In honour of the quickly approaching peaceful Year of the Sheep and being kind to yourself, today we bring to you a new guest artist, Sehin. She’s currently living in Addis Ababa where she keeps it real as a feminist activist, advocating equality for all. Busy with her business ventures and her familial role as a loving mother, I’m sure many of you can relate to her ongoing efforts to achieve balance and happiness, not only within herself, but also for those around her. Thank you to Sehin for sharing her personal views on life and how to beat the nagging negativity we find in our own brains. See below for her biography and enjoy! ~Bridget
Learning Imperfections by Sehin Teferra
“Any areas where you think we can improve?” asked my friend and business partner as we left the campus where we had given a stimulating talk to a group of teenagers. I started going through the list of improvements I had listed on my computer but quickly stopped myself. I asked my partner, another Perfectionist, why we should focus on what needs to improve when we can celebrate on a fantastic job done on a project we had aggressively pursued and won. I even convinced her to have a glass of wine in celebration even if it took willpower to not rush home to my kids.
Celebrating success instead of focusing on what can be improved is new for me. In fact, you could say that I am one of those people who was born to learn and learn. I’m curious and engaged and can’t seem to be satisfied with what I know or can do. I’m perpetually looking things up and listening to TED Talks as I cook, or to while away traffic blues. I have taken classes in everything from yoga to poetry and Krar (a six-stringed Ethiopian musical instrument). Now, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with learning or wanting to improve one’s capacities. The problem lay, as I was to discover, in wanting to be perfect.
Every time I taught a yoga class, I made mental notes on what could have been better; that asana was inappropriate for a beginners’ group or the relaxation session was too short – even if all the feedback from my students was positive. I beat myself up for not practicing on my hand-crafted Krar which lies on the floor of our guest room completely out of tune, and after every single lecture or training I deliver, I make Improvement Notes. Yes, these notes I make for myself and all the other ways in which I’ve pushed myself to ‘Improve’ have helped me become a better student, a better professional, a better cook and even a better friend in that I actively worked on my communication skills. However, in the name of Improvement, my focus was on the small mistakes or glitches and not on the larger picture of all I was doing right. This obsession with perfection also meant that I was always stuck in the past (assessing what I could do better) or the future where I could look forward to a pitch-perfect lecture or the social occasion I would look back on and not find awkward moments of conversation.
That is, until having children shook me out of my self-inflicted misery.
When I became a mom nearly four years ago, my life changed 360 degrees. Now, those of you readers who are parents know that motherhood and the pursuit of perfection exist on parallel planes. Your house is a perpetual mess and no matter how much you try to get your kids to play with their own, age-appropriate toys, the kitchen utensils win over in appeal so that the ‘play area’ eventually takes over the house. I used to be serious about organizing my CD collection not alphabetically but along a logic that made sense only in my head and I think I tried to maintain that until my daughter turned two. My brother was the first to notice my transition to the Non-Perfect, he watched me continue a conversation calmly as my toddler wiped chocolate all over the sofa and he exclaimed, ”teshenefsh” – ”you have been defeated.”
While embracing Mess and the instability that having kids bestows on your schedule, priorities, and life in general, I persisted with trying to learn to be a perfect Mom. Every week, I gave myself an area to work on; I would learn to make nutritious snacks that my kids would actually eat, or You-Tube instructions to make a homemade doll from an old sock, or braid and re-braid my daughter’s ultra-curly hair until I got it right. Needless to say, I continued the Great List of Improvements: “Next time, I should stop at two errands before the Meltdown comes” or “I really hope I remember to take the potty in the car with me so that Rekka doesn’t have to pee outside the car as she likes to do, invariably with her butt facing traffic.” That kind of thing. Once again, I was stuck in the past, and in the future of improbable perfection where my pancakes would not crack in the middle and all the toys will be fully battery-charged.
However, I was to find with time that trying to be a perfect parent is like trying to slam shut a revolving door. Nothing kills the ego like being a full-time mom; the organic chicken and spinach you spent hours sourcing and cooking will probably end up on the floor in a mush, and all children master the word ‘no’ with amazing efficiency.
I remained committed to being a full-time Mom with 10% of my time dedicated to my activism in women’s rights, mostly working on Saturdays, when my children can spend time with their dad. Somewhere in there is a long-standing PhD I need to finish. A tall order for any woman and the required antidote to the pursuit of perfection, as for the last three years, I could only manage to get through each day. Seeing through my barely held-together veneer which is not helped by a 15-month old who likes to breast feed all night long, a fellow Mom asked me, quietly, “Why aren’t you your own friend?” That one question made the penny drop. I realized instantly how hard I had been on myself, in the pursuit of ‘Improvement‘ and the the moving target of ‘Perfection.’ Hardest to realize was that this obsession with wanting to be better was taking away from the joy of the most important job I will ever have, being a Mom.
So I took a deep breath, and I let go of learning to be perfect. I became my own best friend and listened to my advice. I dumped the Improvement Notes and accepted that I will always be 15 minutes late to Toddler Music class. I learnt to forgive myself as often as I forgive my kids; when the sippy cup I didn’t close properly causes my son to get drenched, I change him quickly and move on with my day. When I snap at my daughter because I am oh so tired, I apologize and let it go without berating myself for not having more patience.
Luckily, alongside my quest for perfection had been the more noble pursuit of Mindfulness, and somehow I figured out that more important than the creation of photo-worthy meals is the presence of mind to be there, really there, with your kids. I concluded that tantrums are tiny people’s way of telling you that what they want more than toys or being chauffeured to an endless round of play dates, horse-riding, swimming, art or Mommy-and-Me yoga classes is to just be with you. And so, I settled for being good enough and l learnt to ignore the nag in my head that still wants to tell me all I am doing wrong, in the guise of ‘improvement.’ I no longer feel guilty spending Sunday afternoon on a mattress on our living floor with my kids doing absolutely nothing, although I’m sure there is some craft or game I could engage their minds on or that I could at least take them for a walk. I am present, almost always, and that is good enough.
Very slowly, I’m translating this new-found liberation from perfection to other parts of my life. I gave a talk on gender-based violence the other day and for some reason, I stopped myself three-quarters of the way on my notes and I sat down. I started to criticize myself for all the examples I could have used but didn’t when I registered that my internal conversation was preventing my from listening to the next speaker’s excellent speech. So I stopped. Presence over the pursuit of perfection which has always been as elusive as my own shadow. Because good enough is actually pretty perfect.
This blog post has also been simultaneously shared on http://www.awib.org.et/
Sehin Teferra – ADDIS ABABA
Sehin Teferra is an Ethiopian feminist activist based in Addis Ababa, Africa. Her daughter Rekka and son Leeben provide her with endless inspiration.
You can find more of Sehin’s writing on www.awib.org.et. For more information on Setaweet, the Ethiopian feminist space co-founded by Sehin, visit (and Like!) our Facebook Page. You can also Follow Sehin on Twitter @Sehinsehina.