Pinterest’s algorithm thought I would be interested in creating an accent wall in my soon-to-be-born daughter’s nursery using gold-dot decals.
Pinterest was right. (I’m both an aspiring minimalist and a sucker for social-media ads.)
My husband, Dan, and I made plans to put the decals on the wall on a Friday night. We dragged our kitchen chairs up the stairs, grabbed a leveler and a pencil, and ripped open the package. It was then that I realized I hadn’t given any thought to how we would get the dots onto the wall in the perfect, staggered rows I envisioned. We jokingly call this the night our marriage almost ended. But two nights, a half-dozen arguments, and just as many apologies later, we had managed to position every dot perfectly. The wall looked as lovely as Pinterest had promised it would.
I continued working on the room in the weeks that followed and often found myself swept away by reveries. As I stocked the dresser with diapers, I imagined tickling my daughter’s tummy while she lay on the changing pad. As I folded her sleepers, I pictured my hands gently guiding her arms and legs into them and snapping the buttons one by one. As I tucked blankets into a drawer, I thought about how delicious it would be to snuggle her with the crocheted creations draped over us. Other times, these same tasks dredged up panic and indecision: I arranged her clothes only to rearrange them over and over in more practical ways, searched online for the perfect basket to hold her hair bows, and moved the diapers from one drawer to another and then back again, trying to determine the most sensible location.
Looking back, I’m tempted to roll my eyes at these behaviors, but I also feel a tenderness toward the woman I was, and sometimes still am: I wanted to get it right. I wanted to create a lovely space for my child. I wanted to feel prepared. Surely, I thought, a prepared mom would have a complete, coordinated nursery ready for her baby—even if it wouldn’t stay that way for long. I knew I would eventually be too busy and tired to painstakingly fold every pair of baby pajamas, and someday an active toddler would pull the neatly organized books off the shelves. The rest of my house and the rest of my life would surely be in disarray for a while too. There would soon be a crying infant I couldn’t console, nightmares I couldn’t soothe, accidents I couldn’t prevent. I would face tantrums that would test me and changes I wouldn’t know how to handle. I was bound to make mistakes—mistakes that would carry more weight than ever before. And though I couldn’t imagine what it would actually feel like, I knew I’d be overcome with a love so instinctual, so ferocious, that it might threaten to consume me. My life would no longer be exclusively mine. As I came face to face with this overwhelming reality, putting together the nursery offered to be my last fling with perfection.
My daughter’s room was the one thing I could do perfectly before the chaos of life with a tiny human arrived. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have an inner drive for perfection. In school, I was the kid who hated arts-and-crafts time because I could never fold the paper perfectly in half or cut a razor-straight line. When practicing cursive, I would form a letter and then erase it, form and erase, form and erase, until my paper was smudged and marked by the holes I’d worn through it in my frustration. As an adult, my need for perfection and order has manifested in more subtle but perhaps more damaging ways. I’ve attempted to conform my body into the perfect shape. I avoid taking risks or making decisions without a plan. I agonize over tiny decisions, thinking there is one perfect option available, and I’m responsible for identifying it. I subconsciously believe that having all the details of a situation ordered and complete can provide a guarantee that I’ll be able to handle any surprises that might come my way. And so my thinking with the nursery went something like this: If I can make it perfect, down to the very last detail, I’ll feel ready to have my world — and this room — turned upside down. But the thing is, I rarely get to the point where I believe I do have everything in order. I never achieve my elusive definitions of preparedness and perfection.
My choices eat away at me as I wonder whether I’ve made the right decision, and I feel uncomfortable and insecure, never quite capturing the confidence and rest “perfection” had promised me.
Soon after the Great Gold-Dot Decal Debacle of 2015, I began to hunt for a glider chair. After hours of research and reading reviews and testing them out in the store, I found one I hoped would be worth the expense. When Dan placed the chair in the corner of the nursery, my inner fretting paused. I settled my growing body into the chair and closed my eyes, captivated by a daydream once again. Here I would hold my newborn baby, my arms cradling her body and supporting her head, my fingertips grazing her tiny toes. Here I would sing lullabies over her as she drifted off to sleep, my voice providing a sense of comfort and security. Here we would read bedtimes stories and snuggle close as she grew, eventually able to climb in
and out of my lap on her own.
Early in the mornings when I couldn’t sleep, thanks to pregnancy insomnia, I would cross the hallway to the nursery to sit in the glider. It felt as if I were being invited to rest for one more minute, to dream about all that would take place in this room, to envision the home it would become for my little girl. As I rocked in the chair each day, I realized my quest for a Pinterest-perfect nursery had never really been about perfection for the sake of it—something softer had simply gotten caught in the trap of perfectionism. My efforts were reflective of the deep love I already felt for my little girl and my desire to welcome her into our home and say, “You’re ours! You belong here!” I wanted her nursery to be a sanctuary for both of us in the chaotic days to come, a place where we could retreat for security, familiarity, and connection. Perfectionism is often a short-sighted attempt at connection. We want to be loved, so we strive to be as worthy of love as possible. We want to be seen as capable and dependable and unflappable, and somehow that gets translated to never making mistakes. We want to make others feel comfortable and cared for, so we hide all the clutter before guests arrive, make sure we look put together, and warn our kids to be on their best behavior. But it doesn’t work. Though we hope our perfection will facilitate connection, it’s actually a hindrance to the very thing we’re after. As we try harder and do more, as we overvalue productivity and perfection, we fly past the moments of connection that start from a place of rest, vulnerability, and attunement to others.
Take this gold-dot disaster as an example, a cautionary tale, even: what could have been a fun night of working as a team with my husband, talking about our hopes and dreams for our baby girl while we added a touch of whimsy to her room, devolved into a tense standoff. I wanted perfection and didn’t trust anyone but myself to get us there, and so I missed the opportunity for connection. Later, when my daughter turned one, I whipped myself into a frenzy while I decorated and cleaned and cooked, doing my best to make her party just right—so much so that I hardly remember any of the details. I was so tired and overwhelmed by the time our guests arrived that I wished I could go upstairs and sleep rather than engage and enjoy. Do you see yourself in these scenarios? Can you point to your own moments—maybe holidays or birthdays or Mother’s Days—when you prioritized perfection over connection?
My guess is that you, like me, had the very best of intentions. In our drive toward perfection, we actually want to show our people how much we love them. But as it turns out, they don’t measure our love in all-or-nothing terms (if it’s not a perfect display, it’s worthless). They feel loved through our attempt, however imperfect our efforts end up. Consider this my humble invitation to mamas like me—earnest but misguided perfectionists: Before jumping into action, whether on decorating the nursery or reading another parenting book or planning a birthday party, let’s think about what it would look like to prioritize connection. Before we try to prove our ability or worth, let’s take a minute to be still. Before spiraling into control and perfectionism, let’s gently commit to a higher purpose: to lay a foundation of connection, peace, and security as an expression of love for our children.
Adapted from Expecting Wonder: The Transformative Experience of Becoming a Mother by Brittany L. Bergman copyright © 2020 Broadleaf Books. Reproduced by permission.
Bio: Brittany L. Bergman is an author who is passionate about telling stories that provide refreshment, connection, and encouragement to mothers who don’t want to lose sight of their identity. Her essays on motherhood have been featured in TODAY Parents, Motherly, Coffee + Crumbs, and The MOPS Blog. Her first book, Expecting Wonder, is about the identity-level transformation we experience as we become mothers.