My name is Helen, I am a mother of three, and I am a Less Than Perfect Parent. 

The Perfect Parent is on time. The floor of their Subaru is not riddled with McDonald’s wrappers, and they are regularly exposed to classical music, not just Everclear (the band), Coldplay, and the Killers. Their holiday cards go out the first week in December.

I often get things half perfect. My children’s car seats are up to date, but seatbelts might not meet the national standards for snugness. I routinely embrace the five-second rule—as long as it’s butter side up. I have ignored toy recalls.

The story of the baptism of our third child, for which I wore no underwear, is a good example of the elusiveness of parental perfection.

Picture this: It is 9:10 on Sunday morning. We have four minutes to get out the door to be on time for the baptism rehearsal. Charlie, soon to be welcomed into the Kingdom of God, is fed, clean, and dressed. The other two are still in pajamas, sporting cowlicks, and eating cereal at a pace that suggests a leisurely brunch at the Four Seasons.

Here’s where the Laundry Problem comes in. I’m about to don my appropriate skirt-and-jacket combo when I open my underwear drawer to find it empty. Husband John, brushing at the light coating of yellow (Labrador) dog hair on his black wool sports coat, says, “I think I saw a basket of clean clothes in the basement.” 

I run down the stairs two at a time, rifle through the basket—no underwear, no underwear. Check the dryer—nothing but boxer shorts, which are only momentarily tempting. My black hose will have to suffice.

We arrive at the church ten minutes late, breathless and perspiring. The priest orders us to squeeze in at the end of the row of parents and babes. Four-year-old Molly and seven-year-old McKellar join us to share in this blessed event. The congregation starts to arrive.

For a few short, perfect moments before the rites begin, I’m able to fully appreciate its significance. Baptism signals the beginning of my youngest child’s procession from thoughtless innocent to conscious individual, a spiritual journey bound to be fraught with equal measures of confusion and joy . . .

Charlie begins to pluck and tug at the lacy christening gown that’s been worn by two generations of babies. Passing him off to John prompts a screech that could have raised the dead from the church catacombs. John practically throws Charlie back to me. The priest pauses and frowns in our direction.

Just then, Molly grabs the hem of my filmy skirt and tosses it to the heavens. Knowing the sea of solemn faces in the pews below have a near-perfect view of my nether regions, I swat at her hands and say a quick prayer:  “Dear God, please do not let me flash my parents and friends, the priest, the visiting priest from India, all those who know me despite our erratic attendance, and people I don’t know but want to impress. Amen.”

Some of the babies burst into tears as they are splashed with holy water and anointed with oil, others just blink, confused. Some of the parents are visibly moved, wiping tears, while others beam with pride. When it is Charlie’s turn, everything is suddenly, blessedly calm. Molly and McKellar stand quietly and Charlie smiles, reaching out his tiny hand as he is anointed. It’s a moment that is close to perfect.

Then, finally, the excruciating event is over. We descend from the altar, avoid eye contact with the front rows of upright Protestants, and hustle out, skipping the coffee hour.

And now? This Imperfect Parent is working a little harder on that laundry problem.


Helen Townes

Helen Townes is a mother of three, wife of a busy doctor, and director of communications at a French immersion school in Portland, Oregon. She holds a master's in journalism and communications from the University of Oregon, and has been a freelance writer and editor for many years. In her spare time (!!??), Helen loves to read (Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, John Irving, and David Sedaris, among others), run really fast (a 10:30 minute-mile, that is), and watch Portland's MLS soccer team, the Timbers.