As a parent, the memories that stick with you aren’t only the happy ones—sometimes they’re the moments of complete failure. The instances where you look back feel nothing but the hammer of guilt and the chisel of shame. The times where you raised your voice a little too loudly, quashing a hopeful toddler’s request for another night-night hug. The nights you fell asleep listening to your brain play highlight reels of every time you said “no” to a son pleading to play just one game.
It doesn’t matter how well we do as parents—the instances where we trip and fall tend to stick with us. For me, I worry more that those instances might have made just as an indelible mark on my children’s memories as my own. But I’ve learned that’s not always the case.
When my oldest was not yet two, my wife and I worked very separate schedules. I put in a full day at the church where I worked on staff and then drove home in time to say hi to my wife as she left to teach piano after-school until our daughter’s bedtime. The transition for me was less-than-seamless. I had the ten-minute drive home to shift my brain from fixing the church’s wireless network to making dinner and entertaining an enthusiastic eighteen-month-old. And my brain’s not good at quick transitions.
One evening I’d had a particularly rough day and just barely caught my wife on the way out the door when I was faced with a very hungry toddler. I was hungry too, so I scrambled to make dinner of, well, scrambled eggs. Despite sharing my love for all things egg, my daughter decided on that particular evening that she no longer wanted the fluffy food on her plate.
No amount of coaxing could convince her to eat the eggs, so in a huff I threw out the food only to turn around and be confronted with a tiny face full of tears. She may not have wanted her food, but it was still her food that I’d tossed.
But rather than take a breath and realize I was contesting wills not with an articulate and sophisticated food critic but a toddler, I decided it was bedtime. If I could just get her jammied up and tucked in her bed, I could relax. So I sat down on the floor in her room and opened the bottom drawer where her pajamas were supposed to live.
Except they weren’t there.
In increasing frustration, I called to my daughter and asked her where her pajamas were. Like most first-borns she was a very responsible eighteen-month-old and liked to put away her own clothes. Despite her lack of dinner, she dutifully came in and opened a drawer—the one at my head level.
When the knob hit me full in the head, I thought I was going to explode. It wasn’t her pajama drawer, I said, so why was she opening that one? I held the goose egg on my head with one hand and not-so-gently pushed the drawer closed with the other. Right on her little fingers.
My daughter yelped and stuck her fingers in her mouth, blinking back new tears. And in that moment, the picture shifted for me. I realized how over-the-top my reactions had been. I realized that my daughter just wanted to do what her Dad expected. And I realized that she had indeed put her pajamas away—in the draw she’d opened into my head.
The whole time I was fuming about the injustice of it all and nursing my wounded head, she’d been trying to obey. I found out later that she’d also already eaten dinner. She wasn’t hungry, but she desperately wanted to eat her favorite meal with her dad. The gravity of my failure as a parent in that moment settled firmly on my shoulders and I dissolved into tears.
But my little girl saw my sadness, took her pinched fingers out of her mouth, and gave me a hug.
“Is ‘k, Daddy,” she said, patting my face with a saliva-slicked hand. “Is ‘k, Daddy.”
I remember that moment often when I think about the kindness and compassion God shows to his children. That he shows to me. How often do I rage at him for the unfairness of medical bills or home repairs or bad traffic? How much unsubstantiated blame do I lay at his feet for the inconveniences in my life? In the middle of it all, he bears my castigations and embraces my failures and tells me it’s okay.
She doesn’t know it, but that day now years ago, sitting on her bedroom floor, my daughter showed me the compassion of the Savior. She loved me despite my tantrum. She forgave me despite my misdirected frustration.
That is, after all, the compassion of Christ himself. The one who came to earth to love the people the Father had created. Who came to liberate them from their enslavement to sin and suffering. Who, for all his love, bore the piercing steel of our punishment. And yet he begged the Father to forgive them—to forgive us—anyway.