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The Perfectionist Parent

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The moment I saw my daughter, I knew I'd made a terrible mistake. Her eyes were red. Her face was puffy from crying. And she looked at me like I was the worst mother on the planet. Perhaps I was.

She had just received a "Good Citizen" award at the school assembly, and I had missed it. I didn't mean to. In truth, I'd planned my whole day around the assembly. Willa had been one of three first-graders in her class chosen to receive the award, and I was so proud of her that I gathered an embarrassingly large entourage of relatives to witness her moment of glory. I also carefully marked it on our calendar: Assembly, Friday at 10:30. But I was wrong. The assembly had started at 9:45. By the time we arrived, Willa had already received her award.

As I held her afterward, I tried to explain that I was horribly, horribly sorry and that even grown-ups make mistakes. "This," she replied, as if knowing exactly where to pierce my heart, "is the biggest mistake you've ever made." That's when I realized that I was never going to be the perfect parent, no matter how hard I tried. It was another painful reminder that I wasn't even close.

We all know who that perfect parent is supposed to be: The person who's always loving and always around when kids need help with homework or need to be tucked into bed at night, who never loses his or her temper, never desperately craves time to be alone, and never misses assemblies.

No such parents exist, of course. And if they come close, it's sometimes at great cost to themselves and their families. Mothers and fathers who strive for perfection often, ironically, do their children more harm than good. "Parents who cannot tolerate their imperfections often cannot tolerate their children's either," says H. David Stein, M.D., a psychoanalyst in New York City. "As a result, kids will feel that their parents are dissatisfied with them, even if it's not stated. They pick up on subtle cues."

Some parents are intolerant of imperfections because they confuse their children's identities with their own, says Ruth Ehrenkranz, a New York City psychoanalyst. "They think, 'If our child looks good, we look good,'" she says. "They cannot handle their kids' failures because they feel it makes them look like bad parents."

The message that kids need to be perfect can lead to serious problems, such as an erosion of self-esteem, a profound sense of failure, and lingering anger, says Paul Hewitt, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and an expert on perfectionism. When using the term perfectionist, he's not talking about people who hold high standards -- that's a good trait that can help parents give their children a wonderful life. Rather, he's referring to people who expect perfection of themselves or others and are mercilessly hard on themselves when they don't attain it. For perfectionists, there is no middle ground: Either they have achieved perfection or they are utter failures. "People who are perfectionistic don't really experience much satisfaction or happiness," says Dr. Hewitt.

The latest research from Dr. Hewitt and his colleagues is alarming: They've found that true perfectionists are at an increased risk for clinical depression, eating disorders, and suicide. Even worse, they are much more resistant to treatment because they don't want to appear weak.

For some reason, though, there's a pervasive myth in our culture that we must be perfect or we will have failed our children. "It's a funny kind of arrogance," says Kyle Pruett, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University in New Haven, CT. "I've never done a single thing perfectly. What makes me think I can do the hardest job I'll ever do perfectly?"

Parents in overdrive

There are, of course, clear advantages to trying to be the best. It often means that parents are working especially hard to do a good job, says Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and author of Never Good Enough: How to Use Perfectionism to Your Advantage Without Letting It Ruin Your Life. When you've got a perfectionist at the helm, everything in the house tends to run more smoothly. "The meals get made, the homework gets done, and the uniform gets washed before the game," she says.

Deborah Kanter, the mother of 4-year-old Henry and 2-year-old Eleanor in Los Angeles, would agree. Kanter -- who works part time and is such a perfectionist that she organizes her linen closet by room and by color and cannot get any work done unless her desk is immaculately neat -- says that she makes a serious effort to put her children first, to really spend time with them. Every morning she and her husband leave the house around 9 a.m., after having first shared a few hours as a family. And every night, instead of paying bills or taking time for herself, Kanter gets down on the floor to play with her daughter and son."The benefit," she says, "is that our kids get a lot of attenton from us." She also makes sure that her children have a homemade meal for dinner every night. And she reads a number of books on child development, always trying to be the finest mother she can be.

But Kanter realizes that there's a downside to all this effort. "I still feel like the kids never get the time and attention they need," she says, "and I worry a lot and focus on what I could be doing better, rather than giving myself credit for what I'm doing right."

Because she thinks perfectionism has serious drawbacks, Kanter tries to guard her children from following the same path. And she's delighted when she discovers them simply being kids, imperfections and all. "I love it when Henry sings a song without knowing all the words," she says. "He doesn't hesitate and he doesn't care about getting them right."

Perfectionism pitfalls

For Jillian Acord, a corporate vice president of Mitsubishi Imaging who lives in New York City and is the mother of Zane and Zoe, ages 6 and 2, perfectionism translates into homemade Halloween costumes, freshly baked cakes, and ultra-creative birthday parties. She says she's just trying to be as good a mother as her own, a woman Acord describes lovingly as "the original Martha Stewart." "I always thought she was so neurotic, but now she's telling me to calm down," says Acord.

Understandably so: Not only does Acord work full-time -- her mother, on the other hand, stayed home full-time -- she also leaves no domestic detail untouched. She makes sure that her children are always impeccably dressed, and before each Monday rolls around, she plans the weekly menu for her children, right down to the organic foods that the babysitter will serve them for lunch.

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.

Some fathers find themselves striving for perfection in ways that are subtly different from what moms do. "Fathers tend to have higher standards for their children's performance, particularly in areas such as academics and sports," says Dr. Basco, "and they may be more critical." For children, especially boys, this can have disastrous results. "They feel as though they can never match up -- particularly sons of successful fathers," says Wineman-Marcus. "They don't enter the race because they're never going to win it. It's just too stressful to try."

Experts agree that parental perfection -- pushing kids to get into the best preschool, to be thin, to be popular, to be the prettiest little girl in ballet class -- often has a profound effect on children. "The children will either identify with the self-punishing attitude of perfectionism and adopt it as their own," says Wineman-Marcus, "or they won't accept that attitude and they'll rebel." This rebellion can result in kids' turning to drugs and alcohol, hanging with a bad crowd, or deliberately underachieving as teenagers.

Children who try to be perfectionists themselves feel the stress of trying to please their parents, says Wineman-Marcus. This pressure can stay with them all their lives: "They'll always react to an internal mother or father who's demanding something they can't possibly achieve," says Dr. Stein. Even worse, Ehrenkranz suspects that parental pressure may be part of the reason the adolescent suicide rate is at an all-time high. "Kids feel they're being valued not for who they are, but for how they perform," she says.

Letting go

There is a way to break the cycle and protect our children, but for perfectionists it's a tough pill to swallow. "If you want to adapt to the realities of parenthood," says Dr. Basco, "you've got to let something go. You've got to lower your standards."

That's what Lorie Torpey of Hong Kong did. Torpey, a stay-at-home mom of 8-year-old Kiki, 5-year-old Dieken, and 4-year-old Piper, kept three parenting books by her bed and read them every night after her first child was born. "They had month-by-month sections on where your child should be developmentally," she says, "and I made sure my daughter was hitting every target."

She bought "all the right developmental toys" and spent a considerable amount of time walking around the house identifying objects so her daughter would develop good language skills. She played Mozart. And in an effort to provide the most nutritious diet possible, she baked a healthy, sweetened-with-fruit-juice-only cake for her daughter's first birthday.

By the time her third child came along, those habits were a distant memory. Torpey remembers the nights when her youngest daughter was an infant and she struggled to make it through the hours between when the babysitter left and her children went to bed (her husband usually arrived home after her children's bedtime). "I'd be nursing the baby, my oldest child would be throwing a tantrum, the other would be crying, and there'd be a mess somewhere. And there was absolutely nothing I could do about it."

That's when she knew she had to either give up the perfectionism or go crazy. "If I'd kept it up, my head would have exploded," she says. "I physically didn't have any time or energy left." So some nights she went to bed immediately after her children. She didn't pick up the messes around the house. She didn't do her sit-ups. Her children didn't get as much Mozart or developmentally appropriate stimulation as the books advised. But Torpey has no doubt that this was all for the best.

"Once you've given up on the idea of being so perfect all the time, you're a little happier and the kids are a little happier," she says. "You realize that the shortcuts you took are worth taking all the time, except on special occasions." Then she adds, laughing, that for her youngest child's most recent birthday, she served not only a sugar-filled cake but one that was also "somebody's leftover cake."

Happier parents, happier kids

Interestingly, Dr. Stein describes having children as an opportunity to move beyond perfectionism. "For parents who are stuck, children provide a chance to grow," he says. "They can be your way out of that phase of believing you can do everything perfectly." And how will kids react when parents stop trying to control themselves and their children all the time? They'll have a chance to simply be who they are, says Wineman-Marcus. And they'll also have more self-confidence, not only because they see that their parents are more satisfied with them but because being allowed to make their own decisions shows that they're trusted -- a major key to self-esteem.

Even more important, letting go of too-high expectations gives parents a chance to teach children one of life's most important lessons: that to err is human. "That's a crucial developmental step," says Dr. Stein. "Children need to learn that people can be both good and bad -- but that, ultimately, they are basically good. The irony is that we need to be able to tolerate that we are not perfect in order to be good parents."

This was what Willa learned when I missed her assembly: Mommy is not perfect. But after her tears dried, she found it in her heart to forgive me, even if she never said the words. After the assembly I waited around for a few minutes, watching as she returned to the playground and a small crowd of children began to gather around her.

"Why are you crying?" her friends asked. As she told them, she opened her bag of Goldfish crackers and started passing them out to the other children.

"Does she do this every day?" I asked them. Yes, they said, she always shares her snack. I kissed Willa good-bye and walked away, turning occasionally to watch my little good citizen share with her friends, just as I'd always taught her to do, convinced she'd never heard me. As I watched, I'll confess, I felt ridiculously proud. After all, I'm only human.

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