliner who were on their way to their special teen wing, which I no longer qualified for. I was stuck in between two demographics: certainly not the typical “teen mom” with my prep school education and Brahmin upbringing; but lacking the requisite years behind me to be anything but a pariah to the pregnant ladies of “proper” age.

As I planned my wedding in summer school (after missing part of my senior year), my algebra teacher got wind of it and laughed, “well, everyone needs a first!

We got married (in retrospect) mostly so that I could prove to my family that I was right and going to have a fairytale life despite my flouting of their (clearly old-fashioned!) traditions.

I shopped for “mom clothes” that I hated– a pale yellow crew-neck blouse and a navy skirt with a dainty floral print to match, rather than my velvet and fringe-y Stevie Nicks ensembles– hoping to be taken more seriously; and signed up for a new mom’s group in my town, wanting to meet women with kids my son could grow up playing with since none of my own friends had babies.

With their Baby Christian Dior layettes and their frosted $200 haircuts, these post-career, stay-at-home moms looked straight down their noses at me. When talking about their husbands they would gesture toward me and say “and your. . . whatever.” They sneered at me for not having a car (there was a bus down the block which went directly to my house. . . it would be different in New York, surely?), and they whispered plans for meeting up to one another to ensure I wouldn’t participate in their clique beyond the prescribed hour a week.

At playgrounds, too, I was typically shunned. Although I found it insulting, it was fine because I was the only mom who seemed to care to actually play with my kid. (He’s pretty cool).

Many years later a friend told me a story of being at the same parks in Cambridge where I found the mothers particularly unfriendly. She looked quite young when her daughter was pre-school age, although she was in her late 20’s. She tried to join a circle of woman chatting while watching the children play, and was stunned when one of the other mothers turned, narrowed her eyes, and spat “excuse me, we don’t speak to nannies.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My son missed out on having kids he was always with because the parents are best friends. He also has no close cohort of cousins, as I did, because my cousins are having children now, in their 30s, and he’s a teenager. This is one of the sadnesses I harbor for my choice, because for me they were the closest thing I knew to sisters. I hope he will have that closeness with my niece, at least, although they are seven years apart.

It is difficult, too, that we are in an affluent area, especially his father (we’re long-since divorced, unsurprisingly): my son’s friends have media rooms and playrooms and basketball courts and koi ponds and sixty-inch televisions. . . Of course I wish we’d been more financially stable when we had him, and could have bought a big house with a beautiful yard instead of a small condo. But I don’t think that having everything handed to you builds any character, anyway, even if it were an option. I do believe in spending on the things that matter, like music lessons and instruments and great summer camps and art supplies!

Even if my son hasn’t had the Caribbean vacations and palatial playrooms we both envied as children growing up with wealthy peers, he, like me, has been raised to believe in the importance of education, art, family, and home-cooked meals, and in embracing peoples’ differences rather than denigrating them. It’s what’s inside that counts (although if the outside is Stevie Nicks, that’s cool). After all of these years I’d still rather hang out with my kid than those catty women, anyway.

Are We Talking About My Mother Again?

My mother is eccentric but old-fashioned, kind-hearted but not warm, crunchy but Catholic.

I was the last of three rather difficult children, and we haven’t ever related particularly well.

Here we are about to attempt an embrace after my (very ’90s) wedding ceremony. Look how excited she is for me, right?!

mommewedding

(Let’s pause to look at that again and laugh, with just a tiny bitter edge.)

Enigmatic and dichotomous, she was a rebel in the strangest of ways. . . Her family’s secular humanism felt lacking and so she found the Catholic Church at fifteen. She adopted three older children as a single woman in her thirties (back in the ’70’s when they apparently allowed that kind of thing), and never married. She preferred classical music to the Beatles in the ’60s in college. She taught in some of the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago, New York, and Phoenix in her twenties, each time moving alone. There is a great deal I admire about her, but you wouldn’t exactly say that we have a close relationship. She has difficulty appreciating my musical taste; parenting; spirituality; tattoos (they actually make her physically ill, I believe: she’s said she has “a hard time looking at them”); and general lifestyle. She’s a teetotaler and I named my blog Drinking Wine in Yoga Pants, for example.

I spent many years “in therapy” — I prefer “seeing a counselor,” myself– and with disturbing regularity I would find myself halting mid-sentence to vocalize my horror that “I’m talking about my mother again, aren’t I?!”

My undergraduate major was psychology. I do believe that talking about our past helps us to process it and overcome the difficult times while learning to appreciate the good. I wonder if I had pursued clinical work how often I would smile to myself that my clients, too, kept exclaiming to themselves “are we talking about my parents again?!”

We don’t seem to be able to avoid becoming our parents, either. No matter how different she and I may be, I catch myself imitating my mother’s habits. They’re so deeply ingrained that I often don’t notice, until I get an “easy, Sally” from the peanut gallery as I start freaking out about how there’s still a drop of sauce left in this jar, you know; just use a rubber spatula!

I pull recyclables out of the trash and chastize the misguided toss-er. I wash out plastic bags and re-use them. Despite my youthful conviction that as an adult I would keep my apartment balmy as a Bahamian breeze, I pinch the heating pennies and tell my son to put on a dang hoodie. I present gifts in re-purposed, often entirely inappropriate wrapping that I’ve saved from previous holidays. My years of haughty pre-teen disgust at the idea of secondhand clothing have long passed. My refusal to learn to knit and sew properly (“you’re sexist, ma!”) haunts me as I wish for little as much as her seamstress and sweater-creating talents. . . but I make earrings, now, and would scarcely be caught dead without a pair: another subconscious acquisition of habit. Although she rarely wears makeup and cares little for fashion, she used to say she felt naked without them. Me, too.

“I Am My Mother’s Daughter: Making Peace With Mom Before It’s Too Late” was a helpful read for me and may be if you, too, feel like your mother just never understood you (even as we’re more like them than they suspect) and you don’t have that “best friends” kind of relationship with her. The author charges you with remembering that your mother was affected by her own parents’ failings. And that you are the one with the flexibility and capacity to forgive her her crazy ways rather than trying to change them at this point.

If I have to turn into my mother, I suppose that having my heart in the right place, caring deeply about the state of this world, possessing an independence of spirit, and finding utmost pleasure in music and giving to others aren’t awful traits to carry on. Thanks, Mom.