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Grace Not Perfection

Grace Not Perfection

by Emily Ley

Learn More | Meet Emily Ley

Chapter 1

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith— and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.


IT WAS LATE AFTERNOON, and traffic in Tampa was disastrous. I was racing home to get ready for date night after a big day at work. Hours before, I had nervously and triumphantly handed in my two weeks notice. It was official: I was leaving the corporate world to dive headfirst into the fledgling design business I’d nurtured in the wee hours for the previous two years. It was finally time to devote my attention to the endeavor that had stolen my heart and ignited my passions: designing meaningful paper goods for life’s most special moments. Though I was eager to get home to celebrate, I spied a drugstore ahead and turned in to the parking lot. Twizzlers suddenly sounded like a great idea. This might be where all you mamas giggle and remember the first telltale sign of your pregnancy. Gracious. I should have known something was up! I’m normally a gummy bear girl. I pulled into my driveway a few minutes later. The Twizzlers were long gone, but a pregnancy test was tucked away in my purse. Without much thought, I tossed my purse on the counter and took the test to the bathroom. I wanted to be sure I could safely enjoy a glass of celebratory champagne that evening. I had learned after months of disappointment not to put too much thought into those tests. Too much thought always equaled too much heartache. I saw the ink begin to appear and impatiently set it aside. For such a small thing, that test packed a pretty big punch. It scratched at a very raw, painful spot in my heart that I desperately wanted to ignore on that happy day. Our years- long road of infertility had been paved with more bumps and potholes than we ever thought we’d face, and I wanted nothing more than to be a mama. Remembering that I’d purchased an unfamiliar drugstore brand, I picked the box up to read the instructions one more time. Confused and suddenly breathless, I laid the test, the instructions, and the box next to my bathroom sink. I held the test next to the diagram on the crumpled paper and, in an instant, felt my heart begin to race and my breath leave my chest. I looked around the empty room, desperate for someone to run to, to scream with. Memories of pill bottles, doctor appointments, and infertility procedures flooded my head as tears gathered in my eyes. I heard Bryan’s truck pull into the driveway as the tears fell down my cheeks. Though I’d scoured Pinterest for months for the perfect, photo- worthy way to tell him he’d be a daddy, I ran to him— a red- faced, tear- stained mess— and blurted it all out. “I don’t . . . this thing . . . the Twizzlers . . .” I caught my breath through a beautiful, ugly cry. “A baby. I’m pregnant.” It was perfect.

Becoming a mama on February 16, 2011, was the most pivotal experience of my life. My heart suddenly existed outside my body in this chubby little ball of all that is good in the world. Every emotion seemed heightened. Food tasted sweeter. Tiredness was now exhaustion. Love was a totally new feeling. “I love him so much it physically hurts,” I tearfully confessed to my own mom as she folded a tiny blue onesie and put it in Brady’s dresser. She paused and smiled. “That never changes.” These new emotions were confusing and overwhelming. I loved Brady with a new part of my heart— with feelings I’d never experienced before. I loved him with an all- encompassing love that I wondered if he’d ever understand.

Our new little guy didn’t like to sleep. At all. During those late- night feedings, I’d search the Internet for all the ways to be a great mom: the best Facebook- worthy styled photos to capture his growth, the coolest toys around, the fanciest celebrity- designed nurseries, and the most dapper little- man outfits. One night, as Pinterest ran dry, I laid my phone on the armrest of the rocking chair and closed my eyes. Exhausted didn’t even begin to describe how I felt. Brady had finally fallen asleep— his little head nuzzled into the space between my shoulder and chin. I breathed his sweet baby smell and prayed for him. And as I did, God laid an enormous truth on my heart: “I love you the same way, Emily. I get it.”

I tried for a long time to be the Pinterest- worthy girl with the Pinterest- worthy home and the Pinterest- worthy marriage and the Pinterest- worthy child. I wanted the world to know my life was pretty effortless and I had it all together. I wanted to be the girl people pointed out on Facebook and said, “Did you see that super- cute, over- the- top thing she did for her kid’s birthday?” To me, that translated to, “Did you see how much she loves her child?” Sweet validation! I’m doing a good job! I’d think. I must be— people I don’t know very well approve of and admire me.

It was a destructive way of thinking. I thought if I proved my worth by wearing the perfect clothes, having home- cooked dinners on the table at six, raising perfectly dressed children, and presenting a perfectly curated Instagram feed, I could finally rest. Then I could say, “I did it!” I would have earned the love and admiration of my friends, of my family, and of God. To me, perfect meant my parents were proud. Perfect meant my husband was proud. Perfect meant my children were proud. I believed the lie that perfect meant I was worthy. It turns out, grace was already there to deliver me from that emptiness. I just hadn’t realized it yet. Here’s the thing about grace: you don’t have to be perfect to embrace it. Grace is free— for imperfect and unworthy people like you and me. Did you catch that? You don’t have to be perfect! I don’t either! Jesus took care of that for us. He went before us and made a way. While we are busy trying to plan extravagant birthday parties and have exquisitely put- together homes, God has set a standard totally outside our realm of thinking. Instead of calling us to be hopeless overachievers, he calls us to “walk by the Spirit . . . [with] love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self- control” (Galatians 5:16, 22–23). Nowhere in there did He mention perfect birthday parties, size 4 jeans, home- cooked dinners, or spotless homes. In fact, I don’t think God really cares a whole lot about all of that.

God cares more about us abiding by His commandments and loving big— feeling deeply alive and free from the traps of perfection and comparison. He’s watching us scurry about, saying, “Sweet girls, why are you so hard on yourselves? All this worry and busyness is for what? I’ve given you all you need.” God is pouring grace on us every day, abundantly and without restraint. So, sister, if God is giving us so much grace, why on earth aren’t we having a little more grace with ourselves? Why are we running ourselves ragged trying to measure up? I don’t know about you, but I find this rat race of ours exhausting. And it’s really easy to feel like a hamster in a wheel chasing an impossible glossy- magazine standard we’ve set for ourselves. Grace, and only grace, offers us a way to step off that wheel— a deep breath, a place to rest, and the opportunity to slow down and savor what truly matters.

I started to get my feet back under me post–maternity leave. Some days I felt like I had this new mom thing down, and other days I wanted to hide in the bathroom with a bag of gummy bears. Regardless, one year into life as a full- time designer, I was determined to prove to the world that I could do it all. But here’s the thing about doing it all: even if you can do it all, no one can do it all well.

I took client calls while nursing. I worked frantically during nap times. And playtime at the park was a regular event for the three of us— me, Brady, and my iPhone. Instead of enjoying the best parts of a job I loved and a child I adored, I burned my candle at both ends trying to keep up. You can imagine how far that got me. Still, I was determined that I didn’t need help. One morning, I paced a circle around my house attempting to multitask. I can still remember the sound my bare feet made on the laminate wood floor while I bounced three- month- old Brady in the carrier strapped to my stomach. I was helplessly trying to pacify him and answer a design client’s questions about the breakdown of her new brand colors. I tried to sound peppy and focused so the client knew I was devoting all my attention to her, but Brady was clearly ready to be fed. After the call was over, a flood of tears and frustration washed over me. I called my business partner and close friend, Lara Casey. “I can’t do it,” I told her matter- of- factly. “I’m failing at everything. Everything.” Lara just listened. “I thought I could do it all. I thought I could be the picture- perfect mom running the picture- perfect business, but I’m just so tired. I haven’t washed my hair in days. I’m failing everyone. I’ve got to find a new standard,” I said. God had been pouring grace on me, but all I wanted to do was prove to the world that I could do it all. This was a breaking point. I was done. Feeling totally incapable of reaching the incredibly unattainable standard I’d set for myself, I laid it all on the table at this moment. Something had to give. My standard had to go. I stopped bouncing and pacing in my bedroom next to a pile of clean, unfolded laundry. “I’m not doing this anymore,” I told Lara. “I’m done trying to be everything to everyone, trying to prove a point to the world. I will not chase this impossible standard. I’ll hold myself to a standard of grace, not perfection.” Imagine me stomping my foot on the floor while saying that, because that’s the resolve I felt. Though I’ve fallen on my face daily since then, simply making that statement aloud freed my heart from a world of burdens. I’d honestly believed that being “put together” in every area of my life would equal happiness. Chasing perfection had been my way of searching for joy.

Have you ever visited Disney World with a three- year- old? You have to do it. To a three- year- old, everything is new and everything is exciting (until they melt down in front of Cinderella’s Castle, but that’s another story for another chapter). In early 2014, we took Brady to Disney World. I planned that trip months in advance, with attention to every detail so that it would be magical in every way. And Disney World didn’t disappoint. Bryan and I took Brady to a live performance first thing in the morning. He was enamored with the characters and loved every minute of it. When Mickey Mouse himself came onto the stage in all his Disney glory, Brady jumped to his feet, threw his little arms high into the air, and gasped with the most electric, wide- eyed, genuine excitement I’ve ever seen.

There’s just nothing like a three- year- old meeting his beloved Mickey for the first time. That’s heart- bursting joy. That’s what we’re all after. Somewhere between three and twenty-, thirty-, and fortysomething (I left out fifty, because I’m convinced all the fifty- year- olds I know have this figured out), we lost that joy. And now we’re all trying to find it again. Our grown- up circumstances, mortgages, taxes, jobs, and social media comparison have sucked the wind right out of our sails and made us all a little bit unhappy inside. And here we are, convinced that getting down to our college weight and a maintaining a spotless home sounds like a pretty good way to be unabashedly happy again. The truth is, if we take care of ourselves the same way we’re nurturing everyone else, we’ll find all sorts of joy and be better for everyone we love. My come- to- Jesus moment with my baby strapped to my chest helped me realize that I needed to take care of myself or I’d have nothing left to give my little ones. It wasn’t an indulgence or a pat on the back. It was do or die. If my heart was going to keep me going, it was going to need attention. It was time to give myself permission to be a priority again—starting now.

What does extravagant joy look like to you?

When was the last time you were ecstatically happy?

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