The Heresy of the 'Perfect Parent'

Some three decades ago in an overheated church basement, a thoroughly well-meaning children’s Sunday school teacher set a glass of water on a table with a thud. “See how pure and clean the water is?” she prodded, and we nodded compliantly. “What is this water good for?” “Drinking,” someone offered, getting the obvious answer out of the way. “Taking a bath!” “Watering flowers!” “Washing a dog!” The teacher then produced a small vial of food coloring. Surveying the room to make sure we were all paying attention, she dropped a tiny dot of red into the glass and watched with us as it swirled and gradually clouded the whole.

The lesson: The water was us; the red drop, sin. Just as that singular drop infiltrated the entire glass, rendering it useless, every sin, no matter how apparently small, permeated and stained our whole beings. She must have concluded with some mention of grace, forgiveness, and the prospect of starting over again, but that image of the fragility of the good—the water sullied forever by just one drop of dye—is what took.

This image has returned to me more than I like since the birth of my first child, as I’ve wrestled with the enticements and menace of perfect parenting. My husband and I stumbled into parenthood, neither of us having much imagined ourselves in this role. We knew that we didn’t know what we were doing and were mostly okay with that. I had a mercifully uneventful pregnancy and a relatively easy labor and delivery, and our child is now as healthy and happy as 2-year-olds are supposed to be. What we could not prepare for was how overwhelmed we would feel in the face of the fact that we were it—her people—and that her tiny and fragile life had been entrusted to our rather clumsy hands.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2008
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