My 4-year-old daughter and I sat together at the kitchen table coloring small washable animal figurines with markers. She had assigned me the cat and requested I decorate it with a rainbow sweater. Whenever she or I finished coloring an animal, she ran up to the bathroom with it and rinsed off the marker in the sink. 

I was doing my best work on this cat. I didn’t want any stray marks to mar my perfect rainbow stripes. It was going to be the best rainbow sweater ever. And then I thought, “Why are you trying so hard on this rainbow cat? She’s just going to wash it off in five seconds.” 

In a flash, I realized this was how I approached most of my parenting work—exerting much effort and aiming for perfection in tasks that were often quickly undone. 

Part of the desire for excellence in work is good. Doing something well can bring deep satisfaction, like preparing a delicious meal. On a smaller scale, when my daughter says that I made her the perfect sandwich, it fills my heart with happiness. Consistently doing your best work is a wonderful character trait that is valued in education and the workplace. Caring about your work and being invested in it brings a sense of meaning and purpose to life. I want my kids to know that I am the kind of person who can be relied upon to do good work, and I want them to grow to be hard workers, too. 

The Dark Side

Sometimes, I find myself on the dark side of perfect work. One snow day earlier this year, I tried to set up a fun play space for my kids to break up the long day. “Let’s set up the tent!” I said. 

You need to know, dear reader, that I am no camper. And this wasn’t a camping tent. It was a twenty-dollar Target tent for indoor use, teepee style, with only four poles around the base and four meeting in the center of the top. 

I struggled to begin, but once I had the base assembled, the top poles were easier. I noticed the straps where I was supposed to tie the tent fabric to the poles. I thought, “Caleb (my husband) doesn’t tie these straps. I’m going to tie them.” So, I carefully, neatly, and securely tied all the straps around the poles. It was perfect. 

Then, no one played in the tent. In fact, all they did was kick over each other’s snack bowls. And the dog didn’t even eat the crumbs. 

When I took the tent down a week later, still unused, my arms burned as I untied all those perfect bows from my seat on the floor in the middle of the tent. I wished I hadn’t tied them so well. Or at all. 

It’s easy to slip over to the dark side where the desire to do amazing work becomes harmful. I see this in myself when I become obsessed with the work, when the work starts to control me, when I can’t rest unless certain conditions are met, and when the work becomes my focus instead of the people for whom I am working. 

Late one night, when I was putting toy cupcakes away, I realized shapes on the bottom of each cupcake matched a specific compartment of the baking tray. I started to take the cupcakes out of the tray again so I could match them to their correct shape, and then I caught myself. “What am I doing?” I thought. “This doesn’t matter!” 

Moving Toward a Healthier Approach

Here’s how I am making an effort to move toward greater health in my approach to work. 

First, I am reframing the way I think about my work. In the writing world, I don’t suffer from perfectionistic tendencies as much because I know it’s unattainable. A sentence that seems perfect today will seem majorly flawed in two weeks. We get something down, time passes, and we reassess. Perfection in writing isn’t fixed because we are always growing and changing. You have to send it to print anyway. In writing, the best we can hope for is “as good as it can be for now.” 

I’ve started to ask myself, “Am I doing the best I can for now?” Considering my willpower reserves, what time it is, how important this task is, and a slew of other factors—is this good enough for now? I still feel guilty when I throw a plastic yogurt cup in the trash instead of taking the time to rinse off the crusted-on yogurt from the previous meal, but sometimes I just throw it away. It’s not perfect, but I need that willpower for something else more important, like not losing my temper. 

Another strategy I’m trying is stopping when I’m tired instead of always trying to push through. I will not use my last energy reserves or the last free moments of an evening to pick up my children’s toys. It can wait. If it feels too hard, sometimes I don’t do it. That last load of laundry will keep until tomorrow. I’ve done enough for today. I let myself be a human instead of a machine. And humans need a little bit of rest and leisure every day. 

The Idol of Productivity

Related to this point is the idea of setting aside the idol of productivity. When I first became a mom, the lack of getting things done was so jarring that I started to keep track of miniscule tasks so I could feel better. I would write things down like “cut baby’s nails” and “made a smoothie” because I couldn’t handle not being productive in the same way I was before in my full-time teaching job. 

Productivity can be a huge distraction. Sometimes I get consumed with my projects and what I’m making and how I’m going to forge a path ahead. It’s all about me and my plans instead of about where the Lord might want to take me. What might he have for me right now if I can get myself to be still and stop working long enough to listen? 

Becoming still helps us to see what is right in front of us. Last summer, I got to my parenting breaking point (not for the last time—I’m sure!). I had been working so hard, and I was exhausted. I had started to view my kids as a hindrance to what I wanted—being able to write. My pastor encouraged me to take some time to stop and listen to God over the summer. A distinct impression I felt during one of those listening times was this: “Motherhood is a big role in your life, and I want you to stop limiting it.” 

To stop limiting my role, I needed to take more pleasure in it. Psalm 131:2 says, “But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother…is my soul within me.” This picture of peace and the enjoyment of being together—without plans or an agenda—is part of the beauty of motherhood. When we’re coloring the toy cat, it’s about being together more than it is about making the perfect cat sweater. There’s a world of ease, if we can allow ourselves to enter in. 

And in the end, we might be surprised. My daughter never washed that cat. She liked it so much she wanted to keep it just the way it was.

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