Last night I found a manila envelope dated 2010 sent from one of my grad-school professors. It had a graded exam inside and a note about having me in his classes, and he included an article—a scholarly article—he had written that was soon to be published.
I had a split second to decide whether or not to cry. This time I said, “Whoa, Rebecca. Just because you’re a mom now does not mean you aren’t doing worthwhile work. The opposite is true!”
But the realization hit as to why I miss school and why I miss working full-time outside the home: It’s because I’m a perfectionist. When you’re a perfectionist, you can work for A’s and positive evaluations about your writing or teaching or whatever.
When you’re a mom, your grades come in the form of your kids’ tears or smiles, whichever one you inspired that day. If you did a bad job that day, congratulations—you failed that assignment. There is no makeup work; there are no redos. It’s just assignment after assignment of A’s or F’s or, in my case, a lot of C’s. I’m pretty good at mediocre mothering.
That’s why straight A’s and motherhood don’t mix. If you were a kid like me who was pushed to get good grades because a scholarship was your ticket to college, you chased perfection. But then you had kids, and you had to be okay with doing a shoddy job sometimes. You had to accept that no one is handing out gold stars, report cards, or promotions—you try to program yourself to look for validation in the form of hugs on good days rather than “I hate you” on bad days.
Our whole lives we’re taught excellence is the only possible pursuit, but in our most important life’s work, perfection isn’t possible. When being perfect is your expectation, it lays the groundwork for a lot of parenting frustration. But what other option is there—to teach our kids that mediocrity is okay? I’m not heading down that road either.
The problem is, there is no mastering of the subject matter. There is no healthy way to get kids to do what you want all the time. There is no way to always choose the right words to motivate them. There is no way to predict every one of their actions so you can craft the correct response. There is not a more complex subject, but there’s no subject you’re more desperate to ace.
Maybe the hardest part is that the final exam is way down the road, like 18 years after a baby’s delivery. By then, however you perform and however they turn out, that’s your final grade. And you can’t retake the course to improve your outcome. They’re either terrific or toast, and you’re to praise or blame.
It’s the most daunting class out there for a former honors student. •