Exporing the perfect family syndrome
Why do we set such impossibly high standards for ourselves?

Kim Gray
Canwest News Service

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Perfection is no substitute for happiness, many are discovering

So, I'm sitting with a couple of moms over a glass of white wine and lunch and we're talking about -- aside from other topics such as community schools, friendships and resilience in a sometimes unstable world -- the perfect family syndrome.

Whether or not this "syndrome" actually exists is questionable. None of us are sociologists. None of us, when it comes to our own families, aspire particularly to perfection. At least, we don't think we do.

But we are acutely aware that our generation holds the bar exceptionally high. As a result, we risk putting undue pressure on ourselves in a way that is foreign to most of our own parents and their experiences raising young families.

In part, our discussion on this recent, rainy Calgary afternoon stems from the terribly tragic event that took place in northwest Calgary almost three weeks ago -- an event that still reverberates in conversations everywhere.

Repeatedly, media throughout our city and country described Joshua Lall and his wife and children as the "picture-perfect" family.

Before taking his own life, Lall, a respected architect who had complained of mental duress and high stress levels, killed his wife and two of his three children, along with Calgary writer Amber Bowerman, who was a tenant in his basement.

"How could this happen?" was the constant refrain. The Lall family was so perfect -- the assumption being that this nightmare scenario was somehow more of a tragedy than it would have been had the family otherwise been "imperfect."

He was his class valedictorian. She was always smiling. The fact that we, as a society, even ask this question -- "how could this happen?" -- shows how deep-rooted our perfection obsession has become.

How confused we must be to suggest that a perfect family is attainable. How awful that we set these impossibly high standards for anyone. How would we define a perfect family, I wonder, if we set ourselves to the task?

One of my friends insists she's grateful for having waited to be a mother until later in her life.

"I watched my peers having kids and trying to have the perfect family and all I saw was dysfunction," she says of the women she knew who were aiming for a successful career, a happy marriage, three kids and a swell house, all by age 30.

"The women were on tranquilizers and the husbands were having affairs and the kids had issues," says the Calgary mom, who works part-time as an accountant.

"You can't physically do it all. Mental health becomes a huge component. Families need to cut themselves some slack."

If only our generation could trust, as she was reminded recently, that there is a season for everything as we conduct our lives.

Parenting Power's Julie Freedman Smith says she recalls how angry she was after the birth of her first child.

"I was a month away from turning 30. Everyone told me I could be a great mom and a successful working person all at once. It was a great, big, fat lie. I remember being so mad. We can't do it all," says Smith, who counsels families in need of parenting support.

"I go to people's homes for my work. I see their perfect houses and perfect lawns and their perfect dogs. But they're completely struggling to keep it together on the inside. The fact is, they're human."

Smith questions how hard families are on each other, too. She confesses that even she -- despite her professional training as a counsellor -- has moments when she drives through "fancy" neighbourhoods with "fancy" houses and thinks "Oh, if I lived here my life would be perfect."

"Like so many, I have this preconceived notion. If you have the money, everything is fine. If the house is looking so good, the family must be great," she comments, before wondering: "Maybe we're all keeping this lie afloat. We're all buying into the possibility of a perfect family."

On a personal note, Smith remembers waking up one night and announcing to her startled husband, "I'm not perfect!" She describes this epiphany as being enormously liberating.

"I don't think I was trying to make my family perfect. But I was definitely expecting me to be perfect," says Smith. "Since that day, the word 'perfect' isn't used in my house. In my opinion, perfection is absolutely unattainable."

Whether we admit it or not, argues another friend and mother of two, most of us aim in one way or another for perfection.

"We're always comparing ourselves to others to see if we 'measure up.' Are my kids as polite as their kids? Are mine as happy as theirs?" she muses in an e-mail to me on the topic.

"Or I think: 'They never have dinner together, do they? I would never do that. Then again their daughter is so nice and so confident and accomplished. What's wrong with me that I'm not giving my kids access to the same opportunities for skill development? Am I lazy? Am I a bad parent? What about their marriage?' And so on," she writes of her internal dialogue.

The same woman references the simpler life her parents led, where roles were more clearly defined, priorities were clear and parents didn't analyze themselves as much as we do.

"They just were. They had a marriage and that marriage produced kids," she writes. "Together, that made a family."

To what should the modern family aspire, then, if not perfection?

How about honesty and humanity -- which means showing our kids that, try as we might, to be human is to be flawed.

One of my savvy, though frequently potty-mouthed, girlfriends summed it up best:

"I don't give a (insert expletive) about the perfect family. I strive for a happy, healthy family. Love your kids. Teach them to be resilient. Live your life. Oh, and respect the father or mother of your children, whether or not you're still married," she insists.

"If you're all worried about setting some stupid bar of 'perfection,' you're going to miss all the fun."

What is perfection -- and what is it good for?

Julia Freedman Smith, a family counsellor with Parenting Power, makes an impassioned plea for parents everywhere to examine their own quests for perfection.

. "When parents are striving for perfection, they put so much focus on the outside -- what does stuff look like (clothes, car, hair). It's almost as if people get caught up in the vision. We are all being told that if we just buy the right outdoor furniture, our families will be happy. Maybe it's because it is easier to stick stuff on the outside than to fill up the inside. The outside only takes money.

"The harder stuff is filling the insides of ourselves and our children. It takes courage to look at what's missing, and assertiveness to ask for or seek what we want. The whole process can seem incredibly daunting, so we run away from it. But if we just take that first step, we can begin a whole new journey.

"We should list what qualities we want for our family -- what would make it seem perfect? In all likelihood, it would be things like: children with courage, children who lived the life they truly wanted, children who understood responsibility and charity. Children who thought past themselves and cared for the world as a whole.

"Having a list like this would be a great starting point. It would force our hand to figure out how to teach our children to become this. Of course, we can't do it for our kids, they need to learn it but we can take the time to teach our children. Modelling these values would be a great place to start and it may help us to take steps to become the people we want to be."