If you’ve read a few of the posts I’ve written here in the last few years, or if you know me personally, you probably know that motherhood has been a struggle for me since I entered it 3 and a half years ago. Not because there’s anywhere else in the world I’d rather be. It mostly just boils down to the fact that there’s a discrepancy between the mother I want to be and the one that I am on a daily basis. It grieves me greatly sometimes.
I never used to consider myself a perfectionist, actually drew a pretty thick line differentiating me from my Type A friends, but as time goes on I realize that while my behavior might often not be as driven as my high-achieving friends, my ideals are kind of off the charts sometimes. A counselor once tried to work with me to help me have more realistic expectations of myself. She got a little confused, though, because when she’d ask me to specify what I saw my role or responsibility being in various situations, my answers were very realistic and appropriate. I began to realize that I generally tend to operate within the sphere of very realistic expectations (sometimes even too low). But in the back of my mind, there’s often a belief that I really “should” be performing at a much higher level (I think many of my INFJ friends out there, and others, can relate, no?). I don’t actually hold myself to that expectation on a daily basis because I often evaluate those ideals as unrealistic. Yet I still hold that ideal in the back of my mind. Which means I never quite measure up to who I want to be. In fact, this divided way of operating almost makes it worse. If I really expected myself to live up to those ideals and felt consistent pressure to meet them, I’d probably be moving more quickly in the direction I want to go (even if it still wasn’t totally emotionally healthy). When I write my ideals off as unachievable, it’s easier to become complacent and not even try.
“We have a longing for more because we were created for more! Our hearts tell us we were crafted for an eternal place, for courage, for ideals that draw the best from our existence.” -Sally Clarkson
At any rate, all of that is one thing when it comes to living my own life, meeting or not meeting my own goals, or what have you. When I became a mom, though, it became a whole different ballgame. The stakes for underperforming got a whole lot higher. And deciding to spend the hours of every day in a house with a little kid (or several) is like deciding to take all the sin and selfishness you barely even knew you had and shoving it under a microscope to stare at every day, at least it has been for me. It’s crazy that this season of life with young kids holds such a mirror to your weaknesses (and let’s not forget theirs, too), while at the same time making it more imperative than it’s ever been that you overcome them. That’s a major, unspoken part of why it’s so hard to just relax and enjoy this season of life, however heartachingly aware you might be that this time goes by so fast. The pressure to live up to my own expectations and aspirations as a parent can be crippling and defeating at times. But leaning the other direction toward complacency is just as problematic. How can you be a loving and diligent parent without becoming tense? How can I live in freedom and joy, aspiring to be the best parent and person I can be, but relaxing into grace as I fumble along? That is the million dollar question.
I think I am finally getting some insight into this question. Gradually over the past year, or however long I’ve owned a smartphone, I’ve begun to experience some guilt and discomfort with using it when the kids are around. And really the issue was there before that, when it was just the computer. I’ve always been a bit of an internet addict. And as I’ve realized lately how much my introversion affects my experience as a parent, especially the parent of an extremely verbal child who processes his thoughts verbally and thrives on verbal interaction and requires a verbal response to everything (I haven’t been able to admit yet that he might be an extrovert…) I see that computer/phone time is one of the primary methods that the introvert in me uses to escape and recharge for a while. I’ve gone back and forth between feeling guilty about it and accepting it as a coping mechanism that helps me function. In the moments I feel guilty, it can sure run deep, though, and convince me that I am irreparably damaging our relationship, wasting irreplaceable moments of our lives, insuring that my kids become addicted to technology and grow up feeling ignored and unloved. Or whatever other dramatics you can come up with. Maybe a bit of that might be true in some ways, sometimes, and it’s worth setting limits with technology and getting our priorities straight.
“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12, my verse for the year.)
But I realized one day, when I was feeling twinges of guilt over some minutes of technology use that day, that as uncomfortable as it can feel to be convicted about something or to contemplate ideals I hold that I’m not quite living up to fully, why should it have to make me feel miserable, guilty, defeated? Doesn’t the fact that I care about something like this and am weighing it out in my mind and attempting to make wise choices indicate that my heart and even my life are generally oriented in the right direction? If the inner checks that I feel lead me to put down the phone twice today (even if there were a few additional times that day when I didn’t), didn’t I just make two good decisions that positively impacted my life and my family?
The phone thing is just an example to illustrate this revelation. It might not sound profound to anybody else, but for me it was a powerful realization, that that uncomfortable feeling (I’ll call it “conviction”), rather than making me feel guilty and like I’m failing all over the place, could actually be viewed as a positive sign, and that the good decisions I do make equal progress even if I don’t have a perfect track record. Doesn’t it mean that I’m doing better in the midst of these moments of conviction than I was doing when I wasn’t feeling convicted at all? What if the Spirit gradually (and typically gently, whether or not I’m gentle with myself) convicting me about more details of my life means that God sees me as ready to handle a new step of sanctification (even if I haven’t quite perfected the previous one, or any of them)?
Ultimately, I know that it is not about “performance” or “track records” or “perfection.” Even if I could live up to all of this, it would just be filthy rags when it comes to earning anything. I know that I can’t earn God’s favor by performing well enough, nor can I lose his love by making mistakes. I can’t achieve my way to perfect kids or parenting success. And maybe sometimes all of this awareness of what should be and is not will lead me to be overwhelmed by His holiness and by how far I fall short. But rather than lead me to despair, it is His mercy to remind me of my need for Him, to remind me that Jesus, standing in my place before the Father’s throne, is my only Righteousness.
I know that most of what I worry about will turn out fine. Yet if I keep my eyes on myself and my own abilities, it’s easy to wonder if they will in fact turn out fine, because I’m aware of my shortcomings and how small I am in comparison to the size of the task of raising and protecting and loving other human beings well. But if we are truly people of faith, truly God’s People, then don’t we need to stop dwelling on our own weaknesses and instead fix our gaze on who God is? Is He not capable of raising a child? Isn’t he able to give me the wisdom needed for guiding my particular children? Isn’t he capable of teaching them later in life the things I might miss? Isn’t he able to heal whatever wounds I’ve accidentally inflicted on them as he walks with them through their lives? Hasn’t he been doing the same for this child, me, as I’m walking with him? And isn’t my greatest desire to point my children to God? Couldn’t it be true that the very ways I feel I am failing them will point their gaze right at him, as they come to recognize Him as their perfect parent, their healer, their source of wisdom and strength? Couldn’t he use my strengths and my failures to point them to Him? Couldn’t the best example I leave for them be one of falling on the grace of God, of dwelling in His grace every day of my life, of finding my rest in His Righteousness?
God used the story of Jonah to drive this point home to me. Jonah was the guy (though I thought he was a girl until I was like 20…) who got swallowed by a giant fish as he was in the process of running away from God and what God had asked him to do- preach a message of repentance to the sinful city of Nineveh. It’s actually a story of God’s great mercy, both for Jonah and for the Ninevites. Getting swallowed by a whale actually saved Jonah’s life from drowning and gave him a second chance to fulfill his calling. And it gave more than 120,000 people a chance to hear the words of God and to change their ways, turning from death to LIFE. It was a chance the Ninevites took, and the angels in heaven rejoiced! But the book ends with a portrait of Jonah, sulking under a withered plant after having staged a protest against God showing mercy to the Ninevites, indignant that they actually listened, indignant that God would forgive them. All Jonah had left to do was to dwell in his own pity party. It even says he was so angry he wished he were dead! Talk about the Prodigal’s brother. There are a lot of lessons that can be taken from Jonah’s story. But this time what struck me was just how sinful and ugly Jonah was acting, and how it only served to emphasize how compassionate and merciful God was. Wait, Jonah’s sin actually emphasized God’s goodness? His failures actually brought glory to God? This is what stopped me in my tracks.
“Glory is the visible expression
of God’s character on this earth.” -Jennie Allen
“The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.” -Psalm 19:1-4
Of course we are not to sin on purpose to make God look better. “By no means!” as Paul put it. But as I thought about Paul, I realized that his story looked a lot like Jonah’s. The fact that he was going around leading the persecution and murder of Christians, the fact that he was doing everything Jesus condemned the Pharisees for doing (meticulously following the minutia of the law with no regard for cleanliness of heart), it only makes it that more incredible that God would turn his life around through an encounter with Jesus and make him a leader of the church, with many of Paul’s words leading us even today as we read them in Scripture. Paul should have been embarrassed about where he came from. He knew he was unworthy, the least worthy of all. But he embraced it because he knew it pointed people right past himself and straight to God.
“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” -2 Corinthians 12:9
I’ve thought about this verse for years, yet I still can hardly wrap my mind around it. But it wasn’t just Paul, or Jonah. I haven’t yet thought of a single person in the Bible whose weakness did not somehow make God’s glory shine brighter. Why can I see it in their lives and not in my own? Perhaps He really does work all things together for good. Perhaps the whole earth really is singing the praises of God. The birds are singing his praises, just by being birds. The trees, by being trees. The rocks by being rocks. And we, just by being human. It’s a tricky thing, because sin is not of God, and we are called and empowered to overcome it through Him. We must overcome evil with good and be bearers of His light in a dark world. But His mysteries are great, and He is Good, and He is Able. His grace is sufficient for us.