With everything going on in the world right now, I have to admit that I’m a bit inward focused these days. I’m exhausted and feeling like a bad mom this week. As some of you know, I just took my 9-month old daughter to Taiwan for ten days. Turns out that no one explained jetlag to babies, and mine was not interested in my rational explanations of time zones and circadian rhythms.
So I have had to baby the baby. Usually a strong, independent sleeper, in Taiwan I found my little bundle waking several times at night needing Mamam to hold her for two or three hours at a time. That was hard. But not nearly as hard as getting home, when the anxieties and stresses of the trip seemed to come out in a fierce, loud, and tearful delayed reaction. After several nights with only two or three hours of sleep, I began to think that my sleepless, self-sacrificing nights were not necessarily what my daughter needed, so we made the decision to “Ferberize” her.
It sounds worse than it is, but it feels as bad as it sounds. It sounds like something that happens to someone after a sci-fi laser gun is pointed at them, but really it’s just a somewhat controversial method of sleep-training that is sometimes referred to as “cry it out”. Basically, you get the baby to fall asleep by herself by periodically checking on her when she cries but never picking her up. It is agonizing, but I was out of options this week, and so we “Ferberized”.
I wrote this dramatic entry in my journal one morning after “Ferberizing”:
“It takes an hour of heartbreak. She gets on her knees, claps, slaps herself awake (I can hear it on the monitor.). When I go in to reassure her, she stands up, her head hot and wet. When she finally sleeps, I find her laying with her butt in the air like she cried in a submissive pleading position on her knees until she just passed out. In the morning, her eyes are puffy and her face crusted with dried tears and snot. So I guess the strong thing I’m doing now is letting go of the perfect mom that I thought I could be. And I’m letting her forgive me.”
At our baby shower, someone told us that the best lesson they learned from their child was about forgiveness. Children can be so forgiving. I have found that over and over again. I can drop my daughter on her head, and a few minutes later, she is giving me a wet, open-mouthed kiss. I can leave her alone in her crib crying at night, and in the morning, she is flashing her two front teeth at me in a gracious grin.
I am learning that don’t like to need forgiveness. I would much rather do everything I can to avoid anyone around me from being hurt, offended, or upset. I will run myself ragged, lose sleep, time, and energy to be “perfect” and “blameless”. But as I become more mindful of my behavior and relationships (especially after reading Richard Rohr’s book Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps) I realize that all of my heroic efforts at perfection and blamelessness are not for the love of others. Instead, much of my self-sacrificing exhaustion is ultimately about my own desire for moral superiority and power over others.
My unconscious logic says that if I’m always sacrificing for others and doing everything for others, they will always owe me. I will never owe anyone anything, and I will never need to be forgiven any debts. I like that because it gives me the upper hand in my relationships, and it gives me permission to feel bitterness toward people with justification.
Now, of course, I don’t consciously think about these things in all my moments of zealous perfectionism, but I am realizing that this is often what my behaviors are ultimately about.
Paul wrote about me when he said, “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (I Corinthians 13:3).
This is why I need Jesus, and appropriate to the season, I need that forgiving little baby Jesus. I need to be saved by a child God who wants to forgive, a Christ who comes for, not the righteous, but the sinners. This is why I need to learn to live, striving for righteousness but with the freedom that comes with a God who forgives me when I am not perfect.
In this holiday season, some of us feel so many pressures to do everything for everyone. And some of us find ourselves sacrificing ultimately for our own self-righteousness’ sake rather than for the love of anyone else. If that is the case for you, I encourage you this week to risk being a little imperfect, to be free to offend and to upset, knowing that the feel of God’s wet, open-mouthed kisses of forgiveness will always be far sweeter than your own “perfection”.
If you’re in New York City, join us for the Christmas season. We’ll celebrate our Christmas Sunday this week on December 21 at 10:30am and join the Japanese American United Church in Chelsea for Christmas Eve. All are welcome.