One mother’s quest for perfection as an OCD parent

By Jenny Leon

I stared wistfully out the window of my new psychiatrist’s office into Madison Square Park below. I wished I could be outside enjoying the long-awaited sunshine of early May. Instead, I was crammed into a stuffy room with my husband and my eight-week-old baby. Miles cried angrily. He seemed as disappointed about the destination of this excursion as I was.

My husband then said words I will never forget, “I am worried that my wife is going to hurt herself—not on purpose. She is just so obsessed with being the perfect mom that I believe she is a danger to her own health.”

I looked out the window again and saw a set of new parents pushing a pram through the park. We should be down there with them, I thought resentfully. There is nothing wrong with the way I parent. It may be extreme, but all my success in life has been due to pushing hard. Why should this be any different?

I left the office that day with a diagnosis of postpartum anxiety, exacerbated by underlying OCD, and a prescription for Zoloft. None of this came as a surprise. Parenthood, as my psychiatrist put it, “is where the rubber hits the road.” And I was skidding fast into the ditch.

A.Z. (or After Zoloft), some of my more extreme behaviors softened. I stopped constantly monitoring the temperature in the baby’s room to make sure it was precisely at 68 degrees fahrenheit, as per the AAP Guidelines on SIDS. I could no longer be found on my hands and knees searching for a stowaway blueberry because I had visions of my immobile one-month-old infant suddenly learning to move and choking on the fallen fruit. My desire to be the perfect mother no longer manifested itself as an obsession with controlling even the most remote of risks in my son’s environment.

While my compulsive urges have been muted by the medication I have been on for the past three years, the underlying obsession with perfection is still there. The problem is the thing I most desire to be perfect at is the thing most out of my control: I want to create a perfect childhood for my kids.

My disordered thinking is nothing like the stereotypes of “OCD” in popular culture. I don’t care if the toys are put away in perfectly-labeled, color-coded storage bins. It doesn’t really bother me that my children bring their snacks into the living room and dribble crumbs into the couch crevices. 

Nor does my OCD present itself as a form of helicopter mothering, where I try to define my children’s happiness or make their choices for them. I have been known to honor my children’s choice to eat cookies for breakfast. After all, cookies are not substantively different from muffins and muffins are a perfectly acceptable breakfast food. Plus, it makes my children happy to eat cookies for breakfast.

This may seem like the opposite of perfectionism. In many ways, my parenting approach is informed by my realization of the futility of trying for perfection in all areas of raising children.

But there is one element of child-rearing that I still try to be perfect at: making my children’s dreams come true. In fact, I am addicted to it. While I don’t think the experts (or the lay experts for that matter) would agree that this is necessarily good for my children, I can’t stop. I want my children to live in a world that resembles a Disney wonderland where you wish upon a star or a metaphorical candy land like the all-time classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. And I aspire at all times to actualize this image.

I may not be able to control what happens to my babies in the outside world, but I can encourage them to dream. That sounds like a pretty perfect childhood, doesn’t it?

My OCD manifests itself every time my now three-year-old son mentions he likes a new topic, whether it be Blippi, dinosaurs or veterinarians. Suddenly, I find myself compulsively adding two, three or ten books on the subject to my Amazon cart for next-day delivery (before he changes his focus, and I know I am even lucky to be able to do this) along with a couple of costumes to allow him to fully engage in pretend play. As I watch him upwrap the items, eagerly awaiting his entire body to light up with excitement, I smile to myself as I think that at this moment everything is perfect. He is entirely happy, and as a result, so am I.

It also manifests itself when I spend hour upon hour searching for a lost puzzle piece because my daughter tearfully asked me, “Where’s dat piece, Mommy?” I heed the call. Mom must once again sweep in and save the day, creating a perfect world where puzzle pieces can always be found. Long after my daughter has gone to bed, I am still lifting up the couch cushions furtively, hoping my husband won’t notice. Finally, I present the found piece proudly to her like a lost jewel, expecting her face to light up in recognition that I, the most dedicated and determined mom in the world, have found her missing puzzle piece. I have restored her fallen world once again to perfection. But instead, I am met with a puzzled stare that says to me, Why do you care so much, Mom? I’m two.

I imagine these moments of joy that I seek to bring to my children will add brick after brick to the foundation of their perfect childhood. But the satisfaction I experience is elusive. I am left immediately scrambling for the next high. All my OCD has become focused on the manufacturing of happiness in my unpredictable toddlers and I am exhausted.

I’m aware that I am not the sole proprietor of my children’s happiness and that making them happy all the time ultimately might not be in their best interest, and yet it is impossible for me to separate my OCD from the exhausting, boundless, all-encompassing love I feel for my children.

I also know that my behavior creates expectations that are increasingly hard to satisfy, leaving both me and my children disappointed. Luckily, my children are still toddlers. Most of their dreams remain small enough for me to fulfill—whether it be a visit to the fire station, a pink cake pop at Starbucks or to dye the bathwater purple. For now, it is wonderful to know that they do not believe that their happiness must be contained.

To paraphrase one of the great architects of children’s happiness, Willy Wonka: I am both the music maker and the dreamer of dreams. But I fear that I will not know when it is time to hand over the keys to the chocolate factory. And even if I recognize it’s time, I, honestly, don’t know how I’ll be able to do it.

Jenny Leon is a mother of two, lawyer, writer and Canadian expat, living in New Jersey.

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