Your family seems to be perfect,” 13-year-old Philip declared as we sat eating perfectly unhealthy food with several of my children at Mustard’s Last Stand.
“But I like being with you anyway,” he added.
I snorted and choked on a fry. Philip spent enough time in our messy home, with our six children and barely controlled chaos, to know better.
How — what did we do — to give him, and presumably others, that image?
But secretly, I knew.
The truth came out one recent afternoon as I reminisced about getting my large family of young children ready for church each Sunday with another Mother of Many.
“I had to get five kids under the age of 8 dressed (my youngest was born much later), crammed into the car and kept neat on the drive to the church,” I moaned. “After frantically searching for the same missing patent-leather shoe under the sofa for the 15th time, my evil twin usually popped out. I remember yelling, ‘[Lord’s name used in vain] it, GET IN THE CAR, we’re going to church NOW!’”
I still exhaust myself just thinking about it, but I continued, “Throughout the process, I’m literally screaming at the kids. My very small conscience whispers, ‘Am I stupid? How is this going to help teach them about God, love, prayer and compassion?’”
The thought of the harm I might be doing to their religious education or, worse yet, to their young souls, apparently didn’t calm me. But the importance of looking perfect for the congregation did.
“When we strolled through the Kenilworth Union Church doors, like proud Mama Duck and her ducklings, my smile and their clothes and hair bows were perfect,” I said, smirking. “And when I walked in with my disheveled children and looked at your perfect family,” she smirked back, “I didn’t feel any kinship with you whatsoever. Our friendship didn’t begin until you admitted that you almost strangled your daughter to get that bow tied.”
It has been said that “perfection is impossible; excellence is not.” But on the North Shore anything less than perfect never seems to be enough.
And what plagues us is the perception, the false illusion that things are perfect when they are most certainly not. Sometimes it seems the only thing that can free us are our confessions, our admissions that while perfection might seem to be a noble pursuit, it’s actually a foolish — even damaging — goal.
Two winters ago, two guests at a Winnetka dinner party held court about the frustrations caused by their practically perfect children. “I don’t know how to get Sam motivated,” Parent No. 1 complained. “He is only in the top 10 percent at New Trier. If he doesn’t push for the top 5 percent, he just won’t get into any good schools.”
“I understand,” the second responded. “My daughter is one of the best players in the state, but she can’t show it to college coaches from her usual position on the bench.”
To break the tedium of this exchange, another party guest, Kathleen, announced, “My children are unathletic, unmotivated and of incredibly average intelligence.”
There was dead silence.
“If there were an Olympic medal for video games, my boys would bring home the gold and silver.”And then, finally, everyone smiled.
“Actually, my children do have one talent, and I’m proud that I’ve encouraged it,” Kathleen continued. “They are the best slackers they can possibly be.”
Laughter erupted and the de rigeur dinner table small talk became a lively discussion. The pretense had been lifted. The air cleared. And for Kathleen, and every other parent sitting there with nagging doubts, subtle truths boiling under that perfect North Shore façade, there was community. One small wall had been lifted, but I knew, even then, there were many more to go.
Last spring, during an afternoon of temporary insanity (and perhaps because I was running for public office and pandering to the influential citizens on their board) I agreed to let a worthy organization use our home for a charity house walk in September. I needed the incentive to freshen the interior and grounds after a dozen years of high-energy use. My belief that the house walk would not much disrupt the loving flow of family life proved my mental incapacity.The fights over the few seats in the house not shipped out for reupholstering weren’t bad. And no one objected to locking the cats and dog away from their favorite bladder-relief location — the antique Persian rug in our living room. But the few days before the house walk, when I expected us to keep every room in perfect order, were brutal.
The public traipsing through our cheerfully colored, perfectly arranged home that beautiful fall day developed such a false image of a perfect family life!
A wise friend suggested, “Every house walk should include a ‘Truth Room’ where visitors see the reality that preceeded the event — kids smoking, dog pooping, husband screaming and wife thinking, ‘I’ll feel better only if I staple your eyelids to your kneecaps.’ Fewer guests would leave with house, or family, envy.”
After all of these years (what a slow learner!) I have finally realized that our North Shore tendency to present ourselves and our children as “perfect” does nothing but stifle friendship, family life and other healthy human interaction. Then I began to see the actual damage that trait causes — starting in my own family.
About the time my oldest child hit puberty, an impressively credentialed expert on adolescence advised the junior high PTO, “Your goal as parents should be for your children to graduate from high school not suffering serious addictions or illnesses and be able to maintain at least some relationships. Period.”
I couldn’t believe an “expert” was telling me to expect so little from my genetically perfect children. I knew they all had the ability to make varsity, win service awards, star in the play and graduate at the top of the class!
Nevertheless, I tried to scale back my expectations. “Just clean your room once a week, participate in family dinners and put your best effort into academics and extracurricular activities” became the new family Code Of Conduct.
But I still heard my teens complain, “Mom, you want everything to be perfect. That’s why we all hate to be with you!”
As our family therapist (who wishes to remain unnamed so as not to suffer the public embarrassment of working with me, the really slow learner) put it: “Your teens feel repressed by your egregious expectations and (feel) like outliers surrounded by otherwise perfect siblings. This causes depression and destructive behavior evidencing total lack of self-esteem.”
Hmm, I thought. That explains the friendship with the heroin addict. But was it the “clean room” or the family dinner requirement that wrecked my children?
I needed another well-informed perspective on the damage caused by our North Shore need to be, or at least appear to be, perfect. So last November I interviewed master teacher Tom Kucharski, who for 12 years has taught honors and AP history to freshmen and seniors at New Trier High School — the most “perfect” public high school in the country (and in perfect disclosure, the high school whose board I was elected to last year).
“There’s a difference between needing to be perfect and ‘striving towards perfection,’” Kucharski explained. “The kids who need to be or consider themselves perfect are impenetrable and doomed to fail.” After a perfectly pregnant pause, he continued, “But New Trier benefits from our institutional striving towards perfection. It makes my classes crackle! I thrive on the fact that my students are all looking to get into Harvard. They all want to know how to read the material well, write better, do better on tests.”
He even pointed the issue back at himself. “And who are we as a staff kidding? We’re all part of the same cult. That’s why I’m returning to work at 6:30 p.m. after this interview!” Kucharski inadvertently interrupted his articulate self to demonstrate. “The tape recorder makes me feel like I should speak in more perfect paragraphs.”
He continued anyway, “Most years a few arrogant freshman enter my (honors) class believing they’re perfect. One vehemently insisted that Shakespeare was wrong — Romeo couldn’t feel such intense love!”
“What happens to these kids?” I had to ask, because — of course — my children have never been arrogant or wrong as freshmen.
“If they realize they don’t always have to be the smartest kid in every class they often return as open, thoughtful seniors with a better sense of humor,” he said.
“And the others?” I asked about the ones who continue to need to feel, or at least present themselves as, perfect.
“They press and press and press …” Kucharski said, his voice and enthusiastic demeanor fading. “And they snap. And, unfortunately, it happens more every year.”
No humor here, as I imagine my child sitting comatose, in a New Trier classroom, like a scene from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. But those kinds of problems don’t start at school. Psychologists, novelists and other professional observers of human behavior always point to family as the origin. And isn’t Mother the heart of that family?
It’s always going to be my fault.
Mea Culpa. Smotherly Love.
Hopefully the damage I’ve done won’t take too many years of therapy to undo. Now I’m struggling to develop a new family Code Of Conduct, one that states: “Members of the Noyes Family should never expect themselves or other Noyeses to be or appear to be perfect. However, all members must ‘strive towards perfection.”
Does that mean my children should only “strive toward” a clean room, family dinner attendance and their academic and extracurricular best but never actually clean that room, sit down with others at dinner or accomplish best effort?
The jury is still out. And therein lies another problem. I couldn’t possibly live by that code myself. I’m too old and tired to strive toward but never achieve something — especially perfection. One thing is perfectly clear to my therapist, friends and family — particularly my children: I am most certainly not perfect — yet.