One of my kids barely talked to me for the better part of a year. He left for school, came home, went to his room, came out for food, grunted at me, and went back to his room. Every day. Every evening.
An eternity of a year.
This was a kid who, in previous years, would wear me out with his chatting. An open book. He talked so much that I would need a nap in the afternoon. I did not begrudge him this, as I loved both him and naps.
And then one day, during our family’s hardest year in the history of earth, he simply stopped talking. And I felt like a failure. I mean, he had learned behavior from me, one of his primary models. As an abuse survivor, I had worked tirelessly to break the patterns of abuse that I had grown up with in my family of origin. But somehow, I felt that I had not worked hard enough, or I didn’t have the “right” skills to teach him how to communicate, or I believed all this time that I had been doing a better job than evidenced in reality.
The moments of disappointment and confusion and sadness were long and hard (that’s what she said), but worth exploration. Was I a failure as a mother? Was failure, as the inspirational quotes say, a good thing after all? What are the best ways to take advantage of these tough emotions? In the midst of my struggles, I found four ways to take advantage of feeling like a failure as a parent.
I’ve been sharing my feelings of parenting failure with a few trusted friends. One in particular responded, “So much of parenting is just showing up. I think if you show up every day, even when it’s tough, that’s at least half the battle.”
So much of parenting is doing what is inconvenient and uncomfortable and just plain hard. To be honest, my son’s silence and withdrawal scared me. I didn’t know what to say or do, and it would have been much easier to simply withdraw myself, to not show up, to avoid that discomfort.
The fact remains that I am the adult. Even if my behavior has previously taught him to withdraw, I could still teach him that we don’t give up on each other. That we honor emotions and the space and time to process them. That we can sit in discomfort and still experience peace. To do all of that, I had to practice being present, living in the moment, grounding myself in the physical realities around me.
This practice helped me to show up. Sometimes this meant giving him rides and sitting quietly in the car, or playing on our phones side by side on the couch because he would really only talk to me when I was looking at my phone (I found this highly ironic). Being present and available, no matter what.
On my son’s birthday, a friend wrote on my Facebook wall, “We loved this age with our daughter. I hope you have as much fun as we did!”
I immediately messaged her. “Promise?” I wrote. “Because this past year has been tough.”
She commisserated, explaining that the year before had also been tough with her daughter. After sharing back and forth for a while and encouraging one another, she said, “Sometimes all you can do is love hard.”
Well, if I know anything about myself, it’s that I have a huge capacity for emotion. If anyone could love hard, it was me. Love does not withdraw. Love tells the truth, and faces hard times, and bolsters us when everything feels hopeless.
Keep Them Safe
Another piece of advice that I’ve put into use is to keep my son safe. This is a hard one, I’m not gonna lie. “Keeping kids safe” changes with their age, development, and maturity. What is safe for one kid isn’t necessarily going to benefit another.
For us, the idea of safety was largely about boundaries. When and how should I let my son fail? What situations was he mature enough to handle on his own? When should I step back versus step in? What does discipline look like not just at this stage, but with our particular family issues? All good questions when considering how to keep kids safe without hampering natural consequences and their independence.
Several years ago I felt a pain in my lower back that was so sudden and sharp that I fell to my knees in my hallway. A friend took me to the emergency room, where they diagnosed a kidney stone that I needed to pass.
My husband came to pick me up from the hospital, asking a nurse, “Is the pain really all that bad?”
She looked at him and snarled, “It’s second only to childbirth.”
That’s parenting in a nutshell. Sometimes there’s pain that’s second only to childbirth.
Feeling like a failure as a parent means that you have been working. That you care about the work that you have been doing. That you are evaluating what has worked and what hasn’t, and you are actively identifying changes that can be made. Use these feelings of failure as a way to keep going forward.
And let’s take comfort in the fact that this will pass. It may pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.