I’m not always the mother I want to be.
I become impatient with my son’s normal toddler behaviors. I react out of frustration, rather than responding with compassion. I’m sometimes overwhelmed by his big emotions. I can’t always be the calm in the eye of his storms, or provide the grounding presence that he needs.
Life used to be predictable, my efforts leading to their intended results. I used to thrive based on my accomplishments. I expected perfection from myself, fully accepting the illusion that achieving it was possible.
But Life brings us what we need, presents us with circumstances that allow us to grow into the people we’re meant to become. I won’t claim to understand the infinite reasons this little person was brought into my life, but, clearly, I’m supposed to be learning to be more comfortable with imperfection. It seems that Life believes that I will benefit from a continual lesson in accepting my own shortcomings.
And yet, this indescribable love I feel for my son often renders me powerless against the specter of perfection. The stakes seem so high, and I want more than anything to provide the very best for him. My previous life’s endeavors seem inconsequential compared to being his mother. Never before have I wanted so deeply to achieve perfection, and never before has it been so impossibly out of reach.
Because, let’s face it, parenting isn’t exactly conducive to being your best self. The constant fog of sleep deprivation. The near impossibility of meeting your own needs, even with the best of support. The ease with which you can forget that you even have needs, needs separate from those of the little person whose life has, in some ways, become your own. Not to mention that if you have any leftover emotions from your own childhood, they will most certainly resurface when you become the parent.
Perhaps it’s our indescribable love for our children, a love that can feel crushingly weighty, that leads us to impose upon ourselves this pressure to accomplish the impossible. Or maybe this drive for parenting perfection is the fault of our culture’s unrealistic imagining of motherhood, a sugar-coated version of reality in which complete self-sacrifice never leads to resentment.
In any event, the truth is, our children don’t need us to be perfect. They simply need us to be “good enough.” To be real human beings, complete with faults. To continue showing up, not letting our perceived failures get the best of us. To take care of ourselves, so that we can better take care of them.
Yes, they also need us to calmly hold space for their sometimes overwhelmingly big emotions. And, yes, they need us to be patient when they’re struggling, to respond with empathy and compassion, even when we, ourselves, are feeling bewildered. Thankfully, though, they don’t need us to be this idealistic version of ourselves at all moments.
Even knowing this, I’m often overcome with guilt and regret when I don’t live up to my self-imposed ideal. And then what my son needs—what we both need—is for me to have some compassion for myself, too, to forgive myself for not always being the mother that I want to be. To accept that “good enough” is . . . well, enough.
Though it seems paradoxical, forgiving ourselves for our parenting transgressions allows us to become better parents. Self-forgiveness is not a license to treat our children poorly, and having compassion for ourselves in our difficult moments does not excuse our behavior. But when guilt prevents us from acknowledging our less-than-ideal parenting moments, we are certain to repeat them. Our lack of self-compassion spills over into our relationships with our children.
As I endlessly repeat to myself in moments of overwhelm, “Gentle with myself, gentle with my little one.”
Our mistakes, too, are valuable learning opportunities for our children, who are, for better or worse, eternally modeling our behavior and reflecting it back to us. No doubt they learn that they’re worthy, lovable beings in part based upon how we treat them. But they also learn this, or don’t, from observing how we treat ourselves. When we model self-compassion and self-forgiveness, they learn that they’re worthy despite their mistakes, lovable even in their difficult moments.
And when we acknowledge our mistakes, and ask for their forgiveness, our children learn that they deserve our respect. They learn that ruptured relationships can be repaired. And they learn that love isn’t contingent on perfection, that they, too, are “good enough.”