But Acord herself isn't sure all this is a good thing. "I think this perfectionism could really be a character flaw," she says. "I obsess. I worry way too much over things like what my children eat and what they wear. That's time when I could be having fun with them." She's also concerned about how her behavior is affecting her kids: "I'm always worried I'm going to create a neurotic child." And, despite her impressive efforts and energy, Acord can't shake the feeling that "somebody is always disappointed."
Deborah Cichocki, the mother of 8-year-old Anna and 6-year-old Jack in San Anselmo, CA, has a similar outlook. Even though she throws herself into activities -- when her kids were in preschool, she was the room mother of both the children's classes and president of the local co-op school -- and is admired in her community for her volunteerism, she feels she's falling short. "No matter how involved you are, you don't look in the mirror and say, 'I'm such a great mom,'" says Cichocki. "You never hit it. There's no perfect. There's always room for improvement."
James Devitt feels the same way. "I often look at my day-to-day life as a series of to-do lists," says Devitt, who works in public relations in New York City and is the father of 3-year-old Truman. He sounds ideal: He works hard, he's a devoted husband and father, and he does all the family laundry and grocery shopping, among other chores. But there's a hitch. He has a tough time relaxing unless he's been able to accomplish all his tasks every weekend. "Now that I have a child, I have this overall sense of disorganization and falling behind," says Devitt. "If you don't carry out what you intended to do, you feel some sense of failure. And if you do it, you feel like you were supposed to do it anyway. You're not winning. You're just holding serve."
For parents who've spent many years as high achievers in the workplace, enjoying a certain amount of control and an outlet for their perfectionism, trying to be flawless can be especially difficult. "There is a big difference between parenthood and careers," says Dr. Stein. "In a career, there are clearly defined objectives and a linear path to success. That's just not how parenthood works. It's a whole different universe. There are no rules to go by."
Irene Wineman-Marcus, a psychoanalyst in Great Neck, NY, agrees. "Working people are used to feeling in control at their jobs. It's a terrible blow when they realize how little control they have with their kids." Take, for example, the times when you're neatly dressed and ready to leave for work, and the baby spits up all over you. Or when you just need to run into the grocery store for a gallon of milk -- usually a five-minute trip, max -- but your toddler chooses that time to throw a world-record tantrum. It's enough to drive a perfectionist crazy, and it does.