Long before I became a mother, I’d picked up a long list of the remarkable things mothers do and an appreciation for their unparalleled influence. I knew well the research showing that a mother’s ability to perceive needs and respond appropriately is the strongest, most consistent predictor of a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development. I’d studied the distinctive contributions of mothers in everything from children’s identity formation and emotional capacity to problem-solving, memory and language skills. And I’d experienced how important mothers are in establishing and maintaining the routines and rituals so necessary for individual and family well-being.
I knew mothers matter. I was just not prepared for how often I’d fail at it. I marveled that someone who had studied about it, had the best example in the world and had wanted it for so long could struggle so much knowing the “right way” to mother. Parenting books seemed only to add confusion — I’d swing from books arguing that American children are undisciplined and spoiled because of too few boundaries, expectations and hard work to the book that argues for less structure and more play and, above all, compassion and tolerance in identifying emotions and coaching children through them. I’d know that each approach had truth in it, but no matter which approach I took, it seemed I was failing in every other avenue.
Along the way, I held to the belief that mothering was the art of “having it all figured out and passing it down,” only to find out that perfection didn’t seem to exist, and that even for the most perfect among us there were no guarantees.
And in realizing that, I crashed (or crumbled) into what might actually be the point of it all. Motherhood has always been about devoted love, not perfection: the kind of love that leads to growth and change, in the nurturer as well as the one being nurtured. And so Brene Brown insightfully writes, “The real question for parents should be: Are you engaged? Are you paying attention? If so, plan to make lots of mistakes and bad decisions.” The miracle of it all is that “Imperfect parenting moments turn into gifts as our children watch us try to figure out what went wrong and how we can do better next time. The mandate is not to be perfect and raise happy children. Perfection doesn’t exist, and … what makes children happy doesn’t always prepare them to be courageous, engaged adults …”
In reality, as one experienced mother recently wrote, “Children care less about us getting it exactly right the first time, and more about our willingness to keep listening, learning and trying with them.” She continues, “I don't have to know perfectly whether I should respond with firmness or compassion, whether I should just listen or give direction, whether I should get involved and defend my child or give them space to work through it. The fact is I will get my initial response wrong most of the time. What I do need to do is be open and vulnerable, to listen and be willing to adapt and change, to be courageous enough to say, ‘tell me more … help me understand …’ and then be willing to really listen …”
Motherhood, then, is really about our willingness to “grow from failure to failure.” Such vulnerability is, in Brown’s words, the key to what we desire as mothers, “our richest, most fertile ground for teaching and cultivating connection, meaning and love” with our children. Our own learning and healing actually opens the way for theirs. And, fortunately, that development does not all have to happen before children turn 18, before it’s too late and we’ve ruined them. Our growth and healing will continue to bless them in real ways whenever it happens.
There is a reason my sisters and I have taken as a mantra the message captured in Theodore Roosevelt’s powerful speech quoted by Brown: “The credit belongs to the (one) who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds … ” This Mother’s Day may we honor the millions of mothers who have devotedly stayed in the arena for those they love, willing to learn and try again, because as weak as they feel they are, they love too much to quit trying.