Once upon a time, I used to think that in order to live a happy life, everything needed to be perfect. Breakups, angry words, unresolved questions, and mistakes had no place in my world. Thankfully, I've evolved -- after living through the extreme upheaval of depression and joyous yet unpredictable motherhood. But we'll get there in a minute.
I've always been driven. I worked so hard in high school that I ended up with an amazingly generous full scholarship to college. My diligence also helped me in my career as an advertising account executive.
Somewhere in my 20s, though, before I had a family, I switched from being driven to totally neurotic. I worked to the exclusion of all else. Riddled with anxiety, I pushed myself to do it all and at the highest standard. I slowly figured out that I couldn't, and this caused me to fester in a vat of unhappiness. Even when I swam in deadlines and worked 14-hour days to meet them all, I'd smile and say, "Sure!" if someone asked me to take on another project.
Despite my external successes, I was miserable. I'd somehow convinced myself that everyone else lived a flawless life, whereas mine was a mess. I considered the huge disparity between the two to be my personal failure. One evening I couldn't keep it in any longer. I dashed from my office in tears and met a dear friend. For the first time, I blurted it all out: my constant anxiety, fears, sadness, emptiness, anger, and disgust with myself. My friend hugged me and locked her knowing eyes on my red-rimmed ones. She declared, "You're depressed." The truth of her words terrified and comforted me.
Through the combination of two years of therapy and medication, I started to release my white-knuckled grasp on my definition of a perfect life. I recognized that every life ebbed and flowed. Not long after, I got married and we began our family. Little did I know that my biggest insights -- and my final break from perfection -- were lurking in the delivery room.
Motherhood socked it to me, with sleep deprivation, a traveling husband, marital spats, a dirty house, and 35 stubborn pounds of baby weight. I was no longer working in an office, but becoming a mom gave me a fresh bundle of inadequacies to focus on and my neuroticism made a quick reentry. Perfection sat in the corner and mocked me, luring me with the notion of gleaming toy-free floors, impeccably mannered children, skinny jeans, restful nights, and healthy dinners served with sides of local, organically grown veggies. Instead of joyfully playing with my daughter, I scurried along her trail of toys, constantly cleaning up after her.
Then one night, something shifted. Abby was 3 years old; Henry, 5 months. My husband was in grad school and so I spent many solo stretches with my kids. That night, after putting them to bed, I sank into the couch with a long pour of cabernet. Our digital picture frame lit the dark room with happy photos of my children. As the snapshots flickered by, the tears rolled down my face. I didn't even remember those happy moments in the pictures. I saw that I had been with my kids all the time...but I wasn't enjoying them. I realized with a nauseated jolt that I'd been wishing away the days with my children.
Through the haze of tears and wine, reality reached up and slapped me on my face and pinched me on my muffin top. I understood that I couldn't have been the first woman in all of motherhood to feel this way. And that's the thought that turned me around. My guilt, frustration, impatience -- none of it was novel.
Right then, I granted myself permission to rewrite my script. "Perfect" for me now meant living in the present and accepting whatever that brought. This may sound like a mundane shift, but it was transformative for me. I began to see off-kilter moments for what they were: a part of a normal life.
One morning about three years after my epiphany, I stood with 6-year-old Abby by the window. Sunlight streamed in. We hugged. She pulled back and looked up at me. I expected her to say, "I love you." But instead, she stared at me. More specifically, she stared at my mouth.
"Mommy," she said, "you have thingies up there."
"Where?" I asked, knowing exactly what she was referring to.
"Right there," she said, pointing at the hairs on my upper lip. "Maybe you should shave those," she suggested as she sauntered out of the room.
The old me would have been mortified. The new me shrugged and added a lip wax to my to-do list.
At times the task of breaking my old habits is formidable. But then I recalibrate -- and breathe. Instead of thinking I should always know the answers, I sit with the questions. Instead of screaming when clutter overtakes my house, and ignoring my kids as I try to remedy the situation, I now try to stop and play Uno with them. Or climb into the fabulous fort constructed with cardboard boxes.
It takes diligence to ground myself in the dissonant rhythms of my life, but my reward is that I am living fully, messily, and joyfully -- complete with my muffin top and mustache.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Parents magazine.