It was toward the end of a long day, one of those days in which everything seems to go wrong, and I couldn’t help but feel inadequate. I was trying to make dinner for Beren when I slipped on water that one of our dogs had dribbled onto the floor from his bowl. Trying to steady myself, I threw out my hand to grab the counter, spilling the pot of freshly boiled pasta in my hand onto the floor. I looked at Beren’s partially destroyed dinner, at the clock, at his sweet face, and felt stinging frustration starting to rise. It wasn’t about the spilled pasta. It was another small moment in a big pile of them that day. I knelt down to start picking up the pasta, nasty words and self-recriminations flashing through my mind. And then I felt him; my little boy was kneeling next to me, his chubby hand on my knee. I looked at him and he said “Mama,” with a big, toothy grin. In his own toddler way, he was trying to tell me it was okay.
I am sure, dear reader, that you have your own memories of moments or days like this. Perhaps you are having one today: Your efforts are in vain, your sacrifices feel for naught, nothing is going right, and your worth seems bundled up into a tiny, barely perceptible knot somewhere in your aching chest.
Anyone can feel that sense of failure, of overwhelming disappointment in oneself or one’s attempts at getting things right, but I have found those feelings are magnified in parenting. God entrusts us with our little ones, and as we devote ourselves to their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs, it is so easy—nearly inevitable—to feel like a failure. The importance of our task is so great, and its requirements so demanding, that we as exhausted, overwhelmed, stretched-too-thin people can feel unprepared for the job.
Perfectionism in parenting is on the rise. Studies published by think tanks, magazines, and clinical associations have found that the pressure to be a perfect parent has become a dominant experience for many moms and dads, especially in America. The social historian in me could blather on about the causes and origins of this phenomenon (so ask me about that over coffee) but for the purposes of this post, what concerns me most is the inevitable crash between secular perfectionism and our salvation in Christ.
When we start down the path of negative thinking and self-judgement, there is some sort of rubric by which we judge ourselves. Where does that rubric come from? Are there study guides we are failing to memorize? Are we not following a universal cheat sheet? Are some of them perhaps called Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook? The clearest answer is that these judgments are based off of earthly standards, impossible standards. They make so much background noise that we cannot hear God in the foreground.
C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that “Each time you fall He will pick you up again. And He knows perfectly well that your own efforts are never going to bring you anywhere near perfection.” God not only knows that none of us are perfect, He does not expect that we will be successful at attaining perfection. If any of us were even capable of perfection, Christ’s importance in our salvation story would dwindle. That in and of itself is impossible. We have not been tasked with perfectionism. That is not part of the Christian story. If God is not expecting perfectionism from us, than for whom are we trying to be perfect? Our children? Other parents? Ourselves? Our social media accounts?
We need God in those moments when we spill our child’s dinner on the floor. We need God in those moments when we struggle to feed our babies in those early days of motherhood. We need God in those moments when people make us feel like the babysitter, even though we are the fathers, and very much full and capable parents. For those without children, those moments may look different, but the feelings are the same. We need God in those moments when that project at work falls on its face. We need God in those moments when we have to lay someone off. We need God in those moments when our lives just feel too small, too inadequate. We all need God to pick us up when we like like failures. We need the reminder that perfectionism is impossible, in both a literal sense, and in a Christian sense.
Sometimes God’s reminders come through a chubby hand on a bent knee, with a tiny, sacred word, “Mama.”
Listen to those reminders, look for them, seek them out actively in the Word, find them in prayer. Look for the safety net of God’s great grace, and aim for parenthood based on love and faithfulness to your great task of raising your precious gifts. Let them see a parent humble enough to admit their weaknesses, to apologize for their mistakes, to laugh over proverbially spilt milk. Let them see a parent focused on what their children are thinking and sharing than on lesser things of this world.
Let us be perfectly imperfect.