Shortly after I gave birth to my daughter and second child on the 4th of July, my aunt shared that her youngest daughter and child had just turned 20 years old. While it was no surprise that my cousin was having a 20th birthday, the news, as I held my newborn, took my breath away for a moment, as I asked myself, “Wait, is that how fast our children grow up?” I remember my cousin when she was 4 and came to Easter dinner at my grandparents house in her pink outfit with a white hat. Looking at my newborn, I was suddenly and already grieving the loss of her childhood. And looking at my son, a fiercely independent boy around the corner from his third birthday, I already regretted the moments when I was not my best self – especially in the latest heat wave that hit New York. Generally, I have a lot of patience and compassion for children. But in the heat, I’ll be the first to admit I am a cranky witch always on her last nerve.
Still, my aunt sharing that her youngest child was no longer a child had me rethink the moments that I caught myself about to snap at my son simply because I was so hot I couldn’t think straight. My aunt then shared with me the wisdom that comes with time and perspective: essentially that as parents, we all wish we could take back the moments when we weren’t the best parents, but, she said, life isn’t perfect and neither are we. We can only give ourselves the grace to know we always did the best we could at that moment in time and let go of the rest. Thankfully, our children love us unconditionally and forgive us; they rebound from those moments simply because they’re grounded in the knowledge that we love them.
Yet I also caught myself getting stuck on the word and phrase that I so often hear women use to describe those moments they aren’t proud of: mainly, that we aren’t perfect. I hear this a lot – in those “Mommy wars” conversations, about leaving our children to go back to work and how “perfect” or “good” mothers feel guilty for not being with their children, but also feel guilty because they enjoy their work and want to do something for themselves that leaves them satisfied. I hear it get used when women feel they need a break from their work, children and even husbands – and that if they were perfect they wouldn’t need to.
The idea of what a “perfect” parent is is so subjective it’s meaningless. Perfect in itself doesn’t actually describe anything. Does it mean you never yell at your kids or get frustrated when you need to be at the subway stop in a matter of minutes, but your toddler is stopping to inspect every rock and stick on the sidewalk? Does it mean that when you do yell or are less than respectful to your child you also apologize and teach your child that you are as equally human as they are and that it’s okay to make mistakes or that we sometimes act in ways we’re not proud of as long as we also do our best to be responsible for the repercussions of our behavior?
Or in terms of having a perfect marriage – what does that mean? That you never fight and always are rational or that you do fight and allow each other to get angry because at the very least it means you’re communicating and grappling with the more complex aspects of what it means to share a life with someone?
Essentially, the idea of perfection just becomes another yardstick of ideal we use to measure ourselves up against and beat ourselves up with. As I reflected on what my aunt said of her own parenting, I decided she was right: all we can ever do is our best in that moment – whether it’s as a parent, a spouse, an employee, a neighbor or whatever. There will be moments we learn from and want to do over and even wish we could take back. But why not either leave the idea of perfection out of it – or redefine the notion of what it is to be perfect? Maybe we could instead practice self-acceptance, and even go so far to suggest that we’re perfect as we are – and are not. Instead of having being perfect be the goal, maybe we could instead have it be the starting place.
In each moment, we can only do our best, and sometimes doing our best looks different than it did the moment before. This is where I noticed a degree of grace begin to emerge as I thought all these things through. Me doing my best with my son in a heat wave just days after I had given birth to his sister? Well, I had no right to expect from myself what I am normally capable of. After I give birth doing my best essentially means I don’t get out of my pajamas, I drink plenty of fluids, rest, and am excited to see my son when he walks in the door from his play date. The idea of perfection in many moments isn’t even relevant – but allowing ourselves some compassion always is.