THE BLOG
01/23/2015 03:33 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2015

On Becoming an Imperfectionist

Kristin Armstrong

I spent the first half of my life trying to be a perfectionist. I gave it my best shot, but since I did not succeed, I decided to spend the second half of my life in pursuit of a higher goal -- becoming an imperfectionist.

The impetus for this radical change in direction stemmed from a recent decision to apply to graduate school, and the university's subsequent decision to accept me. I am a single mom with three children and a career I love as a writer. I am not the best juggler, likely due in part to my previous dabbling in perfectionism, so the idea of adding another ball to my routine was a wee bit daunting.

Classes began last week, and as I purchased a new backpack, highlighters, folders and pens, I could feel my anticipation -- and blood pressure -- rise. My biggest concern for my first day of school was not the new environment or the new classmates -- who are mostly 20 years younger than me -- or the fact that I had not attended class for grades since before the Internet was invented. Oh no, my biggest worry was if I was going to be able to get from class to my girls' basketball practice pick up on time in rush hour traffic. I wondered how I would be able to pull a wholesome dinner together when we were all getting home at the same time. Or how I could help them with homework and projects and still somehow manage to do my own. Or if I would have enough breadth and breath to write research papers and meet my freelance or book deadlines. I wondered if I would be buried under a giant pile of unwashed laundry and unmet expectations.

I faced these dilemmas by deciding it was time to do things a new way. In classic George Costanza fashion, I decided to do the opposite of what I usually do. Instead of sucking it up and trying harder to make it look easier, I was going to try easier. I told myself that I don't have to: exercise everyday, blow dry my hair, be early, say yes, be prepared, have more than half a tank of gas, order salad when I want a cheeseburger, make A's, explain myself, be everything to everyone or be everywhere at once.

I announced to my children that we were entering a bold new Era of Imperfection. I explained how it was my goal to make more mistakes, screw up, scatter and scramble. I stated that I officially would no longer attempt to have it all together. I said I would occasionally be late to pick them up, or that they would get a ride home with a friend or Uber and the house would be empty upon their arrival instead of hugs and warm cookies. I said dinner would likely be cooked by someone other than me, picked up, reheated or even procured from a drive-thru. The food pyramid may invert from time to time. I disclosed that I would indeed be missing some volleyball, football, basketball and lacrosse games. I would no longer always remember to empty their gym bags and run a load of smelly clothes. The pantry and refrigerator may not always be restocked. Chances will now be high that I cannot bring their such-and-such up to school because they forgot it. And the office of homework help will now have limited hours of operation.

I said all this in a great deflating rush of air, and looked up in expectation of a revolt, recrimination or at the very least, concern or disappointment. After all, I had been busting my ass all these years in the pursuit of being a perfect mother.

What I saw instead were smiles.

It's cool, mom. I know how to do laundry. We don't care what's for dinner as long as we eat. I can get a ride home with Steven. You've been to lots of games; it's okay to miss some. I like fast food better than green beans, anyway. We can study and do homework together. I'd rather you be in a good mood than perfect. It's okay mom. We're proud of you.

It was in that conversation and my misty-eyed receipt of their affirmations that I realized that I was a student in every sense of the word, and that these people I am supposed to be leading are mostly leading me.

Ironically, my very first reading assignment included a passage about Donald Winnicott, and his coined term "the good enough mother." He studied how early mother-child relationships affect later personality development. He said that while it's important to meet an infant's needs, as children grow a "perfect mother" is more of a hindrance than a help, because necessary growth occurs from the frustration of unmet needs. Hence his philosophy that it's ideal to be a "good enough" mother, imperfect rather than perfect. I read this and wanted to kiss old Donny on the mouth, but sadly, I discovered he died the year I was born.

I'm learning a lot in my pursuit of imperfection. French fries are a delicious addition to a meal. Red wine is a perfectly acceptable as a late night study companion. Plenty of reading can get done in carpool lines. Deadlines are more easily met when you have more deadlines. The Internet is much more efficient than Dewey Decimal ever was. A little humility and humor goes a long way in connecting with your teenagers (and your classmates). Coffee is the new green juice. Trying something new is messy and uncomfortable, but overall, it's badass.

And being real and good enough is a lot more interesting and rewarding than pretending to be perfect.