Several years ago, I had a startling revelation.
I was a young mom struggling to hold it all together. Having had six babies in seven-and-a-half years, I was in a constant state of sleep deprivation and touch overload. My days were spent nursing a baby, changing the diapers of three little ones, failing at potty-training, trying to homeschool with constant interruptions, letting my children watch too much PBS, and cleaning up messes – the piles of dumped-out Parmesan cheese, the DUPLO blocks out of the toilet, the entire spool of thread unwound to form elaborate booby traps. At home, wearing my pajamas at two o’clock in the afternoon, unshowered and teeth unbrushed, I would stand beside the crib of a non-napping toddler, sobbing and begging God to please, please let this kid fall asleep so I could nap too. But in public, with make-up on and hair done, I would smile and push the double stroller, baby and toddler tucked inside with a preschool boy holding onto either side, and I looked like I had my act together.
As we went to church and MOPS and Bible study and the grocery store, one mom after another would ask, “How do you do it?” or marvel, “I can barely manage TWO! I don’t know how you do it!” And though I knew the truth — my husband bought me stacks of paper plates and disposable bowls before he left for business trips because doing dishes was so overwhelming; I had just bagged up DIRTY summer clothes and tucked them in the attic because we’d already moved onto fall clothes and the laundry pile was ridiculously tall; or I had just spent an entire Saturday afternoon at the laundromat doing seventeen loads of laundry because that’s how far behind I’d fallen; I hadn’t slept more than four straight hours at a time in over a year and a half and my emotions were held together by a tiny strand of sanity that was threatening to snap at any moment. Though I knew the truth, too often I gave a little laugh and said something like, “I pray a lot,” or “My girls are great helpers,” or “We have a system.”
Then one day came my big revelation. Other moms were comparing themselves to that snippet of me, the Public Me. And I was doing the same thing in reverse. I was comparing myself to carefully tailored versions of other moms. The blog version or the Christmas letter version. The dressed up on Sunday morning version. And none of us ever felt we measured up.
I read somewhere that we compare our blooper reel to another woman’s highlight reel. I compare myself at my worst to another mom at her best. And so the temptation is for me to manufacture an image or a brand, the Best of Jennifer, to display to the public so that I can feel good about myself. So I can measure up to the Best of You that I see. And the temptation is for you to do the same. It’s a vicious cycle. And really, we should stop.
That Sunday afternoon, I was listening to some moms share their life stories and having some real, vulnerable conversations afterward. I stood sipping tea and eating a cookie as I talked with a mom who was expecting her third baby in three years. During the previous year, she had been slowly falling apart. Bits of her had been chinked away by the physical demands of nursing, sleeplessness and pregnancy and by the emotional demands of discipline, training and loving. Her hormones had been up and down. For thirteen years she was a professional career woman, organized and efficient, in-control and highly-praised. Suddenly, she was having her third baby in three years. Her home was in disarray; her emotions were frazzled; her schedule was interrupted. She just wanted to take a shower and brush her teeth!
While this mother was fighting against thoughts of running away — seriously running away and leaving her husband and children — she was plastering on her smile and pretending everything was hunky-dorey every time she left her house. Inside, she was broken, wounded, hurting, weary. But outside, she was a have-it-all-together mother of two little ones. She was involved in church and other organizations; she was a leader, a volunteer. And she went about her duties with a smile on her face.
I saw her. I shared smiles with her. I commented on her pregnant glow and her adorable belly. And I was fooled. I never saw her brokenness. I never knew what pain was tucked away beneath her smile. She felt she needed to appear with-it, together, almost perfect, all while beating herself up for not measuring up to all the other moms around her.
Another mother shared her life story that day. My heart broke as I heard about all she had been through, then my heart rejoiced as she told of how God had truly brought beauty from her ashes. But I must admit, I was shocked at her raw story. She had been through so much: unplanned pregnancies, adoptions, divorce, suicidal thoughts, addiction, poverty, heartache, heartbreak. I didn’t know her well, but I had smiled and briefly spoken with her, we’d played board games together and laughed. All the while, I had no idea what pain lurked beneath the surface of her life.
As we smiled and made small talk, she was battling alcoholism and her family was barely held together by the sheer grace of God. She was depressed and shame-filled and weak. And she thought she had to put on a mask, pretend to have it all together. This mom also felt like she couldn’t measure up, like she was less-than every other mother she met.
That day, I got this picture in my mind — all of us walking around with these beautiful full-body masks, pretending to be good, hiding our sins, pushing deep our shame. I pictured beneath these lovely masks, written all over us were words like “unfaithfulness,” “addiction,” “abortion,” “selfishness,” “impatience,” “stubborn-ness,” “hatefulness,” and “anger.”
And then I pictured each of us walking around, looking at each other’s masks and thinking, “Wow, she is so beautiful! She has everything under control. She has a fabulous marriage, well-behaved children, gorgeous clothes. I bet she has a perfect house and is a great cook. I bet she never loses it all like I do. I bet she never yells at her kids. I bet she never goes to sleep with her back turned to her husband. I bet she has never done anything half as bad as what I have done. She’s better than I am. I am less of a mother, less of a wife, less of a Christian than she is!”
And while one of us is thinking that about someone, someone else is thinking that EXACT thing about us! Because we don’t see the real people; we see the masks everyone meticulously puts on before leaving home.
We are all broken. None of us are righteous. No, not one! We are all a big falling-apart mess without Jesus. Why are we so afraid to admit that to each other? Why do we carry around our brokenness tucked deep inside our layers, afraid that our brokenness makes us less-than everyone else?
I’m not saying it’s wise to blurt out our deepest, darkest secrets for the entire world to know. No, it’s not necessary or even healthy to be vulnerable with every single person we meet. But I don’t want people to look at me and feel worse about themselves. I don’t want people to compare themselves to my image or brand, to the Best of Jennifer Highlight Reel and feel less-than. Because I know how broken I am! I know my own heart, my own sins, my own shortcomings, my own shame. I am not perfect. I do not have it all together.
Without Jesus, I’m a mess.
Without Jesus, you’re a mess too.
Let’s take off our masks when we can. At the very least, let’s not pretend like we have it all together all the time. And let’s stop comparing our worsts to someone else’s bests. Let’s stop comparing ourselves to other people at all.
Can we stop pressuring ourselves to be perfect and just be real? Let’s find rest for our weary, broken souls in the only One who is perfect. Can that be our goal for today?