The gift of imperfect parents

Kateri and Eamon Bean as children | Photo courtesy of Danielle Bean

by Danielle Bean

When my son Eamon was about 2 years old, we sat near the window together, watching a lightning storm. When one especially loud clap of thunder boomed in the sky, he turned to me with large eyes. “Papa!” he gasped.

In our son’s small world, his father was the all-powerful everything. Of course Papa could make thunder roll through the sky.

I was keenly aware that “Mama” held a revered place in our young son’s mind, as well. He clung to me like a tiny monkey sometimes, bursting into desperate tears if ever I dared to put him down. Trying to snap a photo for Christmas cards that year proved impossible, but we got many hilarious shots of sweet Eamon in a handsome sweater, shrieking and sobbing as he reached his pudgy arms toward me.

When our children are very small, we are all they know. We are like God to them, the source of all good things. Moms and dads are the omnipresent, omniscient source of all love, goodness, mercy, and justice. We meet their every need. And of course, this is just as God intends it. Our task is to teach our children what it means to love and help them to know and love the one true God. It’s an enormous privilege and daunting responsibility.

Photo Courtesy of Danielle Bean

That afternoon thunderstorm was more than 20 years ago. I’m pretty sure somewhere along the way, Eamon figured out that Mama and Papa were not God after all. Some days, in fact, we fell far short of divine status.

And isn’t this just what we fear? When our children are born, we inspect their tiny, perfect bodies, hold them close, and catch our breath. What if we mess this up?

Each time we left the hospital with one of our swaddled bundles, I couldn’t help but feel like we were getting away with something. Wasn’t anyone going to check our credentials before letting us go home with a baby? Surely, someone would be arriving soon to make things right.

And yet no one did. We were their parents, and ready or not, each of our kids found themselves smack-dab in the middle of our imperfect family, just as God planned.

I used to think the old ladies at the grocery store were lying when they told me it “all goes by so fast.” Some of those early days were hard, and they seemed to go by painfully slowly.

Only very recently have I begun to understand what those wise women were talking about. It feels kind of like I went to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer one day and then returned to find that the babies had grown up. Some graduated high school, went to college, and got full-time jobs. A couple of them even got married.

I can look back now, from my vantage as a more “grown-up” mom, and see that, despite valiant efforts, we did mess some things up — big things and small things, insignificant things, and some important things, too.

We weren’t perfect. We weren’t enough. We weren’t God.

And this is the imperfect gift we parents offer to our children. We teach them that, in spite of loving them with all of our being, in the end, we aren’t perfect. We come up short, as human beings always do.

In some of our milestone moments, when our children wore caps and gowns, moved into college dorms, or pulled out of our driveway in new cars of their own, I have panicked a bit, wondering if all the crust-cutting, boo-boo kissing, hand-holding, and lecture-giving was enough. Can it ever possibly be enough? Did we do it right? Did we succeed or fail?

In the end, I have to admit that it’s in some of the places we have failed that our kids learn the most important lesson of all. They learn that they were made for God, who fills in every space where we are lacking. Only in God do we find completion and perfection.

On days like Father’s Day, when we celebrate the gift of good fathers, when we give thanks for the kindness, generosity, and strength of men who can make thunder roll through the sky at times, I want to give thanks for something else, too. I want to give thanks for the ways that loving parents fall short, and for the human weaknesses that remind us to seek God and lean hard on the gift of grace. Thank you, God, for the gift of imperfect parents.

Photo courtesy of Danielle Bean

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