I have come to believe that there are two kinds of Jews: those who are always on time, and those who are never on time. I’m a yekke, a descendent of a long line of German Jews who believe that if you are on time, you’re actually five minutes late.
I spent the early years of parenthood apologizing profusely for the diaper blow-out or spontaneous tantrum that made it seemingly impossible for me to arrive on time as often as I wanted to. My girls are older now, and I’m mostly back to my happy yekke schedule of being at least five minutes early. I may be stressed out from rushing so much, and I may have forgotten their snacks or sweatshirts, but at least I’m on time.
Which is precisely why I am so aware of the mother and daughter who show up 15 minutes late to swim lessons most weeks. The lesson is only 30 minutes long! What are they thinking? Why do they even bother to come? My admittedly judgmental curiosity about them blossomed when I noticed that the mother was wearing sweatpants (you know the kind I’m talking about–those decidedly NOT yoga pant relics from the 80s, the kind made of thick grey fabric with elastic around the ankles and a drawstring at the waistband) with a large hole in the back of the right thigh. I’m no fashion maven myself, but at least I toss my Target yoga pants when they get a hole in them from a protruding nail on the old wooden climbing structure at our local playground.
And then there is the child’s hair. Oh, that hair. Her shoulder-length curls are so knotted and tangled that they’re beginning to form into one giant dreadlock. Now, my kids may not have the fancy braids that our neighbor can make, but at least I brush out their hair twice a day. Each time I look at that little girl’s hair, I find myself getting uncomfortably twitchy as I try to imagine how I would even begin to comb through the mat that lays dripping wet against her t-shirt.
“Mommy, is that a pajama t-shirt? Why is she wearing a pajama t-shirt to swim lessons?” My 4-year-old is both more perceptive and significantly less subtle than I am–a problematic combination.
“Well, it looks comfy and soft, so why not?” I didn’t know what else to say as the girl and her mother both turned towards us and smiled. In my mind, though, I was thinking about how they had broken one of my cardinal rules about getting dressed: The clothing has to be vaguely weather appropriate, and it can’t be pajamas. At least I could get my kids into real clothes.
My self-righteous musings were suddenly interrupted when the mom turned back to her daughter, smiled, and gave her a big hug. “You are doing so well in swim lessons. You’re working so hard, and I’m really proud of you.” The little girl smiled and relaxed into her mother’s arms.
“Thanks, Mommy. I love you.”
In that moment, that one simple, honest, loving moment, all of my judgments and self-congratulations melted away, and I was reminded of a few basic truths of life and parenting and humanity that I know and yet still need to relearn again and again.
Each time I find myself judging another parent, I am drawing from, and returning back to, a place of at least.
At least is not a space of awareness, acceptance, or kindness, and it has nothing to do with that mom and how well she is raising her daughter or not, neither of which, quite frankly, are any of my business. At least is the bottom of my well, a muddy mess where all of my fears and inadequacies and self-doubts force me to search for solid ground on the ledge of those few parenting choices I think I’ve gotten right so I don’t feel like I’m drowning in everything I’m pretty sure I’m screwing up.
But a crumbling ledge is no place from which to live a life or raise a child. And as I watched that mother stand there in her torn sweatpants, embracing her tangled, wet child, I thought about enough, and what it would mean if I could finally, and fully, accept myself and my parenting as enough. If I could stop hustling and scraping and trying to pull myself out of the chaos of parenting and just accept that being in the mud with my kids, as gracefully and honestly as I possibly can, is enough.
I think I would get better at remembering what really matters. That you can wear old, torn clothes and let your kid’s hair get tangled and show up 15 minutes late to swim lessons each week and still be enough. That you can stress yourself out completely trying to stay on top of each little detail and get most of it right and never feel like you are enough. That most of us hang out somewhere in the middle, bouncing between at least and enough several times each day.
I’d remember that there is little value to getting places on time if I’m too busy being judgmental to actually enjoy myself once I’m there.
I’d remember Anne Lamott’s wise advice that no good will come from comparing our insides to someone else’s outsides, whether we do it from a place of self-pity or one of self-righteousness.
I’d like to think that I would remember that at the end of the day, what my kids really need from me, and what I need from myself, is not perfection or some anxiety-fueled illusion of it, but my honest presence. I just need to remember to get out of my own head and show up, even if I am a little late. And so, as my daughter introduced herself to the little girl in the pajama shirt and smiled happily as they talked about swimming, I looked over at that mother, and I introduced myself. She smiled and extended her hand, introducing herself as well. We chatted about the swim lessons as we wrestled our girls into their sweatshirts. It wasn’t much, but it was a start, and in that moment, it felt like enough.