Recommended by Us

Why being an imperfect mother is a gift

Young Mother playing with children while sitting on floor at home with wooden toys
“One of the gifts of imperfection [is] that we get the chance to learn and to grow and to become.”
Vera Livchak/Getty Images

The following excerpt comes from a Time Out for Women address given by Sister Emily Watts in 2015. To read more Time Out for Women addresses, check out To Cheer and To Bless: Celebrating 20 Years of Time Out for Women, available now at Deseret Book.

This past summer, we bought a new car. Well, a new used car—new to us. We only do it about every eight or ten years. It seems like there’s always some innovation in cars; cars do things differently than they used to. And the innovation for me in this car is that when you turn it on, the lights go on. And when you turn it off, they stay on for about thirty seconds so you can get safely into your house or whatever. And I am so deeply suspicious of that, that for about the first month, I would peer out my back door just to be sure that the lights really were turning off after I got in the house. And yes, they were, yes, they did—just trust the mechanics, and it’s fine.

Usually, my husband drives me and drops me off at the light rail station, and I take that the rest of the way to work. But on one particular day, he was out of town. So I drove myself to the light rail station. I got there just in time to see the gates going down at the intersection, indicating the train was coming. So I hurriedly leaped out of the car and ran for the train, got on the train just in time, spent all day at work on a very serious and difficult project, left kind of late, and got back to the train station. It was just starting to get dark. And when I started to look for my car, I realized that the taillights were on.

I thought, “Oh, great. I must have hit some kind of switch when I was running out of the car to get to the train, and the lights didn’t turn off, and now I’m going to have a dead battery. And my husband isn’t here to come and save me and jump it. What am I going to do?” But then in part of my brain, I was thinking, “Yeah, but the taillights are still on. Maybe since it’s such a new car, the battery’s just really, really good, and it can go hours without running out with the lights on.” So I thought, “Well, we’ll just have to see what happens when I get in and turn it on.”

So I went and got in the car and realized immediately that the reason the lights had not turned off when I turned the car off that morning was because I had not turned the car off that morning. I had left my new car running in the train station, in a pretty seedy part of town, all day long, and it was still there. From this I draw a very, very important lesson: Heaven protects the idiot.

I want you to really seize and take hold of that lesson. The root of the word idiot comes from the Latin idiota and Greek idiotis, which both mean a layman, an unprofessional person, or someone unskilled. May I suggest that, by that definition, we all begin motherhood as idiots. And so it’s important to know and believe that heaven protects the idiot. Even more important: heaven protects the idiot’s children while the idiot is learning how to do her job.

Motherhood is full of undeserved miracles. Watch for them, pray for them, expect them, and write them down when they happen so that you can look back and remember that heaven is there protecting you. Miracles are such an important part of motherhood, and I have been striving to understand miracles a little better. So I started to look in the scriptures to see what I could find out. We start with the first miracle that Jesus performed in His earthly ministry, at the marriage at Cana. This is from John 2.

“When they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come. His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it. And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece. Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And he saith unto them, Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast. And they bare it.”

At the end of that story, the governor of the feast [essentially] says, “Usually they bring out the good wine first. And then when everyone’s a little drunk, then they bring out the worst stuff. But you’ve saved the best wine for the last. This is really amazing.” So that was the miracle. Let’s go back and look at it a little bit more closely.

When Jesus’s mother saw the need for a miracle, she went to Him and asked for it. That’s the first step. If you need a miracle, you need to ask. We’re invited all the time: Ask and you shall receive; knock, seek. Do what you need to do to demonstrate to Heavenly Father your need for this miracle. It’s all right to ask.

Then Jesus said, OK, what do you want me to do? And then Mary did something that I think is really important. She said to the servants, whatever He says to do, do it. Now, if it’s really a miracle, why did they have to do something? Wasn’t that His job, to perform the miracle?

I learned something really interesting about miracles as I started to think about them. Here’s what He told them to do: fill up the waterpots. I pictured a pot, a pitcher, like you might pour something out of. But it says they had two or three firkins apiece. So I went and looked up firkins. Do you know how big a firkin is? Nine gallons. So we’re talking eighteen, twenty gallons in each of six pots. And they had to draw that water from somewhere, presumably from a well or a cistern. That was work. Just because it’s a miracle doesn’t mean there’s not going to be work.

We may think that if we have to work, it doesn’t count as a miracle. But no, the Lord expects us to take part in what we’re asking Him for.

He who turned water into wine can just as easily turn your weakness into strength. Transformation is what He is about. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to have to do anything, but transformation is what the Savior of the world does. It is His stock in trade. And if we invite Him to make our weaknesses strong, He will do that. He promises us in the Book of Mormon, in the book of Ether, “Then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

For me, especially as regards motherhood, this raises a fundamental question. If He can make weak things strong, why doesn’t He? Why don’t we start out stronger? He’s sending us these precious children, and He’s sending them to idiots who don’t even know what to do! I remember when we brought our first child home from the hospital. That child is lucky to be alive. Animals in the barnyard have more instinct about how to be a mother than I did with that child.

Why do we start out so weak? Why is mortality line upon line, precept upon precept like the scriptures tell us? An experience I had with my grandson helped me understand this better. We were playing Legos, and we were building a starship. I was sitting with him and with the instruction booklet, and we were laboring over this starship. And it wasn’t too long before I got to thinking, you know, I could finish this in half the time. And then he’d have the starship to play with and we’d be done. But of course, I didn’t do that. Because building it is part of it, right? It might have been the first time I really realized the finished product is not the whole point. We’re supposed to be striving for perfection. But maybe the finished us is not the entire point.

So I started to look for what the point might be, and the point was the learning and the growing and the creating of something really cool out of this pile of little gray pieces that didn’t seem to mean anything. It was so exciting and fun to get to do that. The process of moving from nothing to something is a really exciting line-upon-line process.

It’s one of the gifts of imperfection: that we get the chance to learn and to grow and to become. So if learning and growing and becoming are a big part of it, why didn’t I just say, “Go for it, kid! Bring the starship to show me when you have it finished”?

Well, it just was a little too hard. It was just a little bit beyond his ability. And he didn’t need a lot of help, but he needed someone there to encourage him and to give him some keys to solving that puzzle for himself so that one day he would be able to do it. I think that is exactly what Heavenly Father does for us. He lets us do as much as we can because we need to grow. But He is sitting by our side, always ready to help us, ready to give us guidance, ready to point out things that we hadn’t noticed. It’s such a comfort to parent with Heavenly Father by your side.

This doesn’t mean you don’t sometimes blow it. I blow it regularly. I can remember praying in the morning for strength not to yell at my children. It is hard to be a perfect parent. And I blame the children for this, at least partly. Because it would be easy to be a perfect parent if you had perfect children. This is why it’s so easy to be a good grandparent: because all grandchildren are perfect.

If there’s one downside to being a grandparent, it’s that there are so many more people to worry about. You draw the circle of your deepest love wider so more people can step into it. And your big kids have big-kid problems that can rarely be solved with Band-Aids and Kool-Aid. Big-kid problems are hard. And so we really need to have Heavenly Father with us all along the way, even as we step up into the next roles. But fortunately, by the time we’re there, we have some pretty good experience in what I call heart-stopping moments, which then allows us to have faith that those moments are going to pass and we’re going to be able to get through it.

Once when our oldest daughter was nine or ten, she had gone down the street half a block to play with a friend. My husband came home from work and I realized I had no tomatoes for the tacos, which is not a huge loss for the children, but he probably wouldn’t eat tacos without tomatoes. So I said, “Honey, can you please go to the store and pick up some tomatoes? And while you’re there, maybe some milk and some bread. And if they have any of those big chocolate doughnuts that we like, get some of those too. But be sure to get the tomatoes. If you only get one thing, get the tomatoes.” He tends to get a little distracted by the big chocolate doughnuts, and sometimes he doesn’t come home with what I need the most.

So he went to the store and I was fixing dinner, and after a while, I thought, I should really call and have them send Natalie home so that she’ll be here when her dad gets home from the store and we can have dinner. And so I called my friend’s house and said, “Could you please send her home?” And there was silence on the other end of the line. And my friend said, “She left here half an hour ago.”

My heart stopped. And I’m sure hers did too. And she said, “OK, OK, I’m going to send my husband out. He’ll drive slowly around the neighborhood.”

And I said, “Okay, I’ll call other friends and see if maybe she got distracted and went to another friend’s house.” So I was frantically calling all around, and my friend’s husband was trolling through the neighborhood. And we were asking all around if anybody had seen my daughter. I was trying to decide, can I call the sheriff now? So they can get out an Amber alert? Or is it too soon to panic and I’ll just look stupid? And while I was trying to decide, Larry pulled into the driveway and got out of the car. And Natalie got out of the other side of the car. Because he had been on his way to the grocery store right when she came out from her friend’s, and he had said, “Hey, jump in, you can go to the store with me.”

This was before cell phones. This is how old I am. It was past dial phones, but before cell phones, so he couldn’t fix it. It was just one of those mistakes that happen sometimes.

But I think I realized maybe for the first time that I couldn’t be there all the time. I couldn’t protect my child from everything that might happen to her. I couldn’t watch over her all the time. It was scary to know that, but really an important piece of learning for me as I came to realize who could watch over her all the time. And I also realized that as frustrating as our children get sometimes, the moment we think they might be in danger or gone from our lives, we recognize how incredibly precious they are. I saw how much I needed that little girl. And I was so grateful that everything was fine. So I took a deep breath. And we went on.

There were other times when things happened to my children that I wonder if I could have prevented or protected them from if I had been there. There were many, many times when I felt that I had failed. There were many times when I second-guessed my decisions and thought that things that happened in my family were my fault. There have been times when I have thought, would this have happened if I had been there?

And the answer has come: maybe. Maybe, even if you had been able to be with your children every second of every day. These kinds of things still happen in families like that. Maybe, the Spirit told me, a failure isn’t that something hard happens to a member of your family. Maybe a failure, our Father’s definition of failure, is an experience that you didn’t learn anything from.

If you view a failure as an experience that you didn’t learn from, it really changes your perspective, because Heavenly Father doesn’t waste experiences. Have you noticed this about Him? Everything that happens—the good, the wonderful, the exciting, the deeply spiritual, the hard, the difficult, the trying—He uses them all to draw us to Him. And a failure is not a failure if you learn something from it. The things I have learned the very, very most from have also been the hardest things in my life. One day when I was in the bathroom, crying about a particular situation, the Spirit comforted me with words from the scriptures. And I wrote in my journal, “I believe that one day we will feel joy as exquisite as was our pain.” I really believe that’s true.

I think that our capacity for grief makes a place in our hearts so that when the joy comes, there’s that much more room to hold it. I have come to really, really believe that one day when my joy is as exquisite as my pain has been, and my family is all together in our happily ever after, I will have more joy in that moment because it was so hard to get there. And if there’s a real gift of imperfection, that’s it. The gift is that because we are imperfect because we are needy, it shows us completely, irretrievably, our need for a Redeemer. It shows us how much we need Jesus Christ.

The gifts of imperfection are so many. Imperfection gives us a chance to learn and grow and become—to have that joy of building something from what seems like nothing. That’s a gift. That’s a joy. Progress is such a joy. If we are imperfect, we need to rely on other people. Being imperfect gives us so many opportunities to be served. And other people’s imperfections give us so many opportunities to serve them. It’s a gift that draws us together, as sisters, as families, and as wards, that Heavenly Father has given us. But then the greatest gift of all is that as we recognize our weakness, we bring it to our Savior, who says, “I can help you make that strong. Doesn’t mean you won’t have to work.” But He promises that weak things will become strong and that the humble and the meek and the submissive, and the people who are turning to Him, are the ones who will be open to His help. The broken heart is the fertile field for the seeds of His love.

I’m so thankful for Him. I testify of His capacity to do this. I rejoice in His willingness to do this. I have great hope that He will take the imperfect me and make me who I need to be in His sight.

▶ You may also like: Devotion to family can sometimes be painful. Here's what I’ve learned from my mom about why it’s worth it

To Cheer and To Bless: Celebrating 20 Years of Time Out for Women

For twenty years, Time Out for Women has brought together Latter-day Saint women to inspire, focus, renew, and strengthen each other in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now, in this in this collection of standout talks selected from twenty years of Time Out for Women, learn new insights from familiar speakers, revisit your favorite talks, and find greater hope in the Savior. Featuring a variety of esteemed contributors, including Kris Belcher, David Butler, Virginia Pearce Cowley, Elaine Dalton, Laurel Christensen Day, Mary Ellen Edmunds, Emily Belle Freeman, Jane Clayson Johnson, Mariama Kallon, Chieko Okazaki, Camille Fronk Olson, Tamu Smith, Anthony Sweat, Wendy Ulrich, Zandra Vranes, Emily Watts, Brad Wilcox, and S. Michael Wilcox.

Stay in the loop!
Enter your email to receive updates on our LDS Living content