Lessons for Recovering Overachievers & Perfectionists, from an Infant

Four years ago today, I experienced one of the scariest and most exciting nights of my life. A three-month-old infant girl arrived at our house. I was scared out of my mind. My ex-partner and I had agreed to try foster parenting together, and after several months of preparation including a number of foster parenting courses and even some minor home renovations, the moment had arrived.

Around 1 AM, following a long day of medical exams and other requirements, the caseworkers showed up with a small carrier, inside it a bundle of blankets with a tiny, round, pink face sticking out. That little face was incredibly adorable, but that didn’t change the fact that I was scared out of my mind. I had no clue what I was doing.

My ex-partner and I had previously agreed to try fostering one or two kids who were at least three or four years old. We reasoned that if they were a bit older, it might not feel quite so overwhelming. But we kept getting calls about infants who desperately needed a home.

Finally, one day, I said, “Why don’t we give it a try?” My partner had trouble believing me at first, especially as she had been much more excited about parenting than I. To this day, I’m still not entirely clear what was guiding me in that particular moment, but saying “yes” in spite of my fears led to a great deal of learning.

For a long time I had thought I was hot sh** with my Yale psychology degree, having had as my advisor and instructors some of the most respected experts in childhood development. But in that 1 AM moment, I knew that while the knowledge I had obtained would still be helpful, there was no way that I—or anyone else, for that matter—could be fully prepared for something like this.

My lack of knowledge was further confirmed by 4 AM, when I was anxiously Googling the health implications of different poo colors, whether there were any dangers to swaddling, the safety of allowing an infant to sleep on their stomach versus their back, and so on. And a few months later, when I asked for opinions on encouraging a small child to sleep through the night, I got a diverse range of opinions on which method to use. While mostly helpful, some of the opinions were very strong. I feared that if we made the wrong choice, we’d scar the child for life.

This was a very challenging time for me, with a history of being an overachiever and perfectionist in many ways. However, I learned a number of key things at that time and during the two-year adventure that followed:

Being imperfect and unprepared sometimes is okay. Sometimes there’s no choice but to improvise.

With a complex challenge, you don’t need to know how to do everything, or even enjoy it. My partner did far more of the direct, hands-on care during that time, and she was amazingly good at it. She enjoyed some things which weren’t as energizing for me. For a while, I judged myself for not being a “natural parent” as she seemed to be. But at the same time, I enjoyed some of the supportive activities around the home that weren’t as enjoyable for her, and came to appreciate that those were also important.

During times of struggle, if we can first forgive ourselves, there may be an opportunity to forgive others. Within a few weeks of starting foster co-parenting, as I recognized and began to accept additional imperfections of my own, I also forgave my own parents for many things.

I suddenly got, on a deeper and more heartfelt level, a sense of the excitement, fear, joys, challenges, hopes, doubts, and range of other things they must have experienced when I came into the world. I understood that they were most likely doing the best they knew how, and that nobody is a perfect or even nearly-perfect parent. Everyone simply has a different set of strengths and weaknesses, and makes a different set of mistakes.

I was reminded of the importance of being in the moment, and having the presence to enjoy it. A small child is always in the now, whether they’re asking to be fed, trying to grab the cat’s tail, chasing a ball through the grass, or climbing around on a jungle gym with you. While setting aside time to focus on the future (what we want and how to prepare for it) and the past (where we made mistakes and what we learned) is important, those of us with overachiever and perfectionist tendencies sometimes focus too much on the past and future.

I’ve had many periods in my own life where I’ve missed the present moment altogether, and I am still building my skills in this area. I still sometimes get tears of nostalgia in my eyes as I recall tossing a ball around a grassy field or reading a bedtime story. While the rest of the journey had its share of challenges, those remain some of the most rewarding moments of my life. Perhaps not coincidentally, they were times when I was fully in the present.

Today, I try to take a bit of time each day just to be in the moment, in a variety of ways. Even taking a short walk, bicycle ride, or jog helps to spread the energy throughout the day.

I’ve helped coaching clients identify opportunities to “be in the now,” just as I’ve relied upon coaches and therapists to help me become better at this, too.

Recall some times in your life where you ventured outside your comfort zone a bit, perhaps to the point of being pretty scared. What did you learn about yourself and others?

Also, how can you improve your ability to be present in the current moment?


Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.

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