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  • Writer's picturepamradtkerussell

Letting Go of Perfectionism in Search of the Perfect Party

When I was 25 or 26, shortly after I was married and had moved to Florida with my husband, I threw a few extravagant dinner parties for my newspaper colleagues. More than once, I made Coquilles Saint Jacques— a buttery seafood casserole — served in a real scallop shell.

Out came the Waterford crystal, my grandmother’s silver and the gold-rimmed china. The house was scrubbed, baseboards dusted, towels perfectly placed in the bathroom. I had my husband put on soft jazz before our guests arrived. I was flushed with pride at my effort and the accolades that resulted, but more often than not, it fell… and felt… flat.

In the 20 years that followed, I continued to go overboard when I entertained. There was the 2-year-old’s birthday party where I served a curated cheese platter and wine to the parents; little girl tea parties where I baked a half dozen types of cookies, scones and cakes from scratch; and a Halloween party where I marinated and then roasted cauliflower “brains” and made “finger” sandwiches.

Even having friends over for pizza wasn’t just pizza — I had to make a deep dish Chicago style pizza that took a few hours.

My body wasn’t perfect, my work wasn’t perfect, my marriage wasn’t perfect, but my parties, my entertaining, brought me to close to what I thought was perfection.

It was far from effortless —it was a huge production that could result in tears, anger, frustration, anxiety, panic — and my family dreaded the push to clean, straighten up and shop before any party. My daughters didn’t understand why I needed to make things look better than they normally looked.

It was In these efforts that I fully embraced one of my family’s mottos growing up —if you’re going to do a job, don’t half ass it. To me, half assing it meant buying premade food from the grocery or asking guests to bring a dish. So I full assed that shit.

I should have taken a hint I was doing something wrong when, shortly after moving to New Orleans, I threw a brunch before some day parades.

I still cringe at my huge misstep. I ordered a “centerpiece” for the table from a florist. Even the florist seemed a little surprised but created a beautiful forsythia arrangement covered in Mardi Gras beads. Guests arrived, casual and ready for the parades, and looked quizzically at this beautiful thing that belonged in a Garden District mansion, not in what should have been a low-key gathering. I swear that centerpiece changed the entire tenor of the party.

In New Orleans, there are distinct times for ceremony and pomp. A pre-parade party (where Popeye’s is the preferred delicacy) is definitely not one of them,

Eventually, after attending enough parties where it was clear the host was stressed and wasn’t enjoying herself — leading me and other guests to not enjoy ourselves — it finally hit me: People don’t come to a party for the food. They don’t come for the china or the crystal.

They come for the people. Conversation, laughter, stories. Connection. That’s what makes a good party.

Sometimes my parties hit that mark, but often they didn’t. My attempt at perfection made others uncomfortable. Guests might have connected with other guests, but they didn’t connect with me.

Brene’ Brown describes perfectionism as a shield we think will protect us from shame, judgement and fear, but it actually weighs us down and prevents us from succeeding. My attempts at throwing a “perfect” party doomed them.

All of this preface to say—I threw a party this weekend. It was a drop-in affair at my new apartment.

It wasn’t effortless, for sure. I took the day off to clean and go shopping, but I didn’t rope my daughters in to help. I didn’t stress over the RSVPs or the food. In fact, I didn’t know what I was going to put on my table until I went to Trader Joe’s that same afternoon. I didn’t cook — or even heat up — a thing.

It was a step toward becoming what Brown calls being “a recovering perfectionist and an aspiring good-enoughist.”

More friends than I expected came, and they were comfortable and they enjoyed themselves. They didn’t gush over the food, but they did enjoy the connections and reconnections and the conversations they had. They lingered and huddled in groups and one on one and made themselves at home.

It was, I think, relaxing — making it markedly different than all of my previous parties.

We saw each other. We heard each other. We gathered in communion around some mediocre, store-bought food and we offered our stories. And most importantly, we laughed.

Coquilles Saint Jacques and Waterford crystal were not required.

This moment. These connections. This laughter.

This was what I had wanted all along.

This was perfection.

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