Andrea Palpant Dilley has led the writer’s group I’ve been part of at my church for the past year. I have adored the community she has created in this group: genuine kindness, encouragement for each person at whatever stage of their writing, and a sweet willingness to celebrate one another. Andrea is one of those people who looks you in the eye and says your name at the beginning of the most important sentences. I’m grateful for her perspective, her grace and her mind. If you haven’t yet read her book or the interview I posted on my blog last spring, take a second to read. And then applaud this fine woman for writing a guest post for me in the midst of life with a 3-year-old and an 8-week old!
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A few months ago while I was driving my husband to work, my 3-year-old daughter, Madeline, sat in the back seat screaming at the top of her lungs. I was running late that morning and in a moment of hurry had flung her over my arm, hauled her out to the car, and strapped her in before wheeling out of the driveway. She was livid. I was stressed. She yelled at me from the back seat. I snapped at her from the front seat.
In the midst of the chaos, I glanced down the road a few hundred feet and saw what looked like a dead cat. My first thought was, “Oh good, something to distract my kid.” I almost pointed to it but then thought better of it. The dead cat turned out to be a plastic bag. But in that moment, I didn’t know whether I should laugh at or be mortified by my desperation as a parent. I thought, “This is not what I pictured for myself as a mother.” I didn’t exactly feel like a failed parent so much as a mediocre parent who’d lost control.
As a five-year-old, when my own parents asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told them I would teach elementary during the week and babysit on the weekends. As a teenager living in a small suburban neighborhood, I was a sought-after babysitter that showed up at the front door equipped with crafts, crayons, and unfettered energy. Even as a young married woman thinking about my future as a parent, I pictured myself as the Mary Poppins of mothers—keeping order, commanding respect, and nurturing the imaginations of my wide-eyed little charges.
Now I’ve arrived at parenting. I feel nothing like Mary Poppins and nothing like the babysitter I was 20 years ago. I’m a haggard mother who hasn’t showered in days and doesn’t remember the last time I felt in control of my life. Full disclosure: I have an eight-week-old infant. But I felt like this a year ago. And the year before that, too. Some days, I’m so tired that I sit on the floor next to the couch and feel like saying to Madeline, “Don’t stick a fork in the light socket, kid. Don’t play with knives. Otherwise, knock yourself out. I’m too tired to react. You could snort sugar through a straw and I wouldn’t care.”
The other day when I got word of a last-minute writing deadline (read: no planned childcare), I turned on the Gene Kelly version of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and let Madeline watch TV for two hours. When she asked for a piece of my chocolate bar, I practically threw it at her to keep her distracted. I swore I’d never be that parent—the one giving cocoa-caffeine to my kid and pointing at dead cats in the road. And yet here I am, trying and often failing to get my act together.
I feel like a hack not just at work-and-family balance but also at the most important task of parenting: spiritual formation. I have friends whose three-year-olds can recite the Lord’s Prayer by heart. Their families do Sabbath dinners on Friday nights and serve at soup kitchens. For my part, it’s all I can do to feed and clothe my kids, and even that’s a struggle. Never mind my own spiritual state. Some days, mommy feels like an agnostic. Some days, mommy doesn’t want to fry fish sticks and read Bible stories to a kid who insists that John the Baptist should wear swim trunks.
Every parent at some point feels like a mess, I know that. A professor once told me the best counsel he ever got as a young parent was, “You’re going to f— up your kids. Get over it.” I don’t know if I’m comforted or disturbed by the idea that failure is inevitable. I’m not a bad parent. In fact, I’m probably a good parent who’s too concerned about all the bad moments. But that’s not the point. The point is, I’m at odds with my ideals and trying to figure out a middle ground between failure and perfection. As a mother, I want to excel. But as a Christian who believes in God’s grace, I’m learning to live with my limitations rather than trying always to push past them. One way or another, Madeline reminds me of this every day.
The other night while I was putting her to bed, she started singing a made-up song derived from the verse in Numbers that says, “May the Lord bless you and keep you and make his countenance to shine upon you and give you peace.” My husband prays that verse over her every night as part of the bedtime ritual. If I happen to walk past the bedroom while he’s praying, I can hear the faint whispers of his priestly benediction.
That night, Madeline caught the word “blessing” and was riffing on it the way a jazz musician riffs on a tune. I could only make out a few words—“bless you,” “bless me,” then “Jesus.” As she sang, she started touching my face and cupping her hands around my chin in a tender way. I don’t know quite how to describe it accept to say that, after a long day and a lot of mediocre parenting, it felt like she was blessing me the way a pastor blesses someone during communion—with a hand set softly on the head. Our mundane ritual of bedtime singing became a moment of liturgy and prayer. The floor of her room became holy ground. I knelt there in the dark beside her bed, a nightlight glowing in the corner, and thought, She’s the hand of Christ on my tired face. She’s God’s grace to me in the midst of my weakness and weariness.
After listening to her sing for a while, I asked,
“Are you blessing me?”
“Yes,” she said.
Andrea Palpant Dilley grew up in Kenya as the daughter of Quaker missionaries and spent the rest of her childhood in the Pacific Northwest. Her work as a documentary producer has aired nationally on American Public Television. Her work as a writer has been published in Geez, Utne Reader and the anthology Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical, as well as online with CNN, The Huffington Post, and Christianity Today. Her memoir, Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt, tells the story of her faith journey. Andrea lives with her husband and their two daughters in Austin, Texas.