Beginning in the sixth grade, I was required to practice 4.5 hours a day every day that I wasn't in school. On school days, this was cut down to an easy 1.5 hours. This was split three ways between clarinet, piano, and violin.
At first I resisted this schedule. I sometimes remember setting the timer, opening a book on my music stand, and practicing "long tones" for thirty minutes while I caught up on Trixie Belden's latest mischief and checking off my practice sheet as DONE.
But as sixth grade merged into middle school and then high school- I resisted less and less. Because I got really good at all three of these instruments. I enjoyed playing. I thrived on performing. My soul fed on one aspect of music that both captivated and frustrated me: perfection.
As I continued to practice, perform, and pursue this relentless need for perfection, I thought I had discovered myself.
As I went on to get a bachelor degree in music education and a masters degree in performance, I learned that in order to be perfect, not only could you not miss any notes- but each note had to approach the right way, end the right way, and the intonation and tone for all of the in between better be spot on as well. No room for error. Or else? You kept practicing those five notes over and over again until all of those things were rock solid for each note- every time.
Because of my endless hours of work on my own performing, I got very good at critiquing music (this is a fancy word for criticizing.) I could tear apart a performance- telling exactly which notes were missed, which notes were out of tune, and at which points musicality was evident. Or not.
I could snub my nose with them best of them at a bad performance. Or pitch a classic hissy fit after a performance of my own that was really quite good but I had missed those two notes so clearly I was a failure. I could talk for hours about awards I had won, concerts I had soloed in, ensembles I played first chair in- because my goal was constantly: perfection. And I was good at it.
After Carter Henry was born, it was decided that I should leave my job
critiquing teaching high school music and focus on the madness of two babies close in age in a rapidly deteriorating home.
Staying home full time rocked my little world of previously sought after ideals. I was no longer the soloist trying to perfect one instrument at a time. I suddenly became the entire orchestra- required to play each and every instrument at the same time with the same standard of performance.
As I found myself knee deep in dirty diapers, dishes that refused to jump into the dishwasher on their own, laundry that tripled faster than I could curse it away, children that sometimes cried for no reason at all, and a house that hourly proved the law of entropy, I struggled with my obvious imperfection that didn't go away no matter how intense my work and practice to improve.
And not only could I not do this perfectly, but even after all my efforts to keep up with the house, menu, shopping, children, therapies, etc etc etc- there was no applause. No standing ovation for my hard work. No beaming smiles from a happy conductor. No satisfaction from finishing a performance and then moving on to the next.
There were just suggestions- "critiques."
Just as people critique musicians on a performance done well or badly, the world seems bent on critiquing on how new mothers take care of their children- whether they ask for it or not. Small little passive aggressive comments reveal a lot of hidden judgment.
"Are you sure she's warm enough in that?"
"You're really going to let him eat THAT?"
"I'm so disappointed you put a too strict sleep schedule in front of something as important as a church function. Clearly, you hate God."
"Your child acted out? Let me tell you exactly how that is your fault and what you should do next."
"WHY would you let your baby play with that???" (insert gasp of horror)
"Your daughter isn't potty trained yet? Are you not trying hard enough?
Since I put my motherhood life online, it's easy for those who I would rather not share certain vulnerabilities and weaknesses with to read them anyway. And then use them against me.
As a new mother, at times I have felt very criticized. Sometimes it's spoken. Sometimes it's just a glance- or a rolling of the eyes. Sometimes it's the deliberate silence when I most need to hear a positive answer.
When I was out in the audience watching the performance of motherhood, I admit I was the first to leave with my brilliantly worded critique in hand. It's easy to be the expert when you're that far removed from reality.
But now I'm standing on the stage, performing my heart and soul into motherhood- well aware of every single imperfection. I'm shaking, crying, nervous- because it is a difficult performance.
Every day. Every day is a difficult performance that I do imperfectly, but do to the best of my ability and with more musicality and spirit than I ever poured into my instruments.
And in past motherhood performances, I've stared into the eyes of my audience, begging to hear those little words whispered "You're doing a good job." But sometimes apparently those words are too difficult to utter.
My own demons of fighting toward perfection overwhelmed me. Why couldn't I do this right? Why was it as soon as I felt comfortable about one area of my responsibility another falls apart? Why couldn't I keep the house ahead of two toddlers that were intent on destroying it? How did everyone else make this look so easy? I so badly wanted to do this perfectly- why did that desire make all of this even harder?
I stood on the stage missing notes- telling myself that this performance wasn't for the audience- it was for me. And then my spirit of NEEDING perfection would overwhelm me and tell me that I was a failure. The audience's shrugs and rolled eyes merely added to that feeling.
I'll admit, this attitude controlled me for too long in my career of motherhood performances.
And yet, something has changed these past few months. I can't explain it. I don't even know what specifically changed. Chalk it up to some soul searching, to happy children, to some wonderful books that I've read, to taking some distance from the problem- I don't really know. But I find myself standing up on that stage more confidently.
I survey the mess around me- a mess I am doing my very best to keep under control. I think about the laundry that always seems to stay ahead of me. I picture my children's cute faces as they sometimes get angry with the choices that I make for them. I mentally write up a grocery list and then refuse to feel guilty that I need to buy so much more milk because my nineteen month son is still so addicted to his Bobble.
I stand on that stage, and I will myself to stop shaking. I stop comparing my work to a more perfect model that I've built up on my Pinterest boards. I face my audience that I feel so criticized by- and with my voice cracking from so much pent up emotion, and I shout,
"I AM DOING A GOOD JOB!"
I realize that tears are rolling down my face because I really do believe it, and I have felt controlled too long by the absence of that sentence in my own mind the past few years.
"I AM IMPERFECT, BUT I AM A DARN GOOD MOTHER."
I lower my voice and continue.
"I imperfectly keep my house- but my children are comfortable and safe here. They play, they explore, they walk confidently in the space that they know is theirs. I imperfectly keep up with the dishes- but my family eats well and doesn't seem to care that the counter isn't always spotless. I imperfectly control the laundry of an active family, but my family always has clean clothes to wear and when we have to search for clean clothes out of a basket- well then that becomes a game. I imperfectly organize and decorate, but it is my space to live and it couldn't represent my chaotic personality any better. I imperfectly mother my children, but no two children have ever been more loved and cherished. They know that they can count on me, talk to me, play with me, and simply cuddle with me for no reason at all. They know that no one will fight harder for them, laugh louder with them, or soothe tears with more sympathy."
I no longer get 4.5 hours a day to practice instruments that will give me high profile performances that make me feel good about myself.
Now I get days. Beautiful, endless, short, messy days to build two lives and make memories of a quickly fleeting time.
I have stopped listening to the audience because I don't have the emotional energy to give them the satisfaction of control. I have put aside my desperate need for perfection and focused on simply living- imperfectly.
I stand on the stage, performing motherhood one movement at a time. I miss a few notes here and there. I laugh at my mistakes even though I'm being marked off for not keeping a straight face and hiding things under a cloak of perceived perfection. (Because sometimes the laughter over the ridiculous errors that come my way is the thing that makes my day. I love to laugh. Motherhood provides me ample opportunity.) My musicality doesn't sit well with a judge in the back corner. I tremble at times with the intensity. A small smile curves on my face at the sweet passages.
And when it's over? I won't even notice if there's applause. Because I no longer need it. One glance at the bright, shiny faces of my twinsies smiling back at me is better than an audience of thousands giving a standing ovation.