My daughter turned one a few weeks ago, and as is apparently the case whenever I throw a party with cupcakes at my house, I learned something about God’s grace.

Amidst making banners and hanging monthly pictures and Amazon Prime-ing multicolor tassels to hang from the mantle, I found myself reflecting both on what it means to celebrate my daughter, and on her growth and development. The “big O-N-E” tends to serve as a chance to throw a blowout party (we made it!) and as a clear marker for a child’s development: Can she wave “bye bye” yet? Can she stand on her own? Can she follow simple commands? Can she play peek-a-boo? Can she say a word besides “Mama” and “Dada?” Can she “do” X, Y, and Z? And while these questions from my pediatrician and my copy of Baby 411 are certainly important to consider from a health standpoint, I find that there is a fine line between checking to make sure my daughter is developing appropriately and “parenting” her along so that she is the kind of “product” I am proud of, a “thing” from which I can derive my worthiness as a mom.

This idea of “parenting” as a verb and my grappling with the urgency that my daughter must “do” certain things now because of what it must reflect about me stems both from Alison Gopnik’s recent “A Manifesto Against Parenting” and my second reading of my husband’s book, Falling Into Grace. Let me share pieces from both and then attempt to comment on the intersection I am finding between them.


From “A Manifesto Against Parenting”:

“Working to achieve a particular outcome is a good model for many crucial human enterprises. It’s the right model for carpenters or writers or businessmen. You can judge whether you are a good carpenter or writer or CEO by the quality of your chairs, your books or your bottom line. In the “parenting” picture, a parent is a kind of carpenter; the goal, however, is not to produce a particular kind of product, like a chair, but a particular kind of person.

In work, expertise leads to success. The promise of “parenting” is that there is some set of techniques, some particular expertise, that parents could acquire that would help them accomplish the goal of shaping their children’s lives. And a sizable industry has emerged that promises to provide exactly that expertise. Some 60,000 books are in the parenting section on Amazon, and many of them have “how to” somewhere in the title.

To be a parent is to be part of a profound and unique human relationship, to engage in a particular kind of love, not to make a certain sort of thing.

From Falling into Grace: 

Grace is the love of God that emphatically proclaims that I am loved and worthy no matter what I do. God declares that we are good, innocent, alive, and righteous. God speaks the Word and calls good what by nature is broken and defective, but in doing so God simply reaffirms and recreates what is most true about us to begin with- our nature is perfection and sin is a disease that tears our divine nature apart. God’s benediction makes alive what by nature is dead. The impact of God’s Word is always that it creates. We become as God regards us, and we grow into the Word spoken over us.

The hard truth is that in my daughter’s twelfth month of life, I sometimes struggle to celebrate and delight in her as is, to speak the word “good” over her. I look around me and see Insta posts and group texts and Pinterest articles celebrating nieces and nephews and neighbors and their ability to sign “more” at 6 months, to clap their hands at 8 months, to walk early, to be potty-trained by 2, to point to their nose or ears or belly-button, to “do X, Y, and Z” and “Isn’t that amazing?” And while all this celebration and sharing and recommending is beautiful and fun and a most natural thing for parents and grandparents to do, it is completely wrecking me, and I suspect I am not alone.

french-kids-eat-everything-bookIt contributes to the idea that celebration only happens as a result of my child’s “doing” and not her “being.” And the connection often made between a child’s “doing” and her parent’s choices in “parenting” then suggests that I could and should be doing certain things, buying certain toys, encouraging certain habits so that my child might be as successful. It perpetuates this idea that given a few special techniques, the right kind of toys, and the most carefully-constructed of playrooms, I can prune my child into the kind of product that is considered “good” and therefore brag-worthy. What makes things even more complex and painful is that in these parenting tips and tricks lay more laws to follow, more boxes to check, and therefore more ways to feel worthy (or unworthy) as a mom.  So when I share that video of my daughter playing the piano with my family or post that picture of her standing on her own to Instagram, as I lift up my daughter’s “doing,” I am left assessing whether I am innocently celebrating her or if I am subtly using her accomplishments as a conduit for growing my own worthiness. Oh, that I might say the former is more often true. It’s not.

In this assessment, however, is where I find God’s grace breaking into my relationship with my daughter and in my kindness towards myself. How do I stand against “parenting” as a verb and instead engage in this “particular kind of love,” this one-way love known as grace? Just as God does over me, I am learning to declare that my daughter is good, innocent, alive, and righteous by His work, not her own or my own. With God, I then recreate and reaffirm what is true about my daughter in the first place: she is good and innocent and beautiful but not because she had an easy time dropping bottles or because she slept well in the crib from night one, but because God says so. And His word is creative. By His benediction, my daughter is made so. His one-way love for me gives me a model to then turn to my daughter and proclaim, “You are good no matter what you do or don’t do, at twelve months or twelve years.”

Since it was published, my husband and I speak every so often of a favorite literary relationship in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help: Aibileen Clark and her “special baby,” Mae Mobley Leefolt. What makes us refer to this pair so often is Aibileen’s dictum frequently spoken over Mae Mobley: “You is kind, you is smart, and you is important.” Perhaps we have always been drawn to this moment and this phrase because we find such power in those words spoken over a child whose chubbiness, lack of cuteness, and bald spot have essentially de-valued her in her mother’s (and society’s) eyes. But it is by those words–kind, smart, important–that sweet little Mae Mobley is made so. Aibileen’s words worked to create the worthiness that was true of Mae Mobley from the beginning. And in those final moments of the novel, as Aibileen is fired and turns to remind “her baby” of these words one final time, our hearts are left soaring because we know that through Aibileen’s benediction over this child, she would indeed become as she was regarded.