My Daughter's a Perfectionist, but I'm Not – and I Feel Like I'm Letting Her Down
The other day, my son Emmet rushed outside to play on his skateboard. I wasn’t at all surprised when I heard my daughter’s questions: “Mom, did Emmet finish his math homework?” “Yea,” I quipped, not thinking much of her question. She does, indeed, keep tabs on her siblings progress each day. Then she questioned my original answer, “Did he do alllll of it?”
“Who is the mother here,” I thought. My ego was bruised. I felt judged; not good enough. My next thought: “He’d be better off with a more responsible mom, someone more like Molly.” But I didn’t say that.
“Yup, he did it all with me and he did a great job,” I lied to protect my fragile ego. The truth is, he didn’t do it all. He skipped a few problems and was happy as a clam when I took over the long division equations (with the help of a good ‘ol calculator). I had my own work to do and he was nearing his daily, distance-learning meltdown, so I took one for the team and finished his homework. “Good job,” I said to him (as I calculated 12 divided by 197) and sent him outside. I wouldn’t dare confess our shortcuts to Molly. She is a type-A personality and I am . . . well, I guess you could say Type Z. She prefers perfection and is great with detail. I prefer speed and mediocrity if it means I can get back to having fun. I can brush off a failure with ease and a promise to do better next time, but she is thrust into panic mode when anything is remotely less than, well, perfect.
When my ego healed from its minor bruising, I tried to dig a little deeper. Why did this bother me so much? Was my daughter in the wrong? Was I in the wrong? Was this dynamic of role-reversal something that I created through my many flaws as a mother? Am I, a mother who half-asses things, good enough for my perfectionist daughter? Does she ever wish she had a mom who was just a little more like her?
Sure, part of me envies her sense of responsibility; there are many times when I do, indeed, wish I were more like her. I feel compassion for her, too, though. She is 16. She isn’t a mother. She is a sister and a teen, and the last thing she should be worrying about is her brother’s homework. This sense of responsibility and caretaking and protection over her siblings is nothing new to Molly. It has been there for as long as I can remember. Sometimes I see it as sweet and loving and a sign that someone did something right in this girl’s life because she sure knows how to love. Other times, it weighs heavy on my heart; I wonder how much of this is my fault. Did I place this burden of growing up too fast on her shoulders? Is it because her father and I divorced when she was only 8 and sometimes we needed an extra set of hands, and hers were always there to help? Was it because of my alcoholism and the years when I wasn’t really present? Was it because of the times when I leaned on her emotionally because I was alone and anxious?
Yes. To all of these questions, a resounding yes. All of these factors have contributed to Molly’s overwhelming sense of responsibility and her willingness to step up to the plate and be there for everyone all of the time, and to never take shortcuts. But no, it isn’t my fault per se. Because it isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s just our thing. Our differences. Our personalities. Our journey. Our highs and our lows, and I refuse to regret them. We lived the divorce and the alcoholism and the recovery, and we lived it together. It shaped us both as individuals and it shaped our relationship with each other, too. It is ours and we must own it. Not regret it. Or judge it. Or wish to change the unchangeable. We have been given the gift of each other and the one thing we can do is learn from each other, have empathy, and practice acceptance.
Perhaps all of those past struggles have brought us to where we are now: a place of awareness and love and forgiveness. A place where I can look at my daughter and say, I know I have failed you and I am sorry, but today I don’t want to fail you. I want to love you and take away some of your pain and release some of the pressure that has been there for so long. Today, I want to teach you how to be more like me, to go outside and play when you have 3 math problems left, to focus more on yourself and less on others, to be a teenager and let me be the mom. Because, finally, I am ready.
As for me, I want to work on being a little more like you, too, daughter. I want to learn to stick out those math problems and not rush outside. I want to try to do the hard, responsible thing and not always the easy, fun one. I want to take the pressure back from you. I want to, and will, say a little more often, “Molly, that’s not your job, it’s mine,” so that you know you always have a choice. And I want to express my admiration for you as a sister, a daughter, and a person, because you are truly amazing in every way. And if all of those hard times played a role in making you the beautiful soul that you are today, well then, I am grateful for them, too. Because I love our story and I can’t wait to see where it takes us in the future.