Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The "Good" Thing

Confession: I raised my voice to my eight-month old baby this week. The older child had been chattering at me ALL THE LIVELONG DAY so my head was ringing with noise and the littlest one was refusing to eat again and would only calm down when I gave him his pacifier but would then take said pacifier out, throw it as far away from himself as possible and then scream again because he wanted the aforementioned pacifier. Irrational, selfish behavior, if you ask me. And my brain had had enough. I cracked.

Some days I just cannot work with these people.

And you know what else? Pretty much every day I am aware of just how bad I really am at this whole parenting thing.

The strange thing is, though, I've found that when I'm willing to be honest with people and confess to how badly I feel like I'm failing, about what it's really like behind all the cute pictures on facebook and the laughing baby in videos, I am almost always reassured by them that I am a good parent. Without any investigation into what exactly I have or have not done for (or to) my boys that day. It's a blanket reassurance that I usually don't think I have earned. And I've said the same words myself, time and time again.

But here's the thing. If I read half the blogs and articles out there, I would be assured that I am a "good" parent because when asked I would emphatically declare that I love these boys. And I do. So much that it knocks the wind out of me when the oldest climbs a tall tree and I have to push through those intense feelings of fear of him falling or I can't see if the youngest is breathing on the monitor during a particularly unusual stretch of sleep and have to tiptoe in and place my hand on his back to make sure it's rising and falling. Of course I love them.

I know, however, from experience that love has never prevented me from doing selfish, frustrating and, sometimes, completely irrational things of my own. Love is not always really enough. At least not human love. Love doesn't prevent me from having a bad day, from taking it out on them and then beating myself up until I'm in tears of my own when my husband finally walks through the door. Love does not in itself make me a "good" parent.

So when I read these articles reassuring me that whatever decisions I am making, they are my own to make as long as I love my kids, I get a little nauseated. Really? Whatever decisions I make are fine as long as I love these kids? I know for a fact that I make decisions that will probably make them wonder what the hell was wrong with their mother when they are older. I know for sure that I don't always choose selflessness or care for them over my own self-preservation. I know already what they'll tell their therapists some day. But because I love them, I am a "good parent". Or so I am told.

Here's the problem as I see it. If I approach parenthood from this perspective, that I am GOOD because of something I feel for them, I'm going to be in pretty big trouble. I spent most of my 20's trying to shake off the "good enough" gospel. That if I just followed the rules, checked off the boxes and FELT good about God, then I myself was good, I myself was on the right path, I myself had done enough to be loved by Him. Trying to shake off that gospel and replace it with a deep thankfulness for God's forgiveness, mercy and grace for me, a deeply flawed sinner, has been a long process. A hard process. One I am still working through.

So why in the world would I want to approach parenting the same "good enough" way?

I am not a good parent just because I love my kids. I am not a good parent when I make the "right" decisions and we all know that in today's hyper-competitive mom culture, those decisions are under constant debate anyway. I am only a good parent when I am letting God love them through me. To be honest, though, I'm often so self-focused, so unforgiving towards my own shortcomings, that I have a lot of trouble moving out of the way so He can do that. But if the gospel of truth tells me that I am a loved daughter of God because of what He has done for me (and not because I am good enough for Him), then the gospel of parenting dare not lead me in the opposite direction. I cannot earn being a "good" parent through my decisions or my emotions. I am going to make mistakes, some huge, some tiny. I have been given a huge responsibility, one which I cannot fulfill without a really overwhelming dose of God's grace to me every day. And yes, a lot of days, when I look at the emotional detritus, the physical mess of my home, the tear streaked faces of one or all four of us, those days will look like failures. This, it seems, is my greatest struggle as an adult. To have been good at almost everything I've ever tried, to realize how fully I've relied on my own self-sufficiency and to continue to cling to it even in failure as I parent. Oh to be set free from that scrutiny, to wake each day to rely on the only Good Parent, and invite His boundless love, patience, creativity and energy into my sleep-deprived and self-focused soul. What would that feel like?

The deeper problem of earning the status of "good parent" through my decision-making skills or my love for these boys is that in so doing I also take on the twin demons of self-righteousness and fear-driven anxiety. In reality, much of my parenting is done as if I don't know the God of grace. It's done in fear and exhaustion, in juggling these twin demons, in judgment of myself for the ways I fall short, and paradoxically, self-righteous judgment of those who do this parenting thing differently than I do, which is why we all get so upset and roast each other over nursing and organic food and spray sunblock or whatever the new thing is we are supposed to be hyper-vigilant and angry about. Good parents versus bad parents in the daily showdown of who is making the best decisions for their kids. Ugh. And interestingly, it is no better for me to think of myself as a "bad parent" as it is to think of myself as a "good parent." Both distinctions are too caught up in my own abilities, my own issues, my own fears. Both distinctions do not see the fuller picture of who I am in God; broken but redeemed, failing but victorious, unlovable but loved.

So, please, let's stop telling each other we are good parents, especially when we don't know what the day has looked like. I'm sure we're all not quite as quick to share those moments of shame with each other but maybe we should be. Maybe if we could trust that we'd listen and not just blanket or negate our feelings with the "good parent" gospel cliché answer (or, just as bad, accuse each other of being bad parents), we'd share when we yelled at our children or locked ourselves in a closet so that no little hands could touch us one more time. Rather than sulk around in guilt or put loose band-aids over feelings of failure, we might actually work through the deeper issues that are being driven to the surface by, in my opinion, the hardest freaking job in the world.

What if, instead of platitudes, we answered with questions, listened well and directed each other's hearts to repentance and grace? Wouldn't that be more powerful and enduring that simply offering the "you're a good parent" speech when we struggle? Doesn't that road offer us a way out of ourselves whereas the "good parent" speech turns us back inward, focuses us on our own abilities, our countless exhausting decisions?

Then maybe I could end the day not in shame and exhaustion, frustration and anger, but in the quiet knowing that whatever my failures that day, it is not up to me to be that perfect mom. That the next day is a new day, one I can start by moving out of God's way and letting Him figure this parenting thing out for me. And where I am quick to anger and slow to forgive, His grace can slow me down and remind me to take each moment less chaotically, to lean into His love and mercy for my children and myself and to be committed to asking the good questions that point myself and my other parent friends away from ourselves and towards the only One who really has the answers and the patience for this parenting thing anyway.