"He's perfect!" people say when they see Ben, who looks all sweet and cuddly, as newborns tend to do. I feel no surge of pride when I hear that compliment. It's not because I don't appreciate that Ben is healthy and delicious (I can't stop nibbling on his cheeks) or that I know he actually isn't perfect (see: baby who doesn't nap). It's because the word "perfect" lost meaning for me a long time ago, and that's been a great thing.
In the years after Max was born, I spent a whole lot of time and energy trying to get him to keep up with society's definition of a correctly developing child. With every milestone he missed, with every thing he didn't do—not grasping a bottle or toys, not babbling, not crawling, not walking, not talking—I grew more and more despondent. It wasn't just that I wanted him to achieve those things; it was that I also delusively kept hoping he would do them right on time.
I have a perfectionist streak; I am good about dotting all the proverbial "i's" and tackling details, which is why I enjoy being an editor and why I'm the person in our marriage who handles the bulk of the forms, paperwork and plans and "Clean your room!" edicts. These days, though, with the barrage of information available about baby development, it's easy for anyone to get caught up in raising the perfect tot.
There were no apps back when Max was born, but there were plenty of websites, e-newsletters and books that let you know every single thing a child was supposed to do every single month. Oh, and I looked. I knew I shouldn't, but I did—obsessively. I'd even reread chapters in What To Expect the First Year, hoping I'd come upon one small thing I'd skipped over that Max was doing. But, no.
Finally, I give away the baby development books and unsubscribed from the newsletters. I had to; they were fueling my anxiety. It was one of my first steps toward acknowledging that I had a kid who wasn't perfect, and who likely never would be. Max would do things on his own timeline, in his own way. Or he wouldn't do them, and I had to accept that.
On Max's birthday this year, I posted a Facebook update in the evening (around the time I gave birth to him) about how I couldn't have imagined what lay ahead of us: the seizures, the stroke, the NICU stay. "I couldn't have imagined that I would become the mom of a child with special needs," I wrote. "But then: Max. He is not the boy I imagined I would have—he is the most amazing boy I never could have imagined."
Max taught me to be a mother who helps her child achieve his potential, but doesn't hold him up to anyone's standards or her own overly ambitious ones. He taught me to truly appreciate a child's abilities, perfection be damned. That's mostly stuck with me for Sabrina and hopefully, Ben, too. And if you saw the state of my home right now, it would be very clear that my perfectionism has been buried alive under piles of papers, laundry, toys and assorted stuff although I have managed to keep one counter in our kitchen free of clutter, and it is my safe place.