Sometimes it feels dangerous to expose your child to the full force of your love. You allow yourself to want something small for them, and it’s like a gateway drug: Suddenly you want more and more for them. In my experience, that’s often when perfectionism wanders in and wrecks everything.
After years of self-restraint, my compulsive overachieving core as a parent first appeared in response to an elementary-school talent show. My older daughter and her friends in the third grade decided they wanted to perform “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” from Annie. We met the girls and their mothers at a park one Saturday afternoon, and everyone tried to come up with choreography together. As a former chorus geek, I had a lot of very strong opinions, but I held back. I had learned to bite my tongue in order to fit in with the other suburban parents. By the end of the afternoon, though, we’d gotten only a few verses into the song. Everyone was worried we wouldn’t have enough time to finish before auditions a week later.
My husband, Bill, was out of town, so I went home that night and stayed up late choreographing the performance by myself. I made charts of how the girls would transition from one formation to another. The next morning, I taught the routine to my daughter, so she could help me teach it to the others. I emailed everyone and told them this was my plan.
This was out of character for me, as a parent. Not only had I never taken any initiative to fix the school’s shoddy music program, but I also hadn’t volunteered for countless pancake breakfasts or movie nights or PTA Festi-Falls. It wasn’t just that I felt too busy to do these things. I was also worried that if I did them, everyone would figure out that I wasn’t the laid-back, super chill mom I played at birthday parties and school pickup.
So I shrugged along during countless half-hearted soccer matches where kids listlessly drifted on the field. I smiled along to a sea of children singing out of rhythm and off-key at school assemblies. But all the while there was a hypervigilant, nitpicky idealist inside me, crouched and ready to spring out and torment everyone with her punishing intensity. Even so, my intention wasn’t to transform every casual kid’s activity into a hypercompetitive nightmare realm. Sometimes I just wanted to express the unmatched joy that can come from throwing your heart and soul into something you love.
So even as I directed those 8-year-olds to smile and sing as loud as they could, I knew that if I applied the full force of my chorus-geek perfectionism, I’d go from Matthew Morrison’s supportive choir director on Glee to Jane Lynch’s tyrannical cheerleading coach, shouting things like “Start over, maggots! Not good enough!” If I cared too much, I would piss off the other parents, the kids would hate me, and the whole thing would become an enormous nightmare.
Miraculously, that didn’t happen. The girls were energetic and their performance was adorable and perfect, the best act in the whole show by far. Everyone stood and cheered.
So naturally, I had to ruin everything the next year instead.
To be fair, as 9-year-olds, my daughter and her friends chose to sing “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten, the sonic version of a 1,000-year-long noogie. Whereas “Hard-Knock Life” is aggressive and delightful like a homemade pie in the face, “Fight Song” is all faux inspiration and faux strength, like a 1980s-era Barbie wearing pink boxing gloves and a silk boxing robe with her name in glitter on the back. The first line of the song is “Like a small boat on the ocean, sending big waves into motion.” These are words that even a fourth grader can’t sing with conviction. At one point I asked the kids if they knew what the song was about, and they all shrugged like the question itself was embarrassing.
Fourth grade marks the birth of self-consciousness. It’s awkward and ugly and immediate. At the age of 9, your main job is to prevent the other kids from figuring out that you’re not the laid-back, super chill kid you play at school.
This became crystal clear at the final dress rehearsal for the talent show, when one painfully ill-prepared kid after another took to the stage and summarily underwhelmed everyone present. One girl sang out of beat with her music, and no one corrected her, even after she started over twice. You are half a beat behind! a voice in my head bellowed. Get in the goddamn pocket! Next, a trio of horn players mangled the Star Wars theme, perhaps one of the best-known pieces of music of all time, by converting the triplet to quarter notes. How is this happening? the voice in my head growled.
When my daughter and her friends got onstage, they didn’t sing and dance so much as mumble and gesture dispiritedly. I tried to remain calm and positive. I told the kids afterward that they were great, yeah, better than ever, but they needed to throw themselves into it a little more. I tried to explain to them: You have to look like you care. But this was the exact opposite of what they wanted to do. So they averted their eyes while I was talking. Admittedly, I was gritting my teeth ever so slightly and my face was a tiny bit red and I was sweating just a little. But still! If they didn’t listen to me, who would save them from the horrifying humiliation of non-greatness?!
On the walk home from rehearsal, my daughter said she regretted signing up for the talent show in the first place. I felt sick. This was all my fault. So I gave her contradictory advice. I told her everything would be fine, she just needed to care a lot less about the whole thing. Neither of us could control what the group did. As long as we lowered our expectations, it wouldn’t be disappointing.
My daughter didn’t seem to find these words of comfort all that convincing, possibly because I’d been flailing my arms like Mike Ditka just minutes earlier.
So I handled my feelings of disappointment like any mature adult would: by uploading the video of the performance I took on my phone and emailing it to all of the girls’ parents as soon as I got home, along with a note written with the urgent tone of a 911 dispatcher. In order to avert disaster, I explained, each and every parent should analyze my footage with their daughters that night, and then have a frank, in-depth discussion about the profound importance of energy, focus, and jazz hands.
Because that’s what parents love the most. They love to get impossibly long, wordy emails from some random mom at school about the deep significance of an elementary-school talent-show performance. I recognized even as I was writing the email that I was digging my own grave, a grave that I would never dig out of, no matter how many pancake breakfasts and movie nights and PTA Festi-Falls I donated my (limited) time and (conflicted) energy to. Even as I was writing that email, a little voice inside my head warned, Comin’ in hot, Striker!
But I couldn’t pull back on the throttle. I cared too much.
Bill tried to stop me. I told him about the email I’d sent, and his face melted into a concerned parental cringe. I tried to convince him that I made it all okay by saying “Thank you for your help!” and “Best wishes” at the end of my email, but he didn’t buy it. He hinted, very gently, that I had made a mistake.
But I couldn’t hear him. I was all in. I had turned some invisible corner from ordinary citizen to frantic, frothing zealot. This wasn’t about me, after all. This was about quality and standards and teaching these kids—and their parents, too!—a thing or two about greatness.
This is the trouble with investing in kids—or in anyone or anything, really. You might be (secretly, self-protectively) aiming not to put your entire heart and soul into it. But then one small desire opens up to a vast universe of desires. At first, you just want your kid’s performance not to suck. You’re protecting your daughter from embarrassment, that’s all. But then, out of nowhere, you want your kid to understand how it feels to work really hard for weeks at something difficult. You want her to know the satisfaction of getting up onstage and feeling the whole world melt away, and all that’s left is the pure exhilaration of the song and its story. When a performer is in the zone like that, they’re wide awake and fully alive. They feel like they’re at the center of everything.
But when you try to describe that feeling, you go from wanting one tiny little thing to wanting everything—for her, for you, for everyone in the auditorium, for everyone on the planet. But mostly it’s for your daughter. You want her to feel like this lovable but shabby place, these kind but disappointing mortals, even this faintly hysterical mother and wisely self-censoring father are not all that she has. She can transcend this clumsy world filled with well-intentioned but hopelessly half-assed people. She can raise her sights higher, and experience something extraordinary.
You might think the moral of this story is that I’m too high-strung for the heady world of elementary-school talent shows. That’s certainly what one of the parents seemed to imply in a text to me after I sent out the email. “There isn’t anything more for a grown-up to do,” she wrote. “The more they take ownership the better.”
When I read that note, some voice in my head said, Yeah, she’s right.
But then another voice spoke. It was the ragged voice of a witch who lives in the inky blackness of a hollow tree and is maybe not a grown-up at all. Yes. Being good is very hard, said the witch. But who wants to work less hard and be less good? Not me! The witch knew how it felt to watch someone who cared way too much sing from the heart. It made her cry her witchy eyes out just thinking about it. And even though it felt like the world couldn’t care less, that wasn’t true. Every audience has an innate sense of magic. They know magic when they see it or hear it. They can feel it in their bones.
That kind of magic that can lift you up above everything else in the world, all of the friends who don’t understand you, all of the parents who don’t listen. That magic lets you know that everyone feels the same things, that everyone is fragile and confused and heartbroken underneath their skin.
On the night of the talent show, I wasn’t thinking about magic. I was bracing myself, as the curtains parted. I felt like a jerk for leading my poor lambs to the slaughter of public humiliation.
But as the first wobbly-voiced performer fumbled with her microphone, a different sort of magic slowly took over. I could see that these were charming flaws I was witnessing—irreplaceable, once-in-a-lifetime sorts of flaws: the gymnast who doesn’t quite get her handstand vertical, the distorted microphone squeals in the midst of a breathy Les Misérables ballad, the horn players with their strange alternative Star Wars rhythm. It was actually the non-greatness that made each kid’s performance so memorable and unique.
When my daughter and her friends took to the stage, I could see that was part of what made them so engrossing. These were the details that could break your heart: The girl who is always off beat. The girl who smiles but never sings. The girl who sings but never smiles. The girl who moves in the opposite direction from everyone else, no matter how many times you correct her. Together, they form a kind of ragged, vulnerable tribute to being 9 years old, awkwardly poised between very young and too old too soon. Together, they represent how it feels when you’re trying to choose between caring too little and caring too much.
I was trying to stay aloof, but tears started pouring out of my eyes and wouldn’t stop. I didn’t want to feel as much as I was feeling, sniffling and wiping my eyes in the middle of a packed elementary-school auditorium. I didn’t want anyone to know how much I cared.
I would tell you that this was a rare and special moment, and children grow out of this conflicted state soon enough, and so do middle-aged women. But the truth is that this uneasy state lasts a lifetime. We try to shake off our most passionate desires, but instead they render us at once anxious and willfully nonchalant, controlling and totally out of control, intent on divesting and overcome by a feeling that this one tiny thing matters more than anything else in the world. It’s not that easy to tame your desires. Sometimes you just want more. This is how it feels to be a little kid. This is how it feels to be an adult. Maybe this is just how it feels to be alive. It’s hard to back off, to power it down. It’s hard not to care way too much.