There was a time in my life I felt I had to be the best at everything I did. During this same period of time, I kept piling more and more onto my already full plate of responsibilities.
I’ll admit I might still be like that if motherhood had not changed me. Instead, I’m a recovering overachiever.
As I high school student, I lived and breathed my schoolwork and a myriad of extracurricular activities.
Just the other day, I received an envelope in the mail from my mother. It contained newspaper clippings she had found while weeding through some of my things that still happen to be living at her house (yes, 13 years after I officially moved out and into my own apartment). One particular clipping was my high school’s announcement of our senior class’ top ten students. It introduced me as salutatorian and listed no fewer than 17 extracurricular activities I participated in as a high schooler.
In college, I picked an ambitious and intense major; speech-language pathology. I graduated early having gone in with a whole semester’s worth of college credits that I’d earned as a high school student.
I worried about my grades constantly, driven by the knowledge that I had to go to graduate school if I were to eventually land a good job in my chosen field. Graduate schools were, and still are, very competitive when it comes to speech-language pathology. I settled for no less than graduating Magna Cum Laude.
In the end, my worries about graduate school acceptances proved unfounded. However, graduate school was no joke. By professional standards, all students needed a ‘B’ grade in every class to pass. Any grade below a ‘B’ required you to somehow ‘make up’ the test or assignment. It was stressful. By now, however, I think you understand that I prided myself for persevering in these types of situations. They motivated me just as much as they stressed me out.
I tell you all this not to brag about how ‘good’ I was at things then, or how ‘great’ I was at juggling a busy schedule. Actually, I am here to say I wish I’d done things a little differently, how I hope my kids do things a little differently, and to compare myself now to who I was then, eleven years, two children, and a lot of perfect hindsight later.
Because today, that overachiever is buried somewhere under my piles of unfolded laundry and my undone dishes.
My road to overachiever recovery began the day my son was born about five and a half years ago. That was the day my priorities became less about me and more about him.
All of a sudden, there was so much that was out of my control. I could put 110% of my effort into something and it still wouldn’t turn out the way I wanted. There was so much that I just could not accomplish with a new baby and as a first-time mother.
The overachiever in me wanted to be supermom, but I wasn’t even close.
Emotionally, I struggled with this. There were countless times that I cried in response to rugs that hadn’t seen a vacuum in over a week, messy bathrooms, and having a baby who wouldn’t sleep flat on his back.
Now I look back and realize that I never really cried over a rug, a bathroom, or my baby. The tears were a product of me realizing I couldn’t handle doing everything myself. (Also, I had this weird notion that I should be able to help my child sleep in a bassinet on his back). My sudden lack of ability to multi-task when it seemed to come so naturally in the past was upsetting.
I had defined myself as an overachiever for so long. I had gone into labor being the same woman I had always been and came out of the hospital five days later having no idea how to be okay with not overachieving. How was I supposed to adapt my personality to my new situation?
While I had never been afraid to ask for help when it came to schoolwork or workplace issues, I found it awkward to ask people to help me with my baby or to help me take care of my house. That first year, I really didn’t ask for much help. I figured I only had one baby with no other children. Surely I could handle that? I compared myself to other moms with multiple children who seemingly didn’t have issues. I wish I’d completely accepted that I couldn’t be an overachiever anymore and just asked for more help. Instead, I kept myself up at night worrying about not being the overachiever I knew myself as.
It seemed to me that I’d managed to excel in all that mattered in life up until motherhood, no matter how much stress I put myself under. But in those early days of my son’s first year, I wasn’t feeling like I was excelling at being a mom.
My son taught me that I’d been thinking about life all wrong.
I quickly learned that figuring out my son had a sensitivity to dairy which was more significant than any ‘A’ grade I’d earned during my academic career. Managing to cook dinner by the end of a long day with a teething baby seemed much more of a feat than doing five extracurricular activities simultaneously while keeping my grades up.
It no longer mattered to me how much I could juggle at once. What mattered was that my child and I were alive and well at the end of the day and that our family was happy, healthy and together.
The birth of my daughter, three years later, further advanced my recovery as a former overachiever. Of my two children, she is the ‘daredevil,’ the climber, and the one into everything. She keeps me on my toes. Most days, she forces me to suppress the overachiever inside. I don’t want to be disappointed at the end of the day if I don’t accomplish everything I set out to do. Setting unrealistic goals just leads to inevitable failure and unwanted disappointment. So I try very hard to be realistic. Such a drastic change from years ago.
My career ambitions have also changed.
As a stay at home mother, I am in no rush to go back to work. The overachiever that was me in the past doesn’t recognize this new person. I am currently undecided as to how and when to return to my career and I have not made up my mind as to what my specific career goals are. I have come to accept that this is okay.
In general, I’ve learned from my children that life isn’t about how perfect you can be while accomplishing multiple things at once. It’s about picking a couple goals that really matter and doing the best you can with them.
You should have goals, but they shouldn’t go beyond your limits. Goals shouldn’t cause you to be so hard on yourself that you neglect the most important relationships in your life. They should not get in the way of you finding time to relax; it is healthy to do absolutely nothing from time to time, after all!
I hope that my children strive for their goals, but don’t put the pressure on themselves that I did. I am going to encourage them to have hobbies and participate in activities that they take great interest in, but not to overload their schedules and stress themselves out. As a parent, I will emphasize that education is important, but that as long as they try their hardest, I will always be proud of them.