The Dangers of Perfectionism

In the midst of all this transition, there is still our search for routine and creating family life. It's true, each day gets a bit easier as we figure out the daily tasks of getting to and from school (I'm walking 5.5 miles a day!) and figuring out the school system and culture. We had a successful conversation with the Headteacher of the secondary school that we're trying to get Eli into, and she is going to bully the local authority into action and make it happen. Hooray for people that like to throw their authority around!

I haven't gone into the school admissions process, because it's so complicated and rarely makes sense. The few times I've tried to explain it to friends or family I end up over explaining and inundated with questions that aren't really helpful and exclamations of  "that doesn't make sense!"  It's difficult to even write about it, because I am so exhausted from the runaround. To make it even more confusing, each school tends to have it's own terminology. I am constantly embarrassing myself with my American slip-ups and limited British knowledge.

Having written all this, I should say that the primary school the girls have been placed in is a welcoming community. I was honestly surprised by how kind and warm everyone has been to the girls and to me. I've received welcome emails, and each pick up or drop off, another parent introduces themselves and offers to chat or answer any of my questions. There are rumors that there is another American family in  the school, and I've already noticed that there are many European ex-pats. Today at pick up, I met a Dutch woman whose daughter is in class with Holland, so we talked about her name and she confessed that when her daughter kept going on about the mum with pink hair she though she was making things up. Nope! She spotted me today and knew exactly who I was. I try not to think about the school on my street every morning and continue to remind myself that we are lucky the girls found spots in the same school. Who knew that I would come to think of school buses as the ultimate luxury???

Here's the part where I say, BUT...............

But yesterday was one of those gut-wrenching mama days. It really has very little to do with England, and everything to do with Finley's growing academic difficulties. We suspected around the time she was in kindergarten that she might have a learning disability. We noticed some classic signs, but I wanted to wait. I know that some kids just take a while longer and then reading just clicks at a certain point. I kept waiting for her to turn that corner, to stop hating reading, and to feel like she was progressing. We waited through 1st grade, and then 2nd, and then finally last year, we got her a tutor. And after assessing Finley for a few minutes, she said the the dreaded D word. Dyslexia. And that was the day I felt like a true failure for not acknowledging it sooner, for letting those years pass with such turmoil during our homework battles, and for forfeiting 3 years she could have been getting help. I held stubbornly to the idea that my child could just do it if we worked harder. My ideas about intelligence and the value of being inherently smart had blinded me to her real needs. I am honestly ashamed of those attitudes. I have watched her struggle and work hard and fight for understanding that comes naturally to me and her siblings. And I had little empathy for her when she acted out or expressed frustration, because I knew she wasn't dumb or slow and I just wanted her to snap out of it. 

She started working with her tutor weekly, and made drastic improvement in her last 4 months of school in North Bend. I thought maybe she could catch up to grade level, but gradually I'm waking up from my hope, or maybe a better word would be denial.

I have been very reluctant to say she has dyslexia - to her, or anyone else. My reasoning is this: I don't want her to use it as an excuse not to work, and I don't want it to define her. However, the disparity as she gets older is making it painfully obvious, and I immediately informed her new school of her situation and am currently looking for a new tutor.

Homework is a big trigger for her. It's the time of day when she slows down and acknowledges her feelings, which frequently ends up in frustrated crying. It is glaringly clear to her that she is behind. She is embarrassed to read aloud in class, and the embarrassment often makes her reading worse. The other children frequently look at her writing and comment on her poor handwriting and spelling. She is also behind in Maths. And as she tells me the stuff she's bottled up all day and kept under her cheery, social facade, her self image erodes daily. The British system is a bit more advanced than the US, in my estimation. The kids in her class all write in very neat cursive, I know - I noticed it immediately when we visited her class, and I know she noticed it as well. Finley cannot read cursive - print is difficult enough. There is a lot of writing, which means a lot of spelling that she just can't keep up with, she memorizes far too much instead of using her strategies for decoding. In her private moments she swings between hot anger and genuine despair. In addition, I know that Finley has inherited my anxiety inducing perfectionism. If it's not right straight out of the box, then it's not good enough.

She put her head on the table while we were talking last night and the tears rolled and the self deprecation flowed, as she painstakingly recalled each time throughout the day that she wanted to cry, or give up, or felt dumb or embarassed.

"It takes me so long to try and write small and neatly. I try so hard, mom, but it still looks like a little stupid boy wrote it. I hate my handwriting! Everyone thinks I'm stupid. I AM STUPID! I know that they look at my notebook to see what I'm writing. What's wrong with me?"

(This is one of her milder scoldings of herself. She frequently comments that she should be given away because she's so worthless. And she's been saying these things since she was about 5 years old. 5 years old, people.)

Honestly, I don't think kids are trying to be mean, I think they are observing her because she's new and different, and Finley's emotional and social radars are finely attuned to her peer's reactions. Nobody else sees Finley when she's like this. She's learned to carefully conceal and disassociate her feelings so she doesn't think about them. Her teachers always talk about how easy-going she is in class, and they rarely believe that she often feels terrible about herself. Her tutor told me she is one of the best fakers she's ever encountered (meaning that most adults can't tell how much she's compensating).

So after calming her, and soothing her, and doing my best to just hear her and love her, I got her to bed finally. And then I shut myself in my room and ugly cried because I can't fix it and I can't take it away from her and it kills me that she feels she has no value. There are so few people who get her, or that don't judge her harshly (don't even get me started on the moms that I know don't like her because they completely misread her personality). I woke up 3 times last night trying to decide if I should ask her teacher to not call on her to read, or to do her evaluations privately. I'm so torn about special treatment or isolating her.  I honestly do not know as much about Dyslexia as I should. Because of that whole denial and labeling thing.

Finley and I are both coming to terms with what this means for her education and for the rest of her life, and it is more intense than I anticipated. There is much soul searching, worrying, and hand wringing. Perfectionism is the greatest lie and cruelest judge. Because here's the bottom line: I don't care if she gets the grades or academic awards. She doesn't need to spend her life comparing herself to an impossible standard. I want her to be confident and capable. I want her to know and feel that she is enough, for me and herself - that I value her simply because she exists and she is worthy of love.


Mendy Waits16 Comments