I approached it like a congressional campaign, micro-managing every detail to create the perfect façade. We were attending our first political fundraiser with our tiny baby and I was foolishly determined to project an image of a portrait-ready, polished family.
Channeling the political goddess Jackie Kennedy (with a splash of Carrie Bradshaw), I rejected the aging pantsuit and donned a smart LBD (little black dress), nothing too body-hugging nor too dowdy, wearing my hair whimsically loose. I was going for the "I'm smart and politically engaged, but also hip" look. After spending an embarrassingly long time perfecting my outfit, I poured over nap schedules, stocked up the diaper bag with more accoutrements than an Alaskan wilderness hiker would need, and hounded my husband on every detail from what tie he was wearing to our precise exit time.
We walked out the door, our daughter looking like an ebullient Gerber baby in a bright, flower-print dress, my husband in a sleek suit. I breathed in a satisfied victory sigh. We were right on schedule, the baby was happy and everything looked perfect.
We enjoyed less than two minutes of good behavior before she began squirming and I began sweating. As my "whimsical locks" frizzed up in the Virginia heat, the baby crawled between donors' legs, bumping into the host's priceless ultra-mod sculptures and stuck her finger in a Lalique-ensconced electrical socket. She was unstoppable as she knocked over glasses and squealed giddily during the main speech. After trying to appease her with some cupcake frosting, her crawl turned into the whirl of a Tasmanian devil.
We left amidst sympathetic looks and some unsympathetic eye rolling. Instead of being an engaged politico and perfectly polished mother and wife, I was a disheveled and overwhelmed Momzilla. This trivial faux pas conjured up feelings of inadequacy. I was mortified and felt like a failure. After overanalyzing it for days, my mother-in-law gave me a reality check: Let it go.
But letting go of "perfect" has never been easy for me. Growing up as a competitive figure skater, everything had to be flawless: my body, my routine, my hair and even my smile. From an unnaturally young age, I began to castigate myself severely for the smallest mistake. I went through bouts of unhealthy eating habits and mild depression, always telling myself I was not thin enough, smart enough or pretty enough.
"Girls' self-esteem peaks when they are nine years old, then takes a nose dive," clinical psychologist Robin F. Goodman writes on the New York University Child Study Center website. According to the site, self esteem drops in the pre-teen years because there is "a shift in focus -- the body becomes an all consuming passion and barometer of worth."
We live in a society that is fixated on physical and behavioral perfection. Parents pressure their children over SAT scores and AP classes. We reward people with reality show fame when they lose weight or purchase size triple-G breasts. Twenty to forty percent of girls begin dieting at age 10 and by 15 they are twice as likely to be depressed as boys, according to NYU Child Center Study website, by Anita Gurian, PhD.
Coming of age in the era of Britney Spears, the girls around me were getting their eye brows waxed and dyeing their hair blond by 13. Some traded smuggled diet pills, and abused prescription drugs such as Adderall, a stimulant used to treat attention-deficit disorder, which can suppress appetite. Adderall abuse is on the rise, yet television persists on popularizing and even glamorizing it. Sonja, a 40-something mother on the popular Real Housewives of New York, recently joked that she was gaining weight and "should maybe start taking Adderall like all the other women she knows."
The day my daughter was born, I asked myself how I was going to protect her from the pitfalls young women face growing up and from the mistakes I made. Michelangelo said, "Faith in oneself is the best and safest course." I believe a strong sense of self-worth and family is critical to making positive life decisions. The only way to imbue a child with high self-esteem is to lead by example. Children soak up every molecule of what their parents say and do. A friend recently wrote me: "All of my daughter's friends who had eating disorders, and there were many, had mothers who exercised obsessively and focused too much on superficial accomplishments."
Letting go of "perfect" is something I work on every day for my daughter. Being a mother and wife has given me a sense of confidence and identity that I could never have had as single woman. I now laugh, and cringe a little, at the drama the fundraiser caused me because with or without children perfection is untenable and the quest for it only breeds unhappiness. Indeed, knowing that you can't be perfect is the key to happiness. Every time I get caught up in old demons, my family helps me keep it real and remember who I am.
After the fundraiser, I took my nine-year-old niece for ice cream and rattled on about overcoming middle school teasing and having pride in your abilities. After feeling like the out-of-touch, zany great-aunt who drones on when no one is listening, I gave up and bought her a soft-serve. An hour later, over the purring of Harleys waiting for the big Memorial Day Parade, my niece pointed at my daughter in her stroller and said: "She is so lucky to have you as a mom." Hearing that is as close to perfection as I ever want to get.