Like most people, I don’t really enjoy bragging about my failures. I recognize them, and feel what is probably an excessive amount of guilt for having them (I’m not Catholic for nothing), but I prefer to keep them on the down low. They are not my favorite topic of conversation.
So it was as astounding to me as it would be to anyone else when, a few weeks ago, I found myself emphatically, almost eagerly, telling my daughter that I make bad choices and really big mistakes every single day of my life.
“Mommy is, like, a huge failure, sweetie!” I told her brightly. “I mean, I told Daddy to shut up this morning! That was really bad! And I yelled at the dog because he ate grass and puked on the new carpet, and then I yelled at Daddy again because I had to clean it up! And I forgot to pack your lunch that one time — remember?! I forgot it and I didn’t bring it until lunchtime was almost over and when I got there, you were crying in the cafeteria line? That was a really bad choice that mommy made.”
I stopped there, because the flow of my thought process was moving toward previous boyfriends and hangovers and tattoos obtained in foreign countries, and that whole lunch incident really was blemish enough on our mother-daughter relationship. We have plenty of time for all of mommy’s more spectacular failures to make themselves known.
This overflow of honesty might have been excessive, but it was not without purpose. Because it was in response to my baby girl sitting in the bathtub sobbing, wailing that she “wanted to be good ALL DAY and not just SOME of the day because you, Mommy, ALWAYS make good choices and NEVER make bad choices.”
How else could I answer her? I don’t always make good choices. I do make really big mistakes. I am never, ever perfect ALL DAY.
My daughter is on the Autism Spectrum. For the most part, her differences manifest as odd but charming quirks. However, there are times when the world becomes too much for her. She has a certain rigidity to her expectations from life, and when life doesn’t conform to those expectations, she becomes overwhelmed. When she becomes overwhelmed, she becomes defiant and angry. And when she becomes defiant and angry, she begins to feel guilty, which leads to more defiance and anger until it all comes crashing down and she is empty but also somehow devastated by what she sees as her failure to be good.
That’s a lot of feeling for a five-year-old.
My heart breaks for her when she starts to fall down the Autism rabbit hole, and when I found her crying in the bathtub that night it was shattering to see that, this time, she was tumbling down because she was comparing herself — negatively! — to me. And it made me think.
I don’t like to broadcast my mistakes to the world at large, and I really don’t like to broadcast my mistakes to my children. As parents, we feel compelled to serve as an example of the kind of people we want our children to become. We want to be their heroes. And I think a lot of times, we strive to hide our faults from our children in order to meet the expectations we set for ourselves.
But the thing is, I don’t want, or expect, my children to be perfect, or even almost perfect. And I don’t want them to grow up to become the kind of person who feels that perfection is expected from her. I want my girls to try new things, to succeed sometimes and to fail sometimes. I want them to know how to own up to their mistakes and to try to make things right. I want them to be able to forgive themselves for not being what it is impossible to be. Above all, I want them to know that they are both messy and beautiful, and wholly — overwhelmingly — loved. And they will never learn any of those things if I don’t teach them.
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I have written before about losing my mother at a young age. It was hard to lose her. It is still hard to not have her. These things are true for anyone who has lost a parent. But one of the things that makes losing a parent when you are young especially difficult is the fact that you never get to know her. She is always as she was to you when you were a child: perfection, and everything.
My mom would have been a hard act to follow, no matter what. One summer, she spent 6-hour days at the pool with a portable chemo pump delivering toxins directly into her bloodstream so my brother and I could enjoy our summer. She once fell and broke her neck in the morning one day, and that evening she showed up, neck brace and all, at a fashion show where I was modeling First Communion dresses. I have to bite my tongue on the F-word when I stub a toe, but breast-turned-bone cancer never even elicited a “damn my life” from my mother.
As far as I can remember, my mom was as close to perfection as a person can be. She never had the chance to prove otherwise. I have spent much of my life feeling as though I will never, ever measure up to her — and now that I am a mother, I know that’s not what she wanted for me. It isn’t what I want for my own children.
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So many of my parenting decisions have been made based on my desire to have the mother-daughter relationship with my girls that cancer stole from me and my own mother. Mostly, these decisions have had to do with being together — just existing in the world with them — as they go through life’s big and small moments.
But behind all that is also my desire to be real for them. For us to grow together as a family, and to know that we love each other always, unconditionally.
And that night with my daughter, when her world was crashing down around her because she wasn’t good all day long, reminded me that sometimes, showing your children your failures also means that you are teaching them how to love themselves and others.
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This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!