Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year, Same Me... And That's Okay.

I used to have a thing for New Year’s Resolutions. To me, it was a time to sit down, reflect on the year and make a list. It was a fresh start, a new beginning, the page was blank. Who would I be this year? What could I accomplish? What could I change? There’s a freedom in that, to allow yourself to believe that all the things you’re unhappy with can change in a year, like gulping down pure oxygen.  

At the end of 2012, I made thirteen resolutions. THIRTEEN. I go big or go home. I figured, the law of averages, right? If you do something enough times, it will work out at least once. Some were shallow and easy (learn how to apply eyeliner) and some were lofty (be a size eight), and even others seemed insurmountable at the time (stop yelling at my kids). In some way, they all revolved around self-improvement. Be a better (fill in the blank). Be more romantic with my husband (be a better wife). Catch up on backlogged paperwork (be a better employee). Write 2-3K a week (be a better writer). Give more money to charity (Be a better human). The overall message from 2012 Me to 2013 Me: You are not good enough.
I didn’t even realize it until almost November, when I went back and reviewed the list. I laughed a little at myself, but at the same time, deep down, I felt like a failure. I had accomplished maybe three of the items on the list (which upped to four when I quickly found an eyeliner tutorial on Youtube).
I tried explaining all this to my husband, who has always insisted that I am ridiculously hard on myself. I have always countered with: self-improvement can never be bad. We can all afford to be better people. To me, it’s always been arrogance to assume you’re perfectly fine the way you are – that you couldn't improve your parenting, or maybe be a better friend to someone, maybe say you’re sorry to someone you should have apologized to years ago? I dismissed him as too self-satisfied. I was clearly the enlightened one.
A few weeks ago, I went to my daughter’s kindergarten classroom for National Education Week. I watched her sit, straight-backed, at the Star table listening to instructions, and then cut out turkey feathers in perfect shapes. I watched her collect all her scraps and throw them away and put away her scissors and pencil in her pencil case and then refold her “quiet hands” and wait patiently for the next instruction. I watched her scan the classroom to make sure she was the first one done. I watched her run a small index finger along the edge of the turkey feather to make sure it was a flawless, clean cut. I watched her get frustrated because the glue on her page was slightly smeared. I watched her write and erase the “L” in her first name probably fifteen times, until I thought the paper would rip. Later that night, I said to my husband, “What kind of five year old demands that level of perfection? Where would she get that from?” He quipped back, “Maybe there’s a thirteen New Year’s resolutions gene.”
I was frustrated. I've never pushed her – her drawings were always hung proudly on the refrigerator, she dresses herself in whatever she wants, and even does her own hair. I don’t fix her crooked ponytails. I don’t tell her that pink doesn't always match pink. I stress that “doing your best” is all I ever ask. I’m conscious of letting her find her own way. How could I have done that to her? I clearly needed to do something different, something better. But what? I started Googling things, how to tame a perfectionist child, how to calm an anxious kindergartner.  I watched her do her homework and erase letter after letter, and I said to my husband, “What did I do wrong? What can I do differently?” And his answer was simple. “You are too hard on yourself.”
With that simple phrase, one he’d said a hundred times in our marriage, I realized he was right. For the first time, I understood what he meant. I wasn't hard on my daughter. I was hard on me. I was loving and forgiving and encouraging to my daughter. To myself, I was critical, unkind, harsh. And it was possible, maybe even likely, that whatever perfectionist trait my daughter had inherited had been nurtured in herself by watching me.
I thought back to every Pinterest project we’d ever tackled, every picture we’d ever colored together, every date night she’d watched me get dressed, trying on outfit after outfit, probably sighing. I wasn't a perfectionist, necessarily. In fact, in the moment I can be frequently very lazy. Only later do I fret, worry, feel guilt, think about what I should have said, or should have done, over-apologize, or stress about how I come off to others. She’d spent her whole life watching me critique myself, and come up short in my own eyes. She wasn't trying to make her “L’s” perfect for me—she knew my love was unconditional. But I had inadvertently taught her that self-love was something to be worked for, to be earned.
This year, I’m making one resolution. It’s one word, and it’s mildly cheesy. Accept. Accept that I will yell. Try again tomorrow. Accept my size 14. Eat healthy choices. Accept my work day ends at 4. Accept that I might disappoint someone someday. Whether it be my husband or my best friend, my boss, my mother or my sister. Accept that giving what I give to charity is better than nothing and maybe just give a little bit more.
 We are teaching our children how to be people. Not just with House Rules charts and Rewards Jars, but with our actions. Not just how we treat our kids, but how we treat others, how we treat ourselves. Some of the greatest lessons aren't sound bites (Hands are not for hitting! Kind words, kind tone!), but choices we make every day, reflected by how we view the world. Maybe if we want our kids to be happy, we should be happy. Maybe if we want our kids to be kind, we should be kind.
Maybe if we want our kids to love themselves, it’s not enough that we simply love them. We must also love ourselves.

 I never said I'd quit drinking