What is it and what can we do about it?


Last year we went on a trip that I’d been thinking about for longer than I’d like to admit. It wasn’t so much a holiday as an intention, a sense of something that we would only ever get one opportunity to do. My husband and I had both taken time away from work to go away for most of a month with our six-month-old child. It was both the first adventure we had taken with our son and also the last we could do before his toddlerhood, and then childhood, would more meaningfully compromise the ambitious travelling we’d come to enjoy as a couple. 

Over the course of three weeks we drove from Puglia to Umbria, marvelling at ancient olive trees, plunging ourselves into the sea after dawn and weaning the baby on sweet tomatoes. I posted photographs of deserted hilltop towns and peachy sunrises on Instagram. What I didn’t disclose quite as publicly was how badly the baby slept in an endless parade of travel cots, or how my postnatal anxiety would pop up like an unwelcome mosquito or the fact I dinked the car on a particularly tight hairpin bend in Tuscany. 

Over the past few months “Perfect Moment Syndrome” has popped up on TikTok. The term was written about in First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Australian author Sarah Wilson, in which she acknowledges the frequency with which birthdays aren’t happy, romantic meals don’t help a relationship and holidays aren’t that relaxing. It resonates because it’s true – we can all think of a situation that we expected to go one, particularly successful, way, but ended up being a major disappointment. 

I can pinpoint the moments of greatest Perfect Moment Syndrome from that Italian holiday. When we arrived at a town purportedly recognised as one of the prettiest in Italy, only to find everything had shut for lunch and we were irritable with hunger. When I walked up to the idyllic lake in a bikini only to be told by a local that swimming wasn’t allowed. When we arrived at a town famed for its beach only to find it rammed with tourists – just like us. 

I have long known that my own personal happiness – or lack thereof – lies in the gulf between expectation and reality. Spontaneous socialising, a friendly chat on the bus with a stranger, an unexpected night in during a busy week are all delicious things. By contrast, a much-anticipated party is unlikely to ever live up to what we might have hoped; especially if we’ve thought about it in granular detail – the perfect outfit, the photo opportunities, the glittering moment to savour. No wonder it never falls into place. 

One way to overcome it, of course, is to lower our expectations. But that’s easier said than done, especially with these moments of heightened importance – wedding days, landmark birthdays, which can be imbued with a sense of “once in a lifetime”. I’ve personally found it better to be open to the imperfect moments and learn to savour them, instead. Relishing those things you could never possibly plan, or photograph, or wear the right outfit for. The life that crops up in between, that etches its way into your memory in spite of nothing being as it should be. 

When I look back on that Italian trip these are what stand out for me. When we pulled the car over while driving through the Gargano Forest because the baby was getting frustrated in the car seat and ended up in a mad game of hide and seek, giggling until we cried. When we couldn’t get a dinner reservation anywhere and bought fresh focaccia and ate it on our tiny balcony, watching people wander beneath our feet. When we went out for pastries in Arezzo, early on a Saturday morning, and had the whole city to ourselves. Imperfect moments all – and I wouldn’t change any of them. 

You can read more from Alice via her newsletter, Savour.