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Your kids don’t need you to be perfect

My divorce ruined any notion of being a perfect parent. It’s always caused me pain, but the other day I saw my daughter’s eyes sparkle when she realized I was human.

We were in the car driving home from day care, and I was expecting a phone call from a guy I really like. My phone started to ring, and I saw that it was him. I tried to answer the phone, but I fumbled it and it fell on the passenger side floorboard.

“Ack! Damn it.” I cursed from the front seat.

“Damn it,” my daughter echoed.

“Honey, don’t cuss like mommy. Shiste. I’m sorry, those are bad words.”

“Shiste!” she echoed.

“OK, for real this time. I don’t need you to curse like a sailor. I’m sorry, I’m a mess.” I looked toward her in the rearview mirror, and she smiled at me. I looked down toward the phone, and saw that I had definitely answered it before I dropped it. The call was very much in progress.

“Damn it,” I whispered.

He hung up before I could salvage the moment. When I called him back at the next red light, he gave me a hard time for what was clearly a parenting fail. My daughter overheard my laughter, and she giggled along with me. After I wrapped up the phone call, I glanced back at her again. Her eyes were dancing. “I like you laughing with him,” she said. “He made you laugh.”

Yes, he did make me laugh. But it was a lot more than that. The laughter was an expression of the absurdity of parenting through a constant stream of failures. It was one of those rare glimpses at how delightful and beautiful — rather than painful — my parenting failures can be.

My daughter loved it. I take this parenting thing seriously and want so badly to be perfect. She has never laughed at my perfection, though. Perfection, or the aspiration to achieve it, can only build walls between us. Perfection makes me untouchable. Moreover, it gives her no opportunity to see how adults cope and flex with the absurdity of life and its challenges.

The car debacle reminded me that parenting is one of those ironic mysteries of life. The more we try to be perfect for the sake of our children, the more we accidentally push them away. But the more we embrace the imperfection of our everyday failures, the more we invite our children into an embrace. For a mother who wants a happy life for her child, it sure felt good to see her eyes sparkle.

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