The first time I gave birth nearly three years ago, it knocked me off my feet in every way possible: physically, mentally, emotionally. A few weeks in, my husband and I were sitting on the couch, staring at each other with sleep-deprived eyes, and I burst into tears. His glazed eyes widened–my emotional avalanche was apropos of nothing. And yet…everything.

tired momI’ve always felt it was under-discussed, this postpartum newborn period devoid of sleep, glutted with hormones, and full of fear. All around me, people posted pictures of their fresh babies on social media, even hiring professional photographers to place said baby in knit hats and flower pots. I wondered how these people managed to have it together enough to know how to use a phone to call a photographer, much less get out of the house and complete such a task. Leaving home felt monumentally difficult to me: there was spit up, and dirty diapers, and car seat buckles to contend with, not to mention my own foggy mental state. Acquaintances would post to Facebook at three in the morning about the magical time spent nursing their babies when all I wanted to do at 3 am was climb into the car and drive away. And the crying…the crying nearly drove me off a ledge. I would stand at the back door with my screaming son, waiting for my husband to return from work so I could hand the baby off and go sob in the bathroom.

It was…let’s say, a dark period.

When we decided to try for a second child, my husband and I knew that these first few weeks were a time we would grit our teeth to get through. There would be little sepia-tone to the memories, no photo shoots three days in, no preponderance of commercial-quality moments of loving glances. We were still reeling, after all, from some of the comments hurled about (mine at him, pretty much) three years ago, still picking up debris from the wreckage of our formerly flawless opinions of each other. There are few things like parenthood, particularly the initial throes of it, to scrub off the patina of perfection–yours and others’, life’s in general. It is a powerful leveler: you can “do everything right” and still have a kid who doesn’t sleep through the night, who isn’t feeding well, who gets a DUI and drops out of school. Yet you wouldn’t know that from the message boards, where people (overwhelmingly, women) attack each others’ terrible choices to bolster their own, or commercials, where if you buy the right clothes, or snacks, or appliances, you’ll be the “cool” parent who is loved by her children. Perfection is wholly unguaranteed and completely unattainable when it comes to being a parent and raising kids, and yet it has become one of the most visible goals of performance-driven behavior in our culture.

Which makes it an enterprise ripe for a revival of grace.

Let’s start with something my former counselor would say, something I’ve had to repeat to myself over the years (and especially presently, as I am navigating the newborn waters again): what is not up for debate is the love. We all love our children, no matter what other feelings enter in to complicate that truth, no matter how tired and frustrated we are with the circumstances surrounding them. But for my money, the first three months of their lives are just plain painful and I’d be fine avoiding them altogether. (Know what? Make that six. Who am I trying to impress?!) For the first three weeks of my younger son’s life, I felt like I had it all together, at least in comparison to the first time around. I hadn’t yelled at anyone in our home, hadn’t thrown anything, hadn’t broken down in inexplainable tears. Then his crying mode kicked in, and the exhaustion got to me, and I began to look longingly at my car, beckoning to me from the garage. I felt closer to falling apart than I had in almost three years–and there was something weirdly satisfying about that. It was as though I had suspected that this holding-it-together phase had no way of lasting unless I decided to lie to myself about it being easier than it is. Which is how I ended up back in the bathroom, close to tears, and deep in prayer. (Full disclosure: this was a week ago.) There is a refreshing realness to falling apart; it puts us that much closer to the truth of how things really are, how broken the world actually is–closer to redemption.

The night the baby slept for six hours straight, I wanted to award him a Nobel Prize for his work on behalf of our family’s peace…then he woke up two hours later, then one hour after that, and I felt betrayed. “I can’t even tell you how hard having a kid was on our marriage,” a friend recently admitted over lunch, and that’s something you won’t see on Instagram or in a shiny magazine ad. This is hard. The ins and outs, the dailyness of it? My productivity, formerly measured in dollars or word counts, is now quantified by diapers changed or pacifiers re-suctioned into a tiny mouth. I wear a burp cloth over my shoulders, not a white coat. There’s a difficulty in accepting this new, temporary regime and its attendant changes: it deals blows to my marriage, my sense of self-worth–and it reveals where I’ve been placing my security and my hope. There are few things like a shower-less, toothbrushing-free day to reduce you to what it takes to survive. And love? Love is revealed as more than warm feelings and golden moments; it’s a sore back from leaning over the crib, weary re-readings of the same books, handing the baby off to each other to get some sleep.

The world, with its consumerism and its deifying of parental perfection, would have us hop onto the hamster wheel of competition and run until our hearts give out. That’s when the grace of God steps in, cuts through the veneer, and protects our hearts from what the world says we should be. It deconstructs those ready-made identities and, through joy and triumph and tears and tiredness, builds us into what we were made to be.

Our nearly-three-year-old son was born with a tilted first vertebra in his spine, an anomaly that took us nearly two years and an unknowable amount of his pain to find (talk about not getting it right). He had surgery earlier this year to correct the issue, and he now follows up with physical and occupational therapy to relearn some positional skills now that his head is on straight–literally. Last week I took him to OT and sat in my chair while he “played” with the therapist. I was on a newborn’s ration of sleep and watching the clock so we could get home in time for the next feeding. My son proved partial to one set of toys, wanting to play with it over and over. “He’s all about repetition these days,” I said apologetically to the therapist, too tired to see the Chesterton-observed beauty in it all. “That’s okay!” she replied sunnily. “It’s how they learn.”

My glazed eyes slowly began to open. Here I was, with a front-row seat to my son’s long-awaited recovery, to the unlocking of the mystery that he is, and I was concerned that he was a little obsessed with puzzles. That he likes to do the same things over and over. When this is how he becomes who he is meant to be–through the daily monotony of repetitive activity.

Anne Lamott says that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. It seems to me that doubt–with its honesty about not knowing it all–is as integral a component to parenting as it is to faith. And, as with faith, it’s not perfection that will save us, but grace that already has, and continues to: through the moments of sobbing in the bathroom, through surgery on our little ones, through misbehavior (theirs and ours), through not getting it right. Which is why I hereby resign from the ranks of those claiming to “have it all together” (not that they ever bothered issuing me an ID card) and surrender to the redemption found in trial and error, in repetition, in a different kind of productivity. Knowing that in the rhythmic returns to each day, to each other, to our own shortcomings, we are met with grace like waves on a shore. A grace that makes the painful, the messy, and the monotonous…beautiful.