We came home from the hospital with an 8 pound rage factory who hated the world unless he was nursing or in the bath. No book or class or conversation can prepare you for the sleep-deprived madness of a colicky baby. Similarly, nothing can really prepare you for the first time they fall out of a chair, or burn their hand, or drink the rotten milk from the bottle you accidentally left in their crib in your sleep-deprived stupor.
And if you tell me you were prepared the first time your son asked you a question about vaginas in a public place with his trademark disregard for the rules governing volume levels and inside voices, I’m calling you a liar right to your lying face.
Perhaps what we’re least ready for as parents though, is being confronted with how imperfect we really are.
He was refusing to eat again. For a not-quite-two year-old, his will was like tempered steel.
“No,” he said through furrowed brow and wrinkled nose as he pushed the bowl away for the eleventy-billionth time.
Then the red monster started creeping up my neck and into my face. He must’ve noticed, because the next time he said, “no…” there was a little less oomph behind it, as he gingerly scooted the bowl to the side.
My internal monologue at that point looked something like this:
“He HAS to eat because if he doesn’t eat he’ll DIE and how in the world am I ever going to teach him to be grateful for what he has if he’s so dang PICKY all the time and is he always going to be this picky and OH MY GOSH ARE WE RAISING A KID THAT’S ACTUALLY A JERK? no, he’s not a jerk, he’s just a baby, but can a baby be a jerk? I don’t know but that IS like 3 dollars worth of food and this is like the 5th time this week he’s WASTED his food and maybe I should start paying him an allowance just so I can take away part of it to pay for the food that he’s wasted and how in the world do we find time to teach him the important stuff if he’s on a perpetual hunger strike (with exceptions for popsicles, of course) and how is he going to learn about that really important stuff like love and justice if he’s too busy deciding which foods to boycott and alright, that’s it, his life is ruined and he will grow up to be a (insert negative stereotype du jour here) and I am an UTTER FAILURE.”
Then, he said “all done” and did his little baby sign language. (Well, it’s not really little. It’s more embellished than that. This kid can incorporate jazz hands into any hand motion.) I unbuckled him and he hopped down from his chair and did his little hobbit waddle across the kitchen on his fat little hobbit legs with his giant hobbit feet slapping the floor the whole way.
Then he asked his mom for some food and a little piece of me died inside.
Fast forward a few days and now it’s big brother’s turn. The scene goes something like this:
We’re playing in his room, his eyes are so heavy he can barely keep them open, and every time he tries to get his toy to do whatever it is he wants it to do, he breaks down like I always do during that scene in Across the Universe where the choir sings “Let it Be.” It’s all ugly tears and blubbering, so I offer the most offensive suggestion a four year old could possibly fathom:
“Hey buddy, what do you say we go to bed?”
He, of course, goes apoplectic.
This time, my inner monologue looks something like this:
“Kids are so dang irrational and why in the world would anyone complain about going to sleep, I mean I would literally pay someone a not-insignificant amount of money to be able to get a full night’s sleep right now and he’s obviously tired and it’s not like the toy that hates-but-also-loves-right-now won’t be here in the exact same spot in the morning when he wakes up and it’s not like he won’t be able to find time in his jam-packed four-year-old schedule to play with it and he has too many toys anyway, doesn’t he know that there are some kids that don’t have any toys at all OH MY GOSH, WE’RE SPOILING HIM, that’s it, I’ve got to tell my family to stop buying him toys for his birthday and Christmas so he doesn’t turn into Veruca Salt, running around in a blue dress yelling “I want it now!!” oh man, I should probably take the toy away since it’s making him crazy and I have to fix this right now right this second or his impressionable sponge of a brain is going to absorb and internalize this one moment and I will forever be the mean dad who took his toy away and then when he’s a teenager, he’ll be that kid that hates his dad and won’t talk to him about anything and OH NO, I’M FAILING…AGAIN.”
But without much cajoling, he acquiesces and we crawl into bed for the routine. Some books and a story (or a “book without pages” as he like to call it) and some chill tunes and some almost-cuddling (he likes you to lay with him and put your arm kind of around him but not *actually* touch him), and within a couple of minutes, he’s already drifting off to sleep while I lay there deconstructing the entire episode and mapping out how I’m going to fix everything to avoid his life from becoming an utter ruin when he looks up, eyes tired but still bright, hair draped over half of his face and through that little half-smile that he gets from me he says,
“I love you, dad.”
And I think that just maybe it wasn’t such a catastrophe after all.
So, here’s the dirty little secret about parenting:
No one is perfect, and no one is prepared.
All of us are the sons and daughters of parents who were imperfect and unprepared. Our parents were the children of (you guessed it) people who were equally imperfect and unprepared. As long as there have been children, there have parents who have worried about screwing up those children’s lives, and as long as there have been parents with ideas about what a good parent looks like, there have been parents who thought of themselves as failures.
Here’s the reality: we’re all going to fail at some point. We’re going to fail to live up to our own internal standards of what a good parent should be. We’re going to yell when we promised we wouldn’t, or get angry at kids for…you know…being kids, or fail to manage our time and lose time with them, or make a poor decision financially that affects them.
We’re all going to screw up, and that’s the one thing that binds us all together. It sounds counter-intuitive, but there’s a weird kind of freedom in acknowledging that fact. There’s an element of pride sometimes in parenting (or at least there was/is for me…maybe I’m just projecting on you here) that can keep us isolated, trying to fight through our inevitable failures on our own. But here’s the really beautiful part: we don’t have to look far to see the incredible communities around us, made up of people who are all (and I have this on good authority) either someone’s child or someone’s parent, or both. And the really *really* beautiful part is that the Internet has given us access to communities our parents couldn’t even imagine, but that means putting ourselves out there.
But that can be tough, because it means admitting that neither we, nor our kids, are actually as perfect as we sometimes make ourselves out to be (and I think sometimes as people of faith, the pressure we put on ourselves and on others is even greater).
So go ahead. I’m giving you permission to not be perfect (not that it really means anything coming from me, but maybe you needed to hear it).
Being imperfect doesn’t make you horrible. It makes you human.