I’m a Recovering Perfectionist Forced to Let It Go (Thanks, Elsa)

What they say is right: leave the dishes in the sink.
woman with arms out

I’m not sure when my perfectionist traits took hold. Perhaps somewhere in middle or high school. 

And take hold, they did: I achieved a 4.0 GPA in high school and 3.9 in college and have vivid memories of challenging world-class professors for A+s over As. (Embarrassing in hindsight.) 

I scheduled every minute of each day, scrawling those plans in the margins of school notebooks. I was fiercely competitive to the point where my own mom refused to play board games with me. I viewed everything in black and white, approached tasks with neurosurgeon-like precision, and interpreted constructive criticism as personal attacks.

With a lot of work, age and experience, I left those extreme habits in the past. But changing personality is much harder. 

Through a series of questions, the Enneagram evaluates which of nine personality types a person has and assigns type numbers/names. The results reveal a basic, or dominant type and one or two adjacent types. No surprises here! My Enneagram numbers are Three: The Achiever, who wants to be successful and is afraid of failure, and Eight: The Challenger, who sees themselves as strong and is fearful of losing control. I know, a lot of fun, right?

So, here’s the thing: these Enneagram numbers are incompatible with motherhood. 

Honestly. Have you tried serving a toddler dinner? My three-year-old only eats chicken nuggets and Goldfish—anything else gets thrown on the floor. She also occasionally drops the F-bomb in public. Once at church. Oh yeah, and putting on makeup and real pants? Forget it. 

But like I said, it’s hard to fight one’s own personality. That’s probably why, when I had my first child, my more experienced and well-meaning cousin with two adult children of her own, left a Post-it note on my refrigerator. 

It simply read: 

To-Do List:
1: Love Alana

That’s it. That’s the whole list.

There were no other tasks like, updating the baby book, ordering birth announcements, scheduling 3-month, 6-month, and 9-month photo sessions with carefully curated outfits or sending thank you notes or more. 

Would you believe I had already created my own to-do list for maternity leave, which laughably included:

  • Clean out the closets.
  • Work on the blog.
  • Pump 6 oz every day to store in the freezer.
  • Take a painting class. (What?!) 
  • Find a nanny, make a briefing book! (Yes, my plan was to use knowledge gleaned from the 10+ parenting books I’d read to guide a career nanny on how to care for my newborn.) 
  • Cook a new recipe every week.

True story, my self-expectation for a 16-week-long leave was that I’d care for a newborn, correct a prolapsed bladder and learn new recipes

It was funny, but guess what? I completed my list. It’s hard to fight who you are, or who you’ve always been.

Anyway, my cousin knew me well … and knew a better way. I still have the list she made me, and I added to it with each additional baby we brought home:

2.) Love Conor
3.) Love Luke 
4.) Love Caitlin. 

Except I didn’t really get it until I basically imploded (or exploded, if you ask my husband) with baby #4.

I hung in there (barely) through my first three children’s early days. I strove for Pinterest-worthy parties, developing work-back timelines as if they were for client events, giving the bakery my hand-drawn designs “for inspiration”, and making a papier-mache dog house for a puppy-themed party. Videoing annual birthday interviews, completing back-to-school and New Year “All About Me” sheets, making bucket lists for you-name-it (summer, fall, Christmas, travel destinations). 

Designing annual photo albums and videos custom to each child, as well as all-family albums and videos. (Pop quiz: 4 kids, ranging in ages 3-11 = how many of these?) Coordinating outfits and photo sessions to capture us at every age and literal season of the calendar. All on top of, you know, getting kids dressed, brushing teeth, making meals, and working full time. I spent a few years on the brink, deprived of sleep, hydrated by only Diet Coke, and irritable with the ones who were supposed to be benefiting. 

But it sure felt good to check those boxes. Enneagram achiever—at all costs.

That’s when my fourth child entered the picture, coinciding with COVID restrictions (cue remote learning for three children while juggling a newborn). My reality vs. unachievable goals and an unsustainable way of living came to an epic showdown. Those were wild days: at one point my son may have inadvertently exposed my nursing breasts to the Kindergarten Zoom. Early anatomy lesson? 

I once was tending to the baby while the other children were “doing school” in the next room when this text exchange happened:

Neighbor a few houses down: “Hey, your kids are having fun on our trampoline, but we have to head out soon.” 
Me: “Huh? No, they’re home.” 
Neighbor: “They’re here!”

They had snuck out back and scaled two fences barefoot without my noticing because … chaos and the newborn. 

They were 3 and 5 years old at the time.

It took things going completely off the rails to wake me up. With four kids, including a newborn, and max-stressful conditions, the minimum viable task was to keep it together. I had no choice but to succumb to this reality, resist my innate personality, and set aside the photo albums, baby books, and closets. I felt a constant nudging, or shouting, in my brain: “You’re behind! These things are piling up!” 

But I forced myself to push each thought away like bad advice. It was.

I’m thankful that kind of chaos is behind us. I’ll never again find myself homebound with a newborn and three other overly energetic children ages 7 and under on lockdown. But today, we have a new level of busyness. 

A toddler, tween and two boys in between, I like to say. It’s every age and stage, each with unique, high demands, and 15+ activities among them. It’s a fact that I can’t maintain a tidy house, organized closets and drawers, photo albums and videos and coordinating outfits (they won’t wear them anymore, anyway). 

I won’t say I’ve quit these things, but I’ve deprioritized them because I’ve had to. My tween needs my advice on girl drama. My boys need me to manually break up their fights. My toddler needs … everything. And I need sleep. 

Do I slip back into old mindsets? Sure, sometimes, because personalities are hard to change. But I’m mostly okay with imperfection … and a healthy dose of procrastination. 

When I find myself starting to spiral, I try to pause for a quick reality check. I ask, what matters most right now? What time can I dedicate to X task and is there a trade-off? Why do I need/want to do this, and who (if anyone) benefits? Asking these questions helps me find perspective, reground, and make better choices.

And a sense of humor goes a long way. When I take things too seriously, I get myself in trouble. So, I’m a little self-deprecating, I laugh, and I tell my stories to people who get it.

And those people who get it? Those are the ones to surround yourself with. 

My people aren’t the ones with fresh curls and makeup at drop-off. They aren’t the ones posting Pinterest party pics on social media. And they certainly aren’t the ones with toys, jackets, and shoes neatly put away. That’s not to say I don’t admire these moms. I do! You’re amazing! That’s my problem; I want to keep up but can’t. 

My people relate to my chaos. They couldn’t care less if my daughter is mismatched with unbrushed hair. They’re the ones who grab my son from pick-up when I’m late because they’ve been there too.

I also think about the example I’m setting for my children. I want them to be able to set boundaries, say no to things that aren’t important, and be kind to themselves. I don’t want them stressing out about getting As (Cs do, in fact, get degrees). Our children learn so much from the actions we model. They see and hear everything.

So, as moms, let’s show them how we give ourselves grace. Let’s set a bar of acceptance – for ourselves and them too. Let’s just all agree to try our best, and that doesn’t mean being the best. Let’s model the basics of self-care: a good night’s sleep, hydration, and good mental health. Let’s focus on being present in the moment because the moments go all too quickly. Let’s show them that they matter – and so do we. We all deserve that. And, for the love of God, let’s not worry about organizing the closets on mat leave.

This should be our to-do list:

  1. Love my children.
  2. Love myself. 

Read more essays and narratives on The Mother Chapter.


  • Shauna Brueggen

    Shauna Brueggen is an executive at a public relations firm. She has spent her career connecting brands to the audiences they serve. She has always been a writer at heart and is honored to contribute to The Mother Chapter. She has four children, ranging from toddler to tween, and leans on a sense of humor to manage the constant chaos. She's passionate about mentoring new mothers and fostering supportive communities.

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