The Best is the Enemy of the Good

Wow.  Awesome.  Humbling.

I’m referring to the incredible response you guys had to my last post, The Good Enough Mums.  I’ve clearly struck a very resonant chord with hundreds of you – maybe we’ve got enough to start a movement!

So I’ve decided to do a little series on the subject, the idea being that I’ll look closer at each aspect of parenthood that suffers from this pressure to be perfect.  I’ll ask some questions about them, exploring how you and I (I’m learning as much as you in all of this) can try and resist, and or maybe simply do what is right and good for our families, rather than necessarily the perfect ‘best’.  I’d love you to chip in, sending me your thoughts and ideas, so we can start a conversation.I’ve taken inspiration from the French philosopher, Voltaire, who came up with the fantastically inspired phrase that I’ve used as the title of this post:

“The Best is the Enemy of the Good”

This little phrase has been creating quite a stir in my head since my mum shared it with me last week.  Rather like a mosquito does when it gets stuck in your bed.  Only, this was a pleasant disturbance.

It so beautifully sums up the point I discussed in my last post about the way in which the pressure we feel to be the perfect parent, employee/employer, spouse, housewife etc can be bad for our health and our kids’. In our efforts to ensure they have the best childhood, we can end up wearing them out, smothering them or making them plain fed up. In short, we can make things worse.

Interestingly, Voltaire’s phrase (which he penned as part of a poem, La Begueule) is one supported by ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy, and even modern economists. The Greek philosopher Aristotle proposed the Golden Mean with regards to moral behaviour, which, according to Wikipedia, is ‘the desirable middle between extremes, one being excess, the other of deficiency‘. Confuscian thinking says something similar, and so too do some modern economists and sociologists, who’ve shown that once societies reach a basic level of subsistence, the amount of money you have isn’t related to how happy you are.  Certainly fits what I observed when I used to work in international development, all those many moons ago…

The more I thought about this concept of the Best being the Enemy of the Good, the more it made sense of so many aspects of modern society, and parenthood, that are unrealistic and downright unhelpful to most parents.  It’s almost like those running society (politicians, media, advertising, big business) have taken on a collective perfectionist personality.

At the risk of boring you to death with all these facts and quotes, bear with me one more. This one is worth it (no really, it is!).  Perfectionism has been described as:

a personality disposition characterized by an individual striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations” (Wikipedia)

Sound familiar?! (I’m not referring to yourself, but society, remember!)

Now, before I go any further, let me assure you that I’m not implying we shouldn’t strive for excellence, or that setting high expectations is always a bad thing.  No way.  It’s when that ‘striving for flawlessness’ pervades every aspect of our lives, into areas that either aren’t our strong points or aren’t of importance to us that it becomes problematic. Uncluttered, spotless homes might be something you are brilliant at and enjoy doing, but for many of us that isn’t the case. Or sending your 4yr old child to Suzuki violin lessons might be what you want to do because you had a musical upbringing yourself and you know your child has a musical gifting, but its not going to be right for everyone else.

You see at the bottom of all of this lies the other common malaise that is a key theme of this blog – comparing ourselves with others. There’s nothing new to this, we’ve always done it, but now we have the TV and internet, we can share or see into other people’s lives and homes more readily than we ever could. It’s like the walls of our private lives have been knocked down. Never before have we needed to be as secure in ourselves and our own gut instincts.

I’ll tell you something hilariously true: a friend of mine once confided that someone in her book group got so concerned with getting her house looking nice for when it was her turn to host the group, that she even got out a tin of paint to touch up her walls after putting the kids to bed!

I also need to confess here that I myself have strong tendencies to perfectionism (!). Just ask my long-suffering husband how many testers I’ll buy before settling on a wall paint colour that is exactly the right hue. Procrastination is my middle name. My mother will even remind me on occasion how incredibly special my husband must be for me to have actually chosen him (not sure that’s much comfort to the man when I return from Homebase with yet another tester). You won’t want to know how many hours I’ve spent searching for just the right birthday present for my children at the just right price, for too many years? Or how over-concerned neurotic I can be about their schooling, friendships, parties etc.  But, you know, this is exactly why I’m writing about this subject – I’ve learned (and still learning) about the potential, and real, negative effect of perfectionism on me and my family, helped hugely by living with a gracious yet unafraid-to-tell-me-the-truth husband….

So…..the areas I’m going to be looking at in this little series are ones that I reckon are particularly subject to perfectionist parenting:

  • Education – schools and extra curricular activities (nice big one, this)
  • Image – our homes & what we wear (another biggie)
  • Play – toys, leisure time activities and after school clubs (ok, have you room for more?)
  • Parties – this is such a biggie, it needs a category all of its own.

This is where I’d love you to start chipping in.  Can you think of any others?  Please let me know, come back to me with your ideas and I’ll incorporate them.  And when I’ve written on each subject, I’d like you to come back to me with your own refusenik ideas, or maybe even, the ways in which the pressure to perfect is a good thing in your estimation.  Let’s hear it.  I haven’t got sole ownership of the truth here (what a dreadful thought…..!)

Oh, and don’t worry, I won’t only be writing entries about this subject over the next few weeks, just in case we all get too serious about life. There’s too many other funny things to write about, such as what I said to the shelf filler in Waitrose yesterday when he uttered the word ‘Christmas’ as the reason for there not being any frozen chickens…..its alright, it wasn’t a swear word and he didn’t call the police!

NB If you’re interested in reading more about the economics of happiness that I referred to, see Richard Layard’s book ‘Happiness’.  

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