“Wow. I’m never going to get this right.”
Those words passed through my mind last night as I sat on the floor trying to focus on my breathing. I was in a conference room with nine other people, nine other parents who had also signed up to take a mindful parenting class at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts, Worcester.
As I heard my classmates talk about their struggles with raising their children—most of whom are much older than my own—it hit me. Hard. Parenting doesn’t get easier, and I’m never going to get it right.
Those seven words reveal a tremendous amount about how I have come to understand my role as a parent, for better and for worse (but in this case, mostly worse). On the harder days, the days when the girls and I seem to be taking turns throwing tantrums, when I am exhausted and can’t seem to get anything right and they can’t seem to do anything right, I beat myself up. I’m a bad parent. I’m too harsh on them. I should be nicer to them. Everyone else is a better mother than I am.
And then, of course, there is the underlying notion that parenthood is something we should “get right.” Even as I write those words, I realize how ridiculous they are (my grandmother would most certainly laugh at them), yet they have somehow found a place in my brain, the brain that was grown and developed in the professional world. Through decades of schooling and jobs, I was taught that if I study hard and work hard, I would master whatever challenge I face. I will graduate to the next grade, finish school, get a job, get a promotion.
It’s so tempting to think that at some point I might “master” parenting, that there might come a day when I know exactly how to respond to every tantrum, exactly how to serve vegetables so my daughters will eat them, whether or not to keep them in swim lessons when they don’t want to go. I’ll get that gold star on my performance review and get promoted to the next job, whatever that may be.
It’s baloney, as my own mother would say.
Parenting isn’t about getting it right, even if that were possible. What I know is that our children need us to fail them. As long as we aren’t truly abusive or neglectful, our failures teach our children that their actions have an impact on other people, that their needs won’t always be met, that they can feel sad and angry at the people who they love the most, and they will still be ok. Every time I snap at my girls and then bring them close to apologize, I am teaching them that I am fallible and they can be fallible too. I am teaching them that it’s ok to say you’re sorry. I am teaching them that relationships in our family are flexible and durable enough to withstand hard moments.
Of course, none of this negates the importance of trying to master parenting anyway, even though we’ll never get there. This is the most important work I’ve ever done or will do, and it’s worth my time, energy, and hard work to try to learn as much as I can about it. It’s a tricky balance to manage—constantly trying to get better at parenting while acknowledging that there really is no getting better, there is no perfect parent, there is only this moment, this opportunity to connect with my children and offer them the best of myself that I can access at any given time.
I know all of this, but I get so caught up in who I think I should be—the parent who manages every situation perfectly and never loses it—that I forget everything I know about the reality of parenting. I bounce back and forth between the past (Why did I do that??) and the future (When will I ever get this parenting thing right??) that I totally miss the opportunities of the present moment: to take a breath, or a step away so I can find a moment of calm and compassion for myself, which I can then share with my daughters.
At the end of the mindful parenting class, our instructor shared the following quote by Leonard Cohen:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
These words capture the essence of mindfulness and mindful parenting so perfectly. In my mind, it’s about letting go of the ideal standards that so many of us hold ourselves to and choosing instead to find the beauty in each seemingly broken moment, even if that means letting go of it and moving on to the next one. It’s not easy, and there are far too many times when I become focused on what I have done wrong or what I should be doing. Whenever possible, though, I try to take a breath, refocus my attention, and find my way back into the present moment, into whatever my children are offering me.