Photo credit: Marc Perrault
One day this summer, some 13 months into full-time stay-at-home-parenting, my oldest daughter, Robyn, turned around, looked me in the eye and said with an exasperated sigh, “Mom, you always want me to be perfect! Nobody’s perfect, you know!”
The worst part about this was that this beautiful child who has been entrusted to me is right, on both counts. She is a prophet and I would do well to hear God speak through her. I do frequently expect an impossible perfection, from her and from myself and from everyone else. If I do not stay aware of such a ridiculous expectation, I hurt the people I love most, especially a beautiful, bold and passionate daughter who is so much like me that it is hard to separate her successes and failings from my own.
In the last few days I was reminded of this tendency again, when I returned home from four days away. While I was gone, our (just barely) one-year-old, Charlize, mastered climbing up the stairs. She woke me from a jet-lagged nap to show me how she could do it, one leg at a time, with a huge grin after each of the stairs. She was radiating joy. When she got to the top, she reached out her arms for me to take her back to the bottom so she could do it again, so I did, two more times.
And then I stopped marvelling at her. I turned her over on her tummy to show her how to scoot down.
Why is it that I cannot let her (or her brother or sister, or anyone else) live in the satisfaction of their own growth? Why do I always look to what remains instead of the stairs that have been successfully climbed? My expectation for perfection destroys my ability to recognize, appreciate and celebrate growth; it blinds me to God’s joy in the small steps I make in choosing to follow God.
Reflecting on my unrealistic expectations led me back to Mary and Martha. I hate that story and the way it is (ab)used to glorify prayer while demonizing housework! But Jesus is not concerned with what each woman has chosen, but with Martha’s expectations — for Mary and for him. Martha has the same freedom as her sister and, like Jesus, she also has a relationship with Mary. Instead of choosing to wipe her hands and go do what she wants to do — maybe even feels called to do — she asks Jesus to correct Mary by trying to orchestrate all of their lives according to Martha’s plan. And Martha’s plan is not even making Martha happy.
Jesus reminds her that Mary has chosen the “one thing” and that it will not be taken from her. Jesus will not take it, and he will not allow Martha to take it either. How often I have neglected the one thing that I need to do, that God offers to me. Then, I have gone on to use my resentment and frustration to rob others of their one thing, by seeking comfort in my misery and control of all the others’ things.
Each moment of my day has room for only one thing. The things I choose will fill the moments, and the moments will fill the days. When I am seduced by the idea that the moments are only worth having if they are perfectly performed, I am frequently disappointed and the moments bleed together in an a raging rejection of whatever God might hold for me in folding towels, meeting someone at my office door, or just sitting in the leaves to play.
Perfection is only and ever real in growth, in the ways we discover our own capacity and embrace the courage to try something new. This is the wisdom of the life God gives us, that we learn in time when we are ready. It is adorable when we watch it happen in a baby, and less adorable when we come face to face with the habits, attitudes and behaviours which are no longer working for us.
As a way of embracing the imperfection of gradual growth these days, I am doing the one thing that lies before me, and trying to do it with gentleness. If I need to sit with a beautiful little red-head and practice spelling, I can do that without wishing it were faster, more efficient. I can do it without expectation. And when the expectation creeps in, I can welcome my old friend perfectionism and invite her to the one thing too.
There are so many places that God has for me to grow into, to discover, when I am ready for the next step. All of these places are growth into the one thing: a trusting willingness to be in the one place I am. God is delighting in that, and when I remember, I am too.
I realized in the moment Charlize screamed at being turned around that she did not need me to show her how to climb the stairs. She learned to do it with the curiosity and natural ability for growth and discovery that God gave her. She needs me to keep her safe, for now, while she does not know how to go down. And she needs me to meet her grin with mine at the top of the stairs, and pick her up and walk back down to the bottom for another one more time. If I will open myself up to the one thing, we can grow together, she and I.