It was some time this spring that I realized I had to let go. I’m not sure how I feel about it.
I power through life. I have fought the desolation of the human condition by doing. By forcing. By making lists, by assigning tasks, by organizing groups where I find one lacking, by speaking out against injustice.
It was probably the presidential primaries that did me in first. It’s not the first time that national politics have shown me the futility of my flailing. After W got elected the second time, I was in such despair that I turned off the news and didn’t turn them back on for another four years. This cycle, watching the increasingly nonsensical, coarse and divisive campaign, I first responded by watching every sliver of coverage, then spewing fire at it.
Then, finally, somebody said to me, “You know that no matter how worked up you get, that’s not going to change any of it, right?”
It’s eminently logical, of course. I’ve probably understood that intellectually for decades. And yet the simple effect that could have on my day-to-day happiness had never occurred to me before. I could just let go. And the world would keep spinning as it does.
I had another similar moment with my kids last night. I was softly chiding them to do something or another they only halfheartedly do. Usually, they just quietly agree, then ignore me anyway. (They don’t ignore me on everything, and they’re great kids. But there are definitely things on which the ship has sailed).
Last night they were in a playful mood, and started to mimic me with the uncanny precision that only people who live with you can achieve. “We’re on the honor system,” they goodheartedly imitated me, mirroring back my own recognizably sarcastic sense of humor, which they’ve definitely both inherited. “Never mind that the honor system keeps getting reset no matter how much you don’t do what I’m asking you to do. And that I’m not even going to check if you’re doing it.”
It was hilarious at first. But they kept at it. Then a swell of emotion came over me and I had to go upstairs. (Yes, I cried, because that’s just how I roll). Upstairs, the emotion only got stronger. After I let it wash over me, I tried to understand why. What had they said that had reached me so deeply? They’d only called out my contradictory instructions, my ineffectual words. Sure, I’ve raised them well, and they’re inquisitive and smart and sweet to the core. But, in their own adolescent way they let me know last night that my job is just about over. That they see through me. That there’s only so much left for me to do. The sense of futility in that was powerful, a lingering death to the many lofty and unrealistic goals of the young mother I once was. No, I probably won’t get them into Harvard. They won’t be mathematicians who will revolutionize numbers. (Maybe, but probably not). They may struggle with certain things – picking up their clothes, for example, or doing their homework on time.
I raised great kids, but I didn’t raise perfect ones. And that feels so much more about me than about them. I can live with their imperfections just fine. But it’s mine that just absolutely haunt me. What if I had focused more on teaching them to fold clothes? To make check-marks on their agendas next to completed assignments? Given them more gold stickers on charts in the kitchen? My many failures echo around me. Maybe I have failed them.
My desire for perfection has caused much of the unhappiness of my life. I want the perfect country I thought I grew up in, with leaders who are strong and wise and worthy. I want to be the world’s best mother, who did everything absolutely right with her kids. I want to produce astounding word count, every day. I want to not burn the food I make. I want to not feel like quitting in the middle of workouts. But all of those things escape me.
So, maybe, maybe, letting go of the impossible standards is the answer. Last night, as I lay in bed recovering from my sadness, I heard my kids laughing together downstairs, sounding absolutely joyful. It was their last night of a week off, and I knew that getting up the first Monday back would be especially challenging. The boss mom in me knew I had to break up the party, get them to bed on time, remind them to brush their teeth, enforce a lights out.
But as I listened to their laughter, I decided that, for once, I would try another way. They’d either get washed or they wouldn’t. They’d either get enough sleep or they wouldn’t. Whether they were well-rested or exhausted, somehow they’d get up the next morning. So I turned on my TV and let it go. For one night, they could figure it out on their own.
And they did. Unprompted, they both showered. I don’t know what time they went to sleep, because I knocked out before they did. But this morning, everyone got up just fine, and we made it to school on time and without event. I let go, and it somehow all got figured out anyway.
I can’t pretend that I’m cured from my do-all-be-all complex. But letting go, even if for just one night, felt peaceful. I hope I can keep finding that place in me.