Once, I met a smart young woman who was very interested in what kind of a mother I was.
To be honest, she had some concerns. At one point, she actually gave me a quiz of sorts: over a hundred questions covering everything from household television-viewing habits to what I did with socks that had holes in them. I sat down and answered each one carefully, in writing. None of it really bothered me that much, because I knew she had an important question she was trying to answer.
She was wondering whether I might become a mother to her child.
One of her primary desires was a little complicated. She wanted Christian parents for her not-yet-born baby, but not Christians that were too good, she said, because she hoped that her child, feeling the inevitable, resulting dissatisfaction, would then turn to God.
(This sort of complicated, strongly held conviction turned out to be a habit with her child as well, as I learned in the years that followed.) That woman is not quite as young now, and she’s set aside the practice of her faith, at least for now. I am a little older, too, but I am left with the insightful child, and I continue to face the task of being a not-too-good mother.
As it’s turned out, it hasn’t been that hard.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve done a lot right. I read to my kids. I bought them good shoes. I mostly tried to tell them the truth, and when I could afford it, I bought the organic apples. On my refrigerator hangs a little image of the Holy Family, and I try to get myself to believe what Pope Francis recently said: that my family can be a “true, living icon.” But, almost two decades in, I also know a darker truth. I’ve been angry and impatient. I’ve worried more about my plan than my kids. I’ve focused on the wrong things and worn myself out.I was once advised that the most important thing parents can do in handing on the faith is to be to their child who they claim God is. That seems very wise. It also allows me to imagine that I’ve failed entirely. But can I tell myself that in my case, I actually have managed to keep some sacred trust? I did promise, after all, that I would not be too good.
Maybe the best any of us can do is to teach our children that it is possible to trust, that it is possible to hope, and then whisper quietly that it is not in us that their hope should finally be placed. Or maybe we can tell ourselves that we’re whispering, when it’s more like a shout.
I once heard a lifelong Catholic describe one of his clearest memories of early childhood: his mother herding all the kids into the car and schlepping them off to confession on Saturday afternoon. Whether they confessed their sins or not she left up to them. But they were there, and they watched their mother go in, and they sat there in the pew as long as it took. New mothers get rockers and car seats and shelves worth of parenting books, but maybe we should also give them a local schedule of when confessions are heard.
Support the baby’s neck when you hold him, we should tell them.
Watch out for a fever that persists more than three days.
And be very careful not to be too good.