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.

Anxious and geographically distant from close friends and family, I frequently sought succor from the vast world of parenting books, especially during the early and raw weeks of Hannah’s life. Child development studies have yielded tremendous insight into how the body and mind grow in intimate and interdependent ways in the first two to three years of life, from utter dependence on others to feed, clothe, and hold our heads for us, to feeding ourselves (albeit messily), walking unaided, and discovering the power of shrieking “no!”

Though the rare offering in this corpus presents these findings with some modesty, most proffer strong opinions on how parents, especially mothers, should ensure their children’s growth and flourishing. This begins before the child is even born, since a peaceful and stress-free pregnancy is considered critical for their in utero development. Post-birth, mothers are advised to breastfeed on demand, sleep with their child, respond immediately to their cries, and generally think, feel, and do nothing that would detract from devoting their full attention to the baby.

Few of these authors seem aware of the implications of insisting that a child’s future is irrevocably determined by whether or not his or her parents get everything right. If this pressure were not enough, lack of a properly maternal mindset is a frequent catch-all diagnosis for women who encounter difficulties with such things as breastfeeding or colicky babies. Dr. William Sears—the best-selling author on the “attachment parenting” market—discusses at some length the seriousness of postpartum depression. But on nearly the next page he suggests that women who feel overwhelmed after their child’s birth do so not because of the new baby but because they are trying to do too many non-baby related activities. To remedy this, he advises them to curl up for a nap with their child and allow “yourself the luxury of thinking motherly thoughts. All competing worries or preoccupations with business can be put on hold in favor of this important work that can be done only by you.”

The presumption beneath such a mind-bendingly infantilizing pep talk is that women with small children just need to get their priorities straight and leave all concerns for matters beyond the tiny sphere of their infants to others, since in even their most mundane actions mothers have unique power to prevent or induce all manner of bad things for their children. In this vein some advocates of co-sleeping insist that babies put to sleep in a crib feel as though they are being put into prison, leading to both immediate and long-term problems with forming trusting relationships. (How such infants know what a prison looks like is unclear.) I was assured that if I breastfed Hannah she would have a comparatively high IQ a few years down the road (the jury’s still out on that one) and would not be at risk for ear infections (she had four in a year’s time anyway). If we were sufficiently responsive to her needs she would not whine (we certainly tried to be, but she is already demonstrating a capacity to whine that almost rivals my own). It’s not the relative merits of co-sleeping, breastfeeding, or being attentive to your child that I dispute, but rather the exaggerated promises and implicit threats with which they are promoted.

Much of this overstatement can be chalked up to marketing, for parental anxiety to do what is best for our children makes us really good customers. The families these books seem to presume for an audience include two healthy parents (one with a job paying enough to permit the other to stay home for as long as it takes) and grandparents who are physically and financially healthy enough to come lend a hand when needed or at least not to require care themselves.

When the readership is narrowed down to the “worried well,” the call to arms against raising a whiny child with a relatively lower IQ takes on an absurd urgency—an urgency that I am completely prone to believe is real. Much of the childrearing talk in our culture is guilty of the kind of exaggeration that my parents strenuously chastised us for—such as whining “I’m starving!” when in point of fact we were not. So, for example, the construct of the “mommy wars” (the largely fabricated conflict between women of relative means who choose either to remain in the workforce or to stay home with their children) collapses the real but nonetheless non-life-threatening discomfort of making imperfect choices vis-à-vis work and family with the plight of women and men trying to care for their children in the midst of very real wars.

But as absurd and absurdly infuriating as this all is to me, I remain hooked on the illusion, however false, that if I parent just right I can spare Hannah from the contingencies of life as a broken being amidst broken beings. Indeed, I look to these books and blogs—the very ones I love to hate—because part of me wants it to be true that I can create a child whom everyone will adore; one who never yanks a toy away from a smaller one and shrieks “mine,” or hits or bites, or throws loud tantrums in public.

This gospel of parenting my child to superlativeness—unlike the gospel and its inherent pull beyond kin and toward the stranger—justifies my preoccupation with my own kind and thus falsely valorizes my tendency to live at arm’s length from my neighbor and surround myself with people who think, speak, eat, and now parent the way I do. I do not want to regard my daughter like the glass of water in that Sunday school classroom. Nonetheless I find myself thinking that I must do whatever possible to mold her while I have the chance, before she is “ruined” by exposure to refined sugar, Disney, and the cosmetics industry (not to mention the more worldly wise children in her daycare). It is a kind of reversal of the now-unpopular idea that our children, and we with them, are sinful from conception on. Where the traditional baptism liturgy answers the conundrum of being “subject to the misery which sin brings” with the prospect of being “made holy by God in Christ,” we now assume the power and responsibility for saving our children, even from ourselves.

Our desire for our children’s happiness and growth is good. (Who can argue that a calm, loving, and devoted family is not precisely what every child needs and deserves?) We do have a tremendous impact in shaping their lives, and corporate interests are already lining up to vie for their attention. But the promise of a child who does not whine, get sick, throw tantrums, or feel angry or insecure is patently false. And living as though I am my daughter’s ticket to success allows little room for grace or resiliency when something bad or simply human happens. It frames her existence with the perpetual threat of being forever stunted, or at least diminished, by every missed opportunity or crappy moment in her parents’ lives.

More insidiously, the myth of perfect parenting fosters the heresy that we get what we deserve. This is a particular variation on the health-and-prosperity gospel, itself a close cousin to the Oprah-recommended The Secret in that both insist that your life situation is the result of your own doing, even if all you have done is thought a certain way.

My husband and I, both perpetual theology students (we met in divinity school), have taken to describing our daughter as the lone believer in “the pre-existence of the Cookie” (her nickname de jour). She has entered the age of protest, and whenever we interrupt play with her to talk to one another, she clamors loudly and gradually adds physical gestures (throwing things at our heads and not infrequently outright smacking us) to pull our focus back toward her. At first I tried to seize the “teachable moment” and explain that her father and I needed to talk to each other but that we were still here for her, and so on—until it occurred to me that I was effectively trying to talk my 2-year-old out of her age-appropriate narcissism. So we instead adopted a strategy much lighter in substance and application—we now march around her and chant “there was when she was not!” (our take on the slogan “there was when he was not!” enlisted by the followers of Arius in their third-century campaign to deny the pre-existence of the Son) long enough to get her laughing, after which some semblance of balance returns.

Though at this stage we can’t convince our daughter that she is not the center of the universe, she needs us to remember this on her behalf and to thus give her what we all need—to be daily restored to her proper place in the universe, as one beloved child of God among billions of beloved children of God, no more or less deserving of love and warmth than any other creature on this earth. For it is in those moments when grace cracks through, and I realize that Hannah is not mine but belongs body and soul, in life and in death, to her faithful savior Jesus Christ (to borrow from an old catechism), that I feel the least overwhelmed by the task of mothering her for the foreseeable future.

The detachment this grace affords is neither indifference nor disconnection, but rather the freedom of relinquishing any claim on her life or future and instead surrendering to the truth of my naked dependence on God. Our daughter pulls us out of ourselves and shakes our sense of competence on a daily basis (last week, bored of running errands with me, she spent our grocery shopping trip trying to strip down to her diaper while disapproving co-shoppers looked on). And in this, she offers an almost constant opportunity to divest myself of the illusion that I am in control—an opportunity I greet with exasperation more often than not, but an opening to grace still and all.

I will continue to struggle over what is best for my daughter—where and how to educate her, how to show her what it is to love Jesus and follow him wherever he calls, how to encourage her to respect herself and her body without relying on fear. But I need not fear my maternal ambivalence, nor the ways we fumble to get it right, for the simple truth remains that love requires sacrifice and that yielding to another creature’s needs is not so much a matter of nature, perfect thoughts, or pure motivations, but one of choice—a choice that, like marriage, community, and discipleship, is lived out in small, daily moments of assent.

Kari Jo Verhulst lives in South Bend, Indiana, and works part-time as a writer-editor. She has begun preparation for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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