Nine months is a long time to carry a child beneath your beating heart, tucked within your ribs. By the time my firstborn’s birth-day arrived, I knew she was a daughter. I knew she would share her first name with a beautiful flower—and that she would share her middle name with me. So much knowledge and so many months of embracing her every move had deceived me into thinking I knew her. I felt as if we had already met, but when the doctor first placed her in my arms, I was astonished. Who was this tiny person staring at me with steel-blue eyes? I studied her face and thought with surprise and wonder, I’ve never seen you before in my life.
The truth is, my daughter was unknown to me, no matter that I had carried her for months or that her name was already as recognizable as my own. Her tiny unfamiliar face affected me like a strange sort of mirror. I held her and felt my own familiar sense of self begin to shift and slide. Six fierce laboring hours had also made me new: I was now a mother.
I was a good person before I became a mother. Of course, I was also a sinner but only in theory. “For all have sinned” were familiar words to me (Rom. 3:23), yet having grown out of sibling squabbles and minor teenage rebellions, I had felt for many years that I was essentially decent, patient, and kind.
As I grew to know my daughter, I grew to know myself, and I did not like what I discovered. The veneer of goodness and self-control I had been living beneath was unraveled by the gift of my strong, sensitive, complicated daughter. I don’t think I ever had a meltdown until I became the mother of a daughter who melted down. I had thought myself patient, but I’d been patient only because I had no one to test my patience. As my daughter learned to say ball and daddy and no!, I learned to say I’m sorry.
I had thought myself patient, but I’d been patient only because I had no one to test my patience.
I had little practice with those magic words. I was the firstborn in a large family. From a young age, I was a rule-follower and a high achiever. I was a people-pleaser and an accolade-earner. Was it difficult for me to say I’m sorry? Was it hard for me to receive forgiveness? Of course not. If I rarely said “I’m sorry,” it was only because I was so very rarely wrong.
Or so I told myself. But as I watched my own firstborn daughter grow into a rule-following, high-achieving, people-pleasing earner of accolades and applause, I saw something new in the mirror of her girlhood: Like her mother, my daughter aimed for perfection. It was as if she and I had received the news that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and thought to ourselves, “Challenge accepted!” Grace was good news, to be sure, but we wanted admiration more than grace.
My daughter has her father’s dark hair and friendly personality. She has qualities and traits that are hers alone, unique as fingerprints. But like her mother before her, she finds imperfection so appalling and embarrassing that she prefers the heavy burden of perfectionism to the easy yoke of humility.
My daughter has given me the difficult gift of showing me my own hidden self. I may have quickly learned to say the words I’m sorry, but over time she has led me toward a deeper truth: Those words are too often a superficial distraction. I throw them out casually in order to even some perceived score between myself and another; I toss them into conversation in order to cover myself with the appearance of goodness. I’m sorry has become a prop for this perfectionist’s pride.
Like her mother before her, she prefers the heavy burden of perfectionism to the easy yoke of humility.
Worse than that, my own perfectionistic tendencies have led me to set the bar too high for others in my life. If I can strive hard to live faultlessly, why can’t you? The grace I won’t accept for myself has become the grace I won’t offer to someone else.
Why is forgiveness difficult to receive? For some, it’s difficult because they cannot forgive themselves. It is possible to become accustomed to shame. It is possible to lean on a sense of your own unworthiness, like leaning on a crutch. To receive forgiveness is to receive freedom, but freedom can be frightening. Yet for some others of us, forgiveness is difficult to receive, because we work so hard to keep our deepest faults secret and hidden, even from ourselves. You cannot ask for forgiveness, let alone receive it, if you have staked your wellbeing on a belief in your own unshakeable rightness.
For years I have watched my daughter defend herself against all criticism and accusation. “She’ll go to law school one day!” my husband and I have often said to one another. Though we appreciate her debating skills, we see beneath her veneer of perfection. I know there are faults in her as there are faults in me and in every person who journeys through this life.
Many years ago this child of mine, this still-unfolding flower, gave me the gift of knocking me right off my pedestal of perfection. Thanks to her, I saw my impatience, my anger, and my selfishness. Thanks to her, I learned humility. Though I do still try to climb back on the pedestal, thankfully we never can stand as steadily on our pride as we could before we fell.
I would like to give my daughter the gift she has given me. I won’t pull her roughly from her perch, but I will forgive, and forgive, and forgive her again at every opportunity. I will give the grace that has been given to me. Once we have clothed ourselves with Christ, grace is our best and truest mirror (Gal. 3:27). And what we see in it is beautiful.