You know the dirty look you get at a café when you turn your back for a second and your toddler gets her sticky hands very close to the laptop of the guy working at the next table?
I used to feel terrible when I got that look. After all, not so long ago, I was that guy with the laptop. And so I know exactly what he’s thinking: “Can’t you control your child?”
To be clear: common courtesy is important. I don’t want my kid messing with my own laptop, much less anyone else’s. And if she’s making a ton of noise in a quiet place, I do my best to get her out of there as fast as I can.
But still, she’s a kid, and I’m a mother, and sometimes we’re on a walk and I woke up at 6 a.m. and I want a cup of coffee, and at those moments, we’re the obnoxious people in the hipster café. And in the past few months I’ve stopped feeling quite so bad about it.
“No, you can’t control your child,” I want to say to my own past self, as I recall giving dirty looks to mothers at coffee shops across Brooklyn. We can discipline our children, but no, we can’t control them.
I used have this strategy of aiming for perfection. I figured that way, if I fell short of perfect, I’d at least land at pretty good.
It was a little stressful, but as long as I was able to maintain the illusion of control over my life, it actually sort of worked out. But then I became a mom.
I attempted to continue my aiming-for-perfect strategy for a while. But after a couple months, I realized it was turning me into a walking disaster. The baby’s crying! Something must be really, really wrong! I must fix it immediately! More often than not, instead of making the baby stop crying, I’d just end up crying along with her.
One day, after a particularly bad session, I took stock. My baby and I were both red-faced and covered in snot, and I had to admit that control was no longer an option. That perfect wasn’t going to get me anywhere. That, as Voltaire* said, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
He also said, “A witty saying proves nothing.” But still, he was right: it was time to stop aiming for perfect.
A year and a half into this mothering thing, I have come to believe that control is an albatross. That perfection is a red herring. That “good” is not a watered-down version of perfect. It’s a different animal altogether. It’s a gorgeous, complicated, flawed, heartbreaking creature made of love and time and mistakes and forgiveness.
And that’s what I thought about reading the Noah story this year. Just 10 generations after Adam and Eve, we humans had already messed up so badly that God wanted to wipe us all out and just start over with the one single family on earth who had lived up to God’s expectations.
Maybe even God found it difficult to let go of the dream of perfect humans living perfect lives. And isn’t it a tempting one? To get rid of everything unpleasant, and unwished-for, and keep only the one small part of your life–let’s call it “Noah”–that feels exactly like what you dreamed your life could be?
As it turns out, even Noah’s not perfect. Because after the world finally dries out from the massive Flood, he plants a vineyard, gets drunk, and hangs out without his pants on, an embarrassing event for the whole family.
But it also turns out that even before the drinking scandal, God had realized that Noah was flawed, and that his descendants would be too.
The first thing God does after drying up the flood waters is to hang a rainbow in the sky and promise never to destroy the world again. God gives a strange reason for this promise: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth, nor will I ever again destroy every living being.” It’s precisely because humans are flawed that God promises to spare us in the future.
Some rabbis say that creating the world was the ultimate act of God’s compassion, but I think this post-flood vow is even more powerful. God finally understands the complex nature of humanity, our essential imperfection. And only in understanding this does God finally commit to the world, and to us.
I’m not saying this is easy. Is it tempting to fantasize about the perfect life, the perfect marriage, the perfect career, a perfect version of myself as a mother? Why, yes it is. And being human, I’m sure I’ll continue to slip into that fantasy.
But I will try to catch myself and remember what I’m learning from motherhood: that perfect is just a distraction from what is right in front of us, every moment. What is truly important is what we see in a rainbow, in our children’s sweet faces and their sticky hands, and in the mirror at the end of another long day: not the perfect, but the good.
*1. I found out in the course of looking up who said “The perfect is the enemy of the good” that Voltaire was also a terrible racist and anti-Semite. Ick.
2. Also, thanks to my bat mitzvah student Hana, whose thoughts about Noah helped spark some of my own.
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