If I could schedule a coffee (or chai tea in my case) with my younger self, I’d have a lot to tell her. Like how those over-sized sweatshirts never did any favors for her figure or the belief that being tan is better than being pale was a really a marketing ploy. I’d be sure to let her know to enjoy eating everything in her sight then, because after a few decades each food choice will impact her ability to fit into her jeans.
I think she’d like to know that she’ll be a mom, because I know as a youngin’ she yearned for that but questioned if she’d be able. And I’d like her to know that no matter how tall her family was, she better toss out any hope of having a growth spurt as she will fully embody the short recessive gene. She’d be ecstatic to know that one day she won’t have to stress about the weird wave in her hair, but that a tool will appear, helping her to straighten away all kinks and actually, she will learn to embrace the curl too, when she’s feeling spunky.
She definitely would need to know that she will go through heartache, and that ache will hurt in ways she can’t imagine. Some of it will linger and never truly disappear, but she will make it through. Stronger. Braver. She will not only make it through, but she will be better for it.
There is so much I’d like to tell her. So many things I wish I could have helped her avoid and experiences to prep her for, both the painful and joyous ones. What I would give to knock her up-side the head and help her focus on what will propel her forward, who is worth her time, and which path she needs to take to get to her end destination more quickly.
But it doesn’t work that way. Life, that is. There is no time machine or teleportation mechanism to reverse what’s been done. And I’m sure that’s totally by design. I mean, look at things we can reverse, like our cars. We can drive backwards, but in doing so, think about how challenging it is to drive straight, to not twist and turn. It’s much easier to trudge ahead full speed than inch backward. I imagine life is much like that.
I have always been a perfectionist. While I’m confident some traits like this one isn’t something your taught but rather you’re born with, it is one that I wish had a return policy for. While it sounds good on paper, at times it can be debilitating. And one place that it nearly brought me to my knees and ran me over was in school.
Ever since I step foot out of my house and into the confines of the cement structures, I couldn’t absorb enough of what the teachers gave for my liking. I was a learning junkie. The more they could toss out, the more I was invigorated. Not only did I want to learn everything, I wanted to be perfect at it. It started young, this desire to excel. And once I opened that part in my soul, there was no turning back. No matter how much I tried, it became who I was and it dictated my life.
So much so that most weekends of my childhood you could find me on the floor of my bedroom, books spread out in an orderly fashion as I tried to re-teach myself everything I needed to know for the upcoming quiz, test, or presentation. My parents were proud at first, until they noticed how what began as a passion for learning had evolved into a fear of failure.
I’m not sure how it happened, but once I started to excel, I told myself that it must continue. I couldn’t stop. I had to succeed. And to me, success was straight A’s and being top of the class. But in true honesty, the competition I started to feel was less with other people and more with myself.
By the time I knew it was a chronic problem, I couldn’t stop it. I was in high school when it kicked into high gear. There was never enough time in the day to be prepared or to study enough. So something had to give, and for me it was sleep. The week of looming tests would cause me to stay up late, rewriting my notes and highlighting my books. But it was never enough time. So I started getting up early, thinking that morning cram sessions would be helpful too. What started as setting my alarm to wake up 30 minutes before I normally would evolved into hours earlier. In fact, 3 a.m. became my new normal wake-up routine, all for the fear of not being successful. For the fear of getting a “B” on a test.
It worked, I guess. I completed grade school with all A’s, only getting a B during one semester of History in 8th grade (but don’t worry, I averaged out with an A). And in high school, all A’s too, even landed salutatorian, which actually frustrated me because if it weren’t for a weighted GPA, I would have probably taken the top spot. In college, too, I followed the course I knew, and I proved successful yet again, this time graduating valedictorian.
Yippee, right? Way to go, Steph. I succeeded at my dreams. I never got a B on a report card. I did what I set out to do. I hit my “perfect” goal even when they changed the grading scale for getting an “A” from 90 to 92. I remember I walked out of my college graduation with my head held high. The last two decades of my life I did what I set out for, but it didn’t take long to realize at what expense.
My first job started the week after I graduated college, and a few days into my new job I realized that my life was like a series of books. I had just closed one chapter and was opening another. And the chapter that I was writing now could care less about the outcome of the previous chapter, except for the fact that I had a diploma, several internships under my belt, and a basic knowledge base to get started.
No one cared about what I had cared so much about. Those days that I had gotten up early even amidst sickness and went to school to ace that test. Those nights that I opted to stay in and work on school work versus go see a movie with my friends. None of it mattered now. Yes, some could say my work ethic and dedication helped me land a job. I can’t question that, but I do question what I gave up to get where I thought I needed to be. Would one “B” on a test have changed my life? Come on young Stephanie… didn’t you know that?!
I see it happening already in my son. That inherited trait has been passed down whether I want it to or not. It’s in his eyes, which means it’s embedded in his soul. If he accidentally colors outside of the lines, he has to throw the paper away and start over. Doing okay isn’t good enough. It has to be great. If he doesn’t remember a sight word or messes up in counting, he is disappointed in himself. And he’s only four.
It’s coming. He has perfectionism in him. He wants to do great things, and I know he will one day. Honestly, he’s already doing it now. But while I can’t go back and inform my younger self of what matters most, hopefully I still have time to have an impact on him. It’s a delicate line you walk when dealing with someone like us though. You can’t talk us out of our intense mindset; you have to help us see the bigger picture. If you don’t push us to be great, we think you don’t have faith in us. If you don’t celebrate our accomplishments, we push harder thinking we didn’t do enough.
So while I can’t have a candid conversation with my younger self, I can lay the foundation for who I will need to be for him in several years. And, that starts today, with being honest with myself. So here goes.
Stephanie, first you need to remember that no one is perfect, no matter how hard anyone tries. Even when you thought you were, you weren’t. And the glorious thing about that is, it’s okay. It’s okay to not know everything, to make mistakes, to fail. Because, as you’ve learned, it’s actually in your failed attempts that you grow the most. Some of your biggest mistakes have taught you more than when you glided by. As Eli grows, make sure that he has opportunities to fail, and when he does, sometimes let him try to stand up on his own. Be there, of course, but the best thing you can do for him is teach him how to fly.
Secondly, don’t be so hard on yourself. Life is too short to worry about what you could have done. Just focus on what you can do now. Take every experience as a learning one and focus your energy on what you can change, who you can become, and what you can control. Speaking of control, you don’t have as much as you think you do. Actually, lots of things in life are out of your hands. And that’s actually for the better. Have faith and know that you are where you are because that’s where your supposed to be. Make sure Eli doesn’t dwell on the past, and that means you have to not dwell on it either. Forgive, love, and move on. He’s bound to end up on a path that you may not have paved or every ventured on, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right one for him. Love him nonetheless.
And finally, be okay with okay. Stop competing with yourself. Learn when excellence is necessary and when good is good enough. Don’t get wrapped up in the wrong things but rather get wrapped up in the things that are worth the investment. Pat yourself on the back when you do something awesome, but realize that it probably wasn’t the outcome that was so great, but the work ethic you put in, the passion you exuded, and the excitement around the possibilities ahead. Stop trying to exceed just for name sake, and instead just do your best. Eli will need you. The rest of your kiddos will need you too. And they need you to be this example for them.
No, Stephanie, you can’t go backward. You may be a pro in backing into a parking space, but you’re reverse skills past that are null and void. Drive forward and do so with purpose and intent. Be the person you want your kids to look up to. Celebrate what matters, so that they know what is worth it in life. Show them what it looks like to fail, so that they know how important it is in shaping them. And praise them for doing their best, even if it means not reaching the societal standards or even their own expectations. Love them anyway. For one day, they too will look back and realize that while Father Time isn’t on their side, you always will be.