From where you sit, the afternoon light beams in, pleasantly illuminating the flowers on your dining room table. Then your gaze drifts down to the floor, where tufts of dog hair catch the light as they are blown around by the ceiling fan breeze.
You sigh, irritated.
Dust surrounds you: in your lampshade, under your furniture, in your refrigerator grate, on your ceiling. It all serves as a reminder that cleanliness and small children simply cannot coexist.
Grains of sand under your feet drive you nuts. The food debris under the baby’s highchair feels like an unending and senseless battle not even worth fighting, yet, you find yourself on hands and knees three times a day, wiping it up again and again because you just can’t help yourself.
Hard as it was, you let go of your compulsive need to keep the Play-Doh colors separate. As your child happily mashes them all together in a blissful state of ignorant oblivion, you engage in self-congratulatory imaginary pats on the back for being so chill.
You grit your teeth as the watercolor wells blend into one another until the hues are no longer distinguishable, knowing this is at least fixable. Running them under water will restore order once more. Tiny shreds of paper cover your floor after “scissor practice,” but you know the handheld vacuum will make quick work of it.
Then you beat yourself up for obsessing about the Play-Doh. This can’t be remotely healthy for your children to have a mother who struggles so mightily with letting them be normal children. Your inner monologue is a constant loop of messages of self-flagellation.
Your to-do list grows longer and longer every day. And every night you remember all the things you should have—but failed to—put on it. There are brief moments of triumph when it feels like an acceptable number of things have been accomplished, quickly followed by feelings of defeat whenever a new urgent and important task adds itself to the queue.
Life is a series of problems to be solved, says your therapist. True that.
Social media is a blessing and a curse. You roll the dice every time you open your phone. Will there be messages of solidarity that speak hope directly to your heart? Or over-curated images that seem to portray a perfect, yet unattainable, existence? You compare your darkest moments to the highlight reels of others, knowing the folly in this, unable to stop yourself.
Your head is full of unfinished thoughts. Beginnings of ideas, that only needed 90 seconds of attention to fully come to fruition. There was simply no attention to give. You try writing them down.
Your Notes app is full of sentence fragments, existential questions and Target shopping lists.
You go to work, grateful for the opportunity to converse with other adults, to feel productive, to find purpose. But you miss your children. You come home. Five minutes after walking into the chaos of home, you miss your job.
Your babies bring you so much joy. Their chubby hands and kissable cheeks and squeals of delight make your heart soar. Your toddler’s unsolicited bear hugs are becoming more and more frequent, melting you into a puddle with every squeeze. Your baby kisses you with his mouth wide open, full of slobber and good intentions.
You have never successfully made a trip to the bathroom alone when your children are awake. Ever.
You remember a quote you’ve seen dozens of times floating around the internet:
“There’s no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one.”
The words feel hopeful, but easier to say than they are to believe. The grace and self-compassion required to let yourself off this imaginary hook are elusive, always seeming to be just out of reach.
Perfectionism has served you well in previous pursuits. Attention to detail and impossible standards have garnered you tremendous success, but now they feel like personality traits that threaten the mental and emotional well-being of your children.
You read books. Join Facebook groups. Listen to podcasts. Talk to friends. Then talk to a therapist, so as not to exhaust your friends. All in a desperate attempt to do this thing—this one, most important, thing—right.
Here, in the midst of the infuriating minutia of the every day, you lay the foundation for the rest of their lives. The cruelty of this is overwhelming — that their futures may or may not hinge on how well you handled that spilled milk situation this morning. So you go get the baby from his crib as he’s waking from his nap. His head nestles into your chest, just under your collarbone, and the sweet smell of his head reminds you of a time when you only imagined him, when he fit under your ribs.
The perfection of the present moment makes all the questions fade away. And you let them.