Embracing Imperfection in Parenting (originally published in 2006)

All my life, new years resolutions have appealed to me.  I think it’s because of the clean slate.  January First represents a chance to start again, a clean slate with no mistakes in it.  For many years on December 31st, it had been my tradition to make a list of self-improvements.  My idealistic nature always held onto the promise that finally this year I would get everything just right.  It is impossible to describe the overwhelming moment I experienced on December 31, 1999 when I gave birth to my first child.  A New Year, a New Millenium, and a New Baby all at once!  I held in my arms the embodiment of perfection!  She was a clean slate with no mistakes, and inwardly I swore I would do everything in my power to be the best mother any child ever had.

If someone had told me then that I didn’t have to be a perfect mom, I would have nodded wisely. I would have assured them that yes, I knew I wouldn’t do everything right.  But the truth was, I didn’t know.  I knew my mother hadn’t been perfect.  Again and again she used to say to us, “I’m just flesh, I’m just blood, I’m not perfect.  But I’m your mother, and I love you.”  She said this so often that my brothers and I began to chime in with a kind of singsong parody when we sensed it was coming.  Yes, I was pretty sure just what mistakes she had made, and how I could avoid them.  Equipped with a college education, a stack of parenting books, and a giant dose of blind optimism, I felt I was prepared to handle any crisis. 

It wasn’t long before I began to glimpse the enormity of the task I had set myself.  There were those nights when my colicky infant just wouldn’t stop crying. Some nights I impressed even myself with my endless baby dancing and soothing Broadway solos.  Other nights my emotions were so raw that in the end I was just sitting there crying along with her.  Even worse, as my daughter grew, I discovered that she had an uncanny knack of finding just where the chinks in my armor lay.  In seconds she could take me from confident, got-it-all-together-mom, to just-desperate-to-get-out-of-this-situation freaked out person.  Illogically, I thought of parenting in all or nothing terms.  Kind of like those new years resolutions that you stop the first time you miss a day.  Either I get it right, or I’ve messed it up completely. 

I should have known my ideals of perfection were doomed to failure when my second baby was born- this time not a News Years present, but arriving on March 15, the Ides of March. (Remember the ominous warning from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar  “Beware the Ides of March!”)  This new baby presented me immediately with an interesting dilemma.  Up until my son was born, I had always known beyond a shadow of a doubt where my priorities and loyalties lay.  It was with my daughter.  I was willing to move any mountain, cross any river, sacrifice any amount of sleep or reading time if it meant I would be acting in my daughter’s best interest.  Now, suddenly here was this new (and of course perfect) baby boy.  If you want to watch a perfect mother lose her sanity, just give her two children with conflicting best interests!  Often what would have been best for my toddler seemed to be in direct conflict with what was best for my infant.  He needed mama to hold and nurse him, while at the same time she needed mama to play.  Sometimes she needed help getting to the bathroom while he needed to be comforted or rocked. They never seemed to have the need to nap at the same time, so of course that meant no naps or catch up time for me. 

My perfect mother image began to collapse. More than a few times I found to my dismay that I was repeating the very mistakes my mother had made –the ones I had sworn I would never make! I began to judge myself by every flawed behavior I found in my children.  I started out with perfect babies, right? It must, I reasoned, be something I did wrong. When my daughter was four and began to have nightmares, I wondered where I had failed her in developing a sense of security.  When my son was two and began to throw temper tantrums if he couldn’t have the very cup or the very shoe he wanted at that moment, I wondered if I might have encouraged this inflexibility by giving in too often.  It seemed like everywhere I looked there was something I had not done enough of, or had done too much!  If I could have just followed this parenting theory, or maybe that one more fully, perhaps this wouldn’t be happening! 

My mother’s oft repeated lament, “I’m just flesh, I’m just blood, I’m not perfect.” began to take on new meaning.  I began to realize that there is a dark side to perfection.  In my quest to do everything “right”, I was not only failing to produce the “product” (perfect children), but it became all too clear that I was depleting my own inner resources.  I found myself exhausted and often irritable.  Many days I managed to make a healthy meal for my children, but neglected to feed myself!  While I neglected my physical health, I also neglected my emotional and spiritual health.  It seemed that I could justify any amount of output, as long as it was for the purpose of taking care of somebody else.  When it came to self-care, it just didn’t seem like the time or the money was justifiable.  Eventually I came face to face with the fact that ignoring my own needs in my attempts to be the perfect mother was actually hurtful to my children.  The funny thing is that self-care is something I have always advocated to my friends and clients, but there are worlds between saying it and doing it.  

 At this point in the story, I’d like to relate that I had a moment of realization that changed my life.  I’d like to say that I woke up the next day completely recovered from perfectionism, with a healthy sense of how to prioritize self-care and mothering in every situation.  I’d love to tell you that, but the truth is that recovering from the all-or-nothing thinking of perfectionism is a daily commitment. There are still many moments when my vision for parenting seems light years from the momentary reality.  What I can tell you is that I have consciously made the choice and the commitment to come to each day with a love for what is, rather than a longing for the perfection of my imagination.  I also know now that taking care of myself is a big part of taking care of my family.  For me that means finding the time to do the things that feed my body and soul.  I try to make something for lunch besides peanut butter and jelly some of the time, even if it means I’m the only one who will eat it.  I find moments to journal and read meaningful books.  I’ve found a yoga class that fits my family schedule, which I attend when I am able.  Above all, I try to see my own mistakes and shortcomings in the same forgiving way I view my children’s sometimes awkward attempts at growth.   

Perfection is something good taken to the extreme, which often comes only at the exclusion of other things of value.  Marion Woodman, one of my favorite Jungian authors, says in her book Addiction to Perfection that “…perfection belongs to the gods; completeness or wholeness is the most a human being can hope for.”  What I love about this quote is that it reminds me that total perfection is not even desirable.  When Woodman refers to the gods, she is speaking of archetypes, each a symbol of one aspect of humanity.  The trouble is, when we try to perfect the mother, or the sage, or any single aspect of ourselves, we often sacrifice other aspects of self.  While there are times that this is useful, in the long run what we need most is a sense of wholeness.  Wholeness means being able to make a place for all aspects of self and embrace the fullness of being alive.  It means living and loving each moment.  Embracing the reality of what is right in front of you, with all its imperfections. 

In the end I find great wisdom in my mother’s words, “I’m just flesh, I’m just blood, I’m not perfect.  But I’m your mother and I love you.”  That last part is what stays with me.  Being a mother is not about being perfect.  It’s about being there.  It’s about bringing your love again and again to the present moment.      

(Original Postscript) Katie Baptist, LCSW is the mother of Alix Claire, age 6 and Micah, age 4.  She is a Licensed Therapist and leads Birthing From Within self-discovery groups for pregnant women and their partners.  She specializes in an approach to women’s mental health that integrates mind, body and spirit. 

[Update: Alix Claire is now 23, and Micah will be 21 this Ides of March, 2023! Katie no longer leads Birthing From Within Self-Discover Groups, but is still devoted to bringing love again and again to the present moment.]

A Key Won’t Stay

lost key

I've been losing keys as
long as I've been using them
like perfect clarity, a key
won't stay. If you can
keep it in your pocket

hey, you'll open doors
the same way every time.

But lose the key and 
you'll be sitting on the step
or emptying your purse.

So when I write I take
my wallet out and 
scatter coins to see
if perfect clarity could
have been hiding there.

I mean, I had it yesterday!
Why have I lost it now?
I really, really need it for this door!


blank page
this is the blank page called
the rest of your life

pick up the pen and write

the old story
on those brittle yellow pages
will no longer do for
this crisp place that is 
the future you will write
new stories for, in dark red
ink from veins of gold
that can no longer be
the limits of your vast

in the future there is love
unending, there is joy
unbounded, there is pain
with soft enfolding wings
and tears that streak
your face but do not run 
into the cup called shame

but water those white fields
with scarlet poppies where
the golden veins of morning
light the sky and you
pick up your pen and write

Liberation by June

2014-03-13 16.05.47
I’m going for liberation by June
it’s not an original idea
I ripped it off a guy so ballsy
to suggest that what I thought
you had to hush and hold with
receptivity and quiet hope
could somehow actually be
“gone for” like a peak you
set your sights on and attain

I’m going

for liberation by June it’s my
idea now like a map or like
a virus liberation might be
catching and it travels
through the fingers when
I thought it was a thread
you try to squint at through
a needle and the angels
dancing on it will decide

for liberation

I’m going. It’s become a
song now beating rhythm
in my head, if he can do
it, and can will it, and can
make the freedom come
by putting one foot
after one foot on the
mountain maybe someday
I can do it too

by June

References to Only Emmalina


the body worker found her resting somewhere near my tailbone
first, then curled around my heart the warmth still there
and asked me “what’s with all these references to dogs?”

she is shining on, so why am i surprised? but still
my body must be talking ‘cause i haven’t said a word

“she died last June” i say it once again, the way my tongue
keeps flicking at the cut inside my mouth that just won’t heal

“i’m sorry for your loss” it’s what they say, what i say too
the closest we can get to someone else’s grief

i feel her in my body but i never find her in my home
my fingers holding the last bite stupidly for no one
and my feet avoid the memory of her faithful
in the dark beside my bed

there she isn’t, there she isn’t, there is where
she rolled onto her back and squirmed with joy
to see me home, her body would be talking
even though she never said a word

and there

the last place where she laid her head upon my lap
and sighed, its always happening again there
when i step across the doorway

yes i always feel it in my throat, my hands, my eyes
while new age music plays the body worker presses
on my shoulder, “that’s the reason” she is smiling
“all the references your body makes to dogs.”



The Greatest of These

2013-11-06 11.59.27_20131112164732817

abandon hope if you would dare
to enter here this isn’t the story
of a great romance

there are no happy endings here
or anywhere, no feeling
can last forever

abandon hope if you would dare
to really love it isn’t the story
you saw on that screen

happy ever on is not the point
true love opens up and breaks
your heart, now abide these three

and the greatest isn't faith or hope

Except, Sing!

singing bird





can we please do nothing ever except sing?
like musicals, where there’s a song for when
he breaks your heart and there’s a song
for when you lose your shoe or when you
get lost in the woods, or when you narrowly
escape becoming dinner for a woman eating plant

whatever happens, there’s a song because
some things just can’t be spoken
can be sung

so can we please do nothing ever except sing?
like cowboy ballads, where the stars get in your eyes
and someone guns you down but you keep singing
even when the hangman tightens up his noose
and love is lost forever you’ve still got
your horse, your boots, your voice, and your guitar

can we please do nothing ever except sing?
like hymns, a song’ll carry you to heaven
on the wings of angels in the arms of Jesus
in the harmony of saints a song is all you need
eternity is in the melody, the voice is my
salvation, please! I’m asking

can we please do nothing ever except sing?

When Autumn Overtakes Me

image for Autumn poem

I will pause to consider the scarlet leaves
Their last dance of rapture most wild
They leap with a thrill like escaping thieves
Or they waltz like a carefree child

I will smile to recall the love, the joy
Like a leaf embracing fall’s gale
Throw my arms wide like a playful boy
With a jacket flung out for a sail

I will savor the sight of the passion
The flame of the leaf blood red
The kiss of the sun for its lover the tree
The heat that will soon be dead

I will gather the leaves, I will take them home
Spend a day, let them open my eyes
I will take a picture and write them a poem
And then offer them back to the skies

I will let the wind carry them, gold cannot stay
And this one last thing I can give
I will hear them sing as they fly away
We have lived! Did we ever live!


The English Teacher


he really sees the muse
she visits sometimes
lurking in the corner of
his classroom and he
prays to her like
Aphrodite in her pale
blue cardigan and
can’t quite catch his
breath when he glances
up from Shakespeare’s
Tempest just in time
to see her reaching
up to let her hair
come loose and fall
onto her shoulders like
a miracle of sunlight
splitting clouds, the words
just spill, she smiles
and he looks again
and finds his place
the perfume of her grace
is throbbing in his temples
how he loves the classics!
every word his lips form
are the prayers, the students
most, will never know she
came although a few
look up perplexed, amused
to see him lit, alive and
all for some old sonnet