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May 2 2014

It’s Impossible to be Both a Parent & Perfectionist

By at 12:01 pm

messy-home

This post is part of our Torah MOMentary series. This Shabbat we read Parashat Emor. To read a summary of the portion and learn more, click here.

Being a perfectionist is supposed to make you miserable. But to be honest, I always found it sort of fun–until I became a mother.

As the parent of a small human, though, perfectionism is out the window, along with every other fantasy of control over life.

I’m not even talking about the big, agonizing stuff. I’m talking about my living room.

I should clarify here that, as my husband and every past roommate of mine can attest, despite being a control freak about my work, I’ve always been a bit of a slob at home.

But I’ve recently learned, thanks to my 2-year-old, that my desires for control apparently do extend to the home front. My standards are low, but I have them. I prefer my couch cushions marker-free; I would rather liquids stay in their cups; and I am driven to distraction by uncapped markers and Lego-strewn floors. Who knew?

I’ve narrowed my options down to two choices:

1) Continue striving for control over my living space (and body). Be pissed off all the time because there is marker on couch cushions and a Lego permanently imprinted on my heel.

2) Accept that control is not an option right now. Expect mess and physical discomfort. Enjoy my daughter while she’s this age, which won’t last long.

Maybe my current enrollment in the School of Imperfect explains why I felt ill at ease reading this week’s Torah portion. Emor is largely concerned with the rules of sacrifices and the priests who offer them, and perfection is a major theme.

For example: priests who have any physical difference or disability, from blindness to a broken arm, are excluded from offering sacrifices. And animals with any blemish or injury, likewise, cannot be offered. It seems the Torah is embracing—requiring!–exactly the sort of perfection and control that I, as the mother of a young child, am learning to let go of.

Of course, these rules aren’t about spilled smoothies in my living room–they’re about the ultra-sacred Temple, where divine and human meet.

But still, they make me uncomfortable. Seriously, a priest with a limp, scoliosis, or a broken arm is not qualified to make communal offerings to God? Isn’t it possible that priests with physical differences would have more compassion and wisdom than some strapping young guy who’s never been sick a day in his life?

Here’s the catch: these rules about the perfect sacrifices don’t apply anymore. Jews haven’t offered sacrifices for almost two thousand years, ever since the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, where all of this once took place.

Reading all these rules, I wonder…maybe the destruction of the Temple wasn’t just an accident of history (or an expression of Divine anger, as some people think). Maybe a place of such perfection could never have lasted in this imperfect world.

For me, becoming a mother felt a lot like signing up for a religious sect. I had to let go of my familiar, comfortable life in order to join this new priesthood, with its strange rules and daily schedule, its spiritual highs and lows, its minutiae and its mysteries.

And like priests, we parents have a sacred workplace, the center of our rituals: our homes.

Maybe in a way, our kitchens and living rooms carry some of the ancient Temple’s holiness. Instead of priests in robes, there’s us–parents. And instead of sacrificial fires and animal offerings those priests used to perform on behalf of the Israelites, there are the meals we prepare for our children, the hours we devote, the love we offer.

But there is a major difference. Unlike the ancient holiness rituals, ours is not a priesthood of perfection. Quite the opposite.

Our practice is about showing up exactly as we are, and finding deeper ways to love our children and ourselves, imperfections and all. That’s where true holiness is–right in front of our eyes, among the tantrums and the parenting mistakes. Right in the middle of our messy temples.

To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.

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