I remember growing up and having my parents say to my bubbly, talkative, 8 –year-old self, “You know, Sam, one day you are going to blame everything on us”. They would tell me horror stories of kids hating their parents and locking themselves up in rooms during this scary angst-ridden period called being a “teenager”. I remember thinking to myself, and even saying to them, “But I love you guys, that would never happen.”
But it did.
By my first year in high school, I was on the verge of becoming a pretty mean kid. Not in the archetypal Mean Girls kind of way, but in a different, more biting kind of manifestation of mean. I was fake. I loved smiling at people no matter my real emotions, being everyone’s best friend and confidante, and feeling like everyone around me wanted to be there at all times. I felt needed, loved by my community, and in control of everything I touched, but I also felt extremely held back by my parents, and I was full of resentment. I sought perfection socially, academically, and athletically, but not within my family. I thought my parents, my mom specifically, was holding me back from reaching that potential. To a certain degree, this disdain maintained itself throughout my high school career.
In my mind, my mother insisted I get good grades. She insisted I stay in school and not miss it for even a cold. She insisted that I constantly did things for those around me but never could do things for myself. She insisted I become the child that everyone wanted to be: involved in everything, but most importantly, excelling in everything.
She didn’t really insist on any of those things. Ever. But I did.
In fifth grade, my favorite teacher, Mrs. Marilyn Tornatore, held me after class one day. She didn’t say much, but she told me she and my mom were worried about me, and handed me a small paperback that was entitled something along the lines of “Fighting Perfectionism.” I never read it, but I really should have.
Because by the time I entered high school and placed all of my anger in the wrong, traditional adolescent places, I had already had multiple stress-induced ulcers. By my senior year in high school, I had torn all of the ligaments in my ankle, bringing my love of figure skating to a halt, I had a volatile and hyper-emotional break-up with my high school boyfriend, I had anxiety attacks, constantly changing friend groups, and a plummeting self-esteem that I attempted to appease by pushing myself too hard. I blamed my mom for all of this, for her “expectations” that I recognize now as the effects of an incredible plague of perfectionism that controlled my every move until I was 18.
I’m not sure how many people knew how much I was struggling at the time. After the local newspaper called me the “Crown Jewel” of our town, the singing-soccer player that I had never had a real conversation with but that everyone adored asked me to prom, and I had become the student body president of one of the best public schools in the nation, I had everything. I cried every single day of my senior spring, and I had no one to blame but myself. But I blamed my mom.
She never got angry with me. Sometimes she was disappointed or tried to encourage me to stop working so hard, or to place my priorities in different places, but that would only infuriate me more. Why didn’t she get what I wanted to be? Why didn’t she understand that what I wanted to be was perfect?
I’ll never forget my mom’s face when I opened the envelope holding my acceptance letter to Boston College. We both cried, because I had achieved something that was important to both of us, but I think also because we both knew, in that moment, that I had to go. I had to get out of town and out of my head, really, and this was an incredible way to do so.
Since then, everything has changed. Sometimes I wonder if my friends in school today would have liked me back then, and I realistically know that they probably would not. And, perhaps in the eyes of my high school I have kind of flopped. I went to a great school and met great people, but I’m not leading anything. I’m not a straight-A student, and I don’t play sports or organize fundraisers. I spend my time conversing and getting to know just a few people, rather than plowing through crowds of acquaintances just to get somewhere in my life that I think is more important. This is a change of which I am incredibly proud. And, thankfully, and finally, I can blame my mom for this one as well.
She has never pushed me to be anyone or pursue any major or career, but she has always encouraged me to remain challenged, because challenging yourself leads to passion, and passion, she has taught me, leads to the happiness that I am constantly still trying to find. Truthfully she has never pressured or insisted on me to be anything but happy.
When I go home for holidays, I sometimes get stuck with friends, family, old teachers, or random parents telling my mom and me that I’m “perfect” or a “role model”. I flinch, and still kind of cringe even thinking about that concept of myself. These conversations always go the same way. “What is your perfect daughter going to do in life?”
“Do in life?” Hell if I know. I want to write, I want to read, I want to travel some more and live in a cabin in the middle of nowhere and have a chocolate lab named Penny Lane. I could do a year or two in a shiny office building or a year or two in grad school, bartending to pay off my classes. I have so many options, and no one, including myself, is pressuring me to pursue any one direction.
But I have a new answer to this question. I don’t know what I want to do in life, but I know what I want to be in life. I want to be a really great mom one day. I’m not perfect, I never have been, but my mom truly is, and that’s the kind of perfect I want to teach my kids one day.
Merry Christmas, Mom.