Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.


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Enoughness

The first week back from holiday travels left me a bit drained.

Actually, to be honest, it is not just the return to reality but also the two weeks of holiday that left me feeling out of balance. Or, perhaps the experience is better described as a distracting sensation of background buzzing that makes me want to shake my head, or maybe shake my whole life, to rid myself of the discomfort.

As I have struggled to find mental and emotional focus, it has become increasingly clear that this distress results from two strangely cooperating, though entirely opposite experiences: Excess and Lack.

Holiday Excess is a familiar theme.

Excess food – stretching my willpower and my digestion (not to mention my jeans).

Excess gifts – three different family celebrations leaving my children with the expectations that new presents should be offered every few days, and at least partially distracting them from satisfaction with the gifts themselves.

Excess luggage – to load into cars, and haul through airports, and cram into overhead bins while my aching back protests.

But the sense of overload merged discordantly with a suffocating sense of lack as well.

Lack of time – to just sit and talk and enjoy the people we travelled 3,000 miles to see.

Lack of home comforts – like my own bed, or a dresser full of sweaters I had not already worn twice in the prior ten days.

Lack of space – for the simple, restorative rest of solitude when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

It’s such a first world problem, I know, to complain about a two-week holiday in California with so many family members whom I love, but … I am a first world woman. The perspective to be able to recognize my privilege did precious little to actually resolve the emotional strain wrapped around me like a poorly insulating blanket as I stepped back into the cold New Jersey winter.

And that return brought its own sources of layered excess and lack. Excess of workload trying to pick up all the dropped threads of my two-week hiatus. Lack of hours in the day to give each task the attention is deserves. Excess of mess in my home after the luggage vomited its contents over every flat surface in the living room and the oozed around the rest of the house over the next few days. Lack of patience for my beloved family members who apparently did not consider this mess a problem, or at least not one they had any role in fixing.

Collapsing into bed each night this week I felt totally out of balance, with a body protesting its exhaustion and a mind already whirring with the to-do list for tomorrow. I needed rest and peace and centering, but even battling to fall asleep felt like a continuation of the tug-o-war. A few nights I whispered a faint prayer, but prayer for me is usually a discipline before it grows into a joy. And it’s hard to be disciplined when you are flailing your arms trying desperately not to fall.

Then came my return to weekly yoga class as I was praying (with or without discipline) for 75 minutes of blessed balance. That is I was incoherently muttering my prayer until I saw the teacher. It was not my beloved Suzette who has taught me the joy of breathing. No, it was Ruth, the G.I. Jane of community yoga. There would be no balance today. That is to say, Ruth would almost certainly push us to try some crazy arm-stand balance pose that would make me want to cry. But this class was not going to be a restorative, re-centering practice.

I wanted to just sit it out. I was tired. I was stressed. I was not in the mood to be pushed. But I have been trying to coast the kids on sticking with their commitments. Sitting on the lounge while they did their kids yoga class would be a little hard to explain.

So I did it. It was really hard. I was sore for three days after.

Something else has lasted even longer than my sore muscles however. That night I learned that balance might actually be about Enough.

The only way I was going to get through yoga that night was by doing Enough, and not too much. If I tried too much I was not just going to be waving my arms, I was going to fall on my head. So I didn’t. I pulled back.

It was so hard to do. I have always been an over achiever. I get far too much of my ego from accomplishments, and I have a driving need to be the teacher’s pet. Whenever there is an invitation to “challenge yourself” I try to take it. The encouragement at the beginning of class to “only do what is right for you today” never feels like it applies to me.

But this time, it did. It was humbling, but it was also balancing. Enough is a really solid place to stand.

I have tried to hold onto this lesson in the days that have followed. I have mostly failed. I said “no” to one request today, but “yes” to too many others. I still feel pummeled by Excess and Lack. I am still wind-milling my arms in a frantic attempt to avoid the plummeting fall. But when I have realized this, I have just repeated the lesson. “That’s OK. ‘Enough’ is hard. You can’t expect to get ‘Enough’ right on the first, or second, or tenth try. Just trying to do ‘Enough’ is Enough for now.”

And so I am writing this post – my one hundredth, a post that I had wanted to be beautiful, and poetic, and perfect – with a fuzzy head that doesn’t feel like I am really saying it all clearly Enough. But I am still writing, and praying, that maybe tonight my Enough will be a gift to someone.

The Christmas tree is still up, and giving mute evidence that the kiddos have a hard time locating Enough as well.

The Christmas tree is still up, and giving mute evidence that the kiddos have a hard time locating Enough as well.

 

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Waiting for the Bus: A Poem for Everyday Motherhood

With our return to the States, my little family has been introduced to a classic American ritual: the twice daily wait for the school bus.

Not only for Princess Imagination, but also for me, this is an entirely new experience. Having had a relatively unique elementary education in the comfort of my own home, my limited experience with school buses had been transportation for summer camp day trips. These memories are fuzzy: mostly involving the slightly sweet smell of childhood sweat, the uncomfortable sensation of legs in short cotton shorts sticking to vinyl seats, and the awkward anxiety of hoping to find a seat buddy who would be friendly to the shy, gangly girl who didn’t really know anyone.

Thankfully, Princess Imagination is forming much different associations with the school bus. The news that she would finally get to take the bus to and from school (rather than suffering – apparently – under the chauffeuring of Mommy) was one of the greatest benefits of moving back to the States and a new school. In her mysterious world, the chance to take the school bus is unaccountably afforded a rank of high esteem. She had repeatedly begged for this privileged transportation to her expat school in Italy, but that service came with a heavy price tag and I liked the chance for regular contact with the place and people who filled her day, so her pleas were emphatically refused. When we finally arrived in the US only to be marooned temporarily in out-of-district transitional housing, she visibly chaffed at the delay. It was unclear whether the chance to take possession of her fondly remembered “flower room” and be reunited with all her toys from the overseas shipment, or the chance to finally start taking the bus, was the more desired objective.

Now that this elusive goal has finally been grasped, she is glorying in the possession of it. No longing for a bus buddy for Princess Imagination. Despite my perpetual fears that my shy, introverted daughter will be haunted by my own childhood traumas, she has had no trouble making friends for the circuitous ride through the neighborhood. I hear more about these girls than most of the children in her class; each day her backpack is crammed with little notes and art projects they have made together on the ride; and today, when one of these girls was absent, she came home with a present from an entirely new friend whom she had never met before today but who was apparently captivated enough by my sparkling daughter to give her a color-change pencil.

Clearly, the bus is living up to all of her glorious imaginings.

My feelings for the bus, however, are not so sanguine. I am no longer fearing that she will endure the painful social awkwardness I faced. I am not suppressing panicky anxiety at the thought of my sweet baby stepping out of my protective sphere of influence (Little Miss Independent’s confident attitude – and the strong safety record of the school buses – make any such fears feel absurd). I am not even missing the sense of connection to the world where she spends her days (thanks to a teacher who is highly accessible via e-mail and several chances to get involved in class parties and PTA activities in the first few months). No – none of these typical and understandable associations with bus transportation are polluting my pleasure at the arrangement’s convenience and the satisfaction my daughter finds in them.

Instead, I am struggling with a banal but nevertheless alarming frustration. I hate waiting for the bus. It’s boring. It’s this weird, brief interlude in my day that gets under my skin and itches just enough to make me realize how pampered and self-centered my life can become in the blink of an eye. So this poem is both my confession, and my appeal to all the other moms out there who struggle to find meaning in the moments of daily drudgery.

Five Minutes

It’s only five minutes to stand on my driveway,

eyes fixed on the curve of the road;

squinting to read the black, block numbers in relief on school bus yellow;

the number that will distinguish her bus from all the others that lumber past;

alert for one whose speed slows just a bit more than the bend demands,

for the signal of my relief: the slow, quiet flash of yellow lights.

*

It’s only five minutes to stand in the cold, or the sunlight

not seeing the evergreen trees that line the drive;

not thanking them for the oxygen they give to fill my lungs;

not noticing how the fresh, clean air has cleared our habitual winter sniffles;

not marveling at the play of light and wind that make

the small ice crystals dance across the white expanse of winter lawn.

*

It’s only five minutes to shuffle in empty irritation,

without activity to keep me moving,

without tasks to keep accomplishing,

without the comforting jolt of anxiety to keep pushing me to do,

without the distraction of a broom, or a box, or a phone

that can fill any empty space in my soul with the command to attend to outside demands.

*

But…. I could be five minutes to breathe in the beauty of my surroundings;

eyes stroking the soft and sharp lines of snow on pine;

ears dancing to the rhythm of small animals rustling in the dense brush across the road;

senses drinking in the intoxicating scent of freshness;

skin relishing the chill that very soon will be removed with jackets

as our warm, dry home embraces me and my daughter together.

*

It could be five minutes to anticipate my daughter’s return;

to savor the sweet curve of her smile in my mind,

to know how it will float down the steep, bumpy steps

propelling her toward me with news of her day,

and also to remember the content of her daily schedule so that,

if her words lull, I can be ready with questions that will speak of my eagerness to know.

*

It could even be five minutes to commune with my God;

to contemplate the beauty surrounding me, and it’s source;

to appreciate the provision of this space to stand and wait;

to know, to really know, that I am blessed;

and to allow my heart to well and overflow

with thankfulness that changes simple moments into shining drops of time.

*

But it is only five minutes;

and so, most days, I stand and wait in shuffling impatience,

straining against inactivity,

made jittery by wasted energy that can’t be bothered

to fill up five minutes

with meaning.

 


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Listening

This entry began more than a week ago. We were entering the last week of our 28-day whirlwind trip to California without Daddy and it was bedtime. For the last 8 nights the kiddos had been sharing Gra’ma’s living room floor with relative peace, thanks to a couple of reasonably comfortable foam pallets and a schedule of full days that left them blissfully tired each night. On night 9, unfortunately, the situation had deteriorated substantially.

Actually, that lead-up is not really fair to Princess Imagination as it suggests sibling feuding as the source of the problem. The true friction was along the Mommy-Son fault line. I won’t dwell on the un-pretty details but to summarize: the Gigglemonster was offering a master class in the art of behaving like an over-tired, defiant, needy 3-year-old. After a slow start (during which I naively tried practicing my “positive parenting” skills by acknowledging his frustration before suggesting alternative ways to express it), I finally started picking up what he was laying down. Within about 45 minutes I was totally acing the test on combining petulance, whining, and stubbornness with my oral essay entitled “Fine! You can lay on the floor and scream if you want. I’m going to go cuddle with your sister because she just asked my sweetly!” Every true master, however, can deflate the ego of a self-congratulatory journeyman and my instructor was not about to concede the podium. His lecture in response was a masterpiece of manipulation along the lines of “No, Mommy! I’m sorry. I’m listening now. I will lay down in my bed. I will listen. Please don’t leave me. I need you!” Oh crum! Now what do I do? I need to reinforce his decision to calm down and try to use this opportunity to get him to sleep, but his sister really did ask so sweetly and it’s not fair to give him all the attention just because he’s tantruming. My fumbling response was a quick hug and cuddle to the Gigglemonster and a promise to be back soon, then 5 minutes with Princess Imagination singing and rubbing her back (marred by anxiety lest my absence spur a renewal in my instruction), concluding with cuddling my now docile professor just as long as he wanted. Eventually the course concluded with a demonstration of exhausted slumber and I crawled to my own bed eager for a fresh start the next day.

Unfortunately, the pale light of that day revealed that the master-class turned show-down had produced a casualty, and, as so often happens, it was the innocent bystander who had been hurt. I didn’t notice the injury at first, because I was distracted by my internal debriefing about the strategies employed by both sides in the conflict. My analysis focused on the pivot point of the confrontation, and the unsettling impression left by the Gigglemonster’s radical switch – “now I’m listening.” Is it really listening if he only wrestled control of his behavior after the threat of my removal? I wasn’t convinced, but I struggled to formulate any alternative strategy that could produce from him more genuine “listening” to my pleas for cooperation and consideration of the needs of the whole family.

Ironically, I think Princess Imagination had to ask me about three times before I actively listened to her request that I come with her to the bathroom. When the plea finally penetrated my distracted mind I was confused.

“Sweetie, why do you want me to come with you? You can go to the potty by yourself.”

“Please, Mommy! I just want you to come with me. Please come.”

I was confused, but finally compliant. The mystery resolved itself as soon as the door closed.

“Mommy, I feel like (the Gigglemonster) gets all your attention at bedtime, and it’s not really fair. I don’t ever get to have you cuddle with me for a long time and he always does. It makes me feel sad that you never give me attention.”

I don’t imagine that you need to be a parent to guess at just how painful that particular blade is when it twists around in a mother’s insides. Princess Imagination’s complaint might have been worded in more absolutist terms than are strictly true, but the general complaint was valid. When it’s just me and the kids, my son and youngest offspring tends to “need” a lot more of Mommy’s time and attention, especially at bedtime, whereas my older daughter is wonderfully independent and generally able to soothe herself to sleep with limited parental involvement. It’s not a willful preference on my part, of course, but the imbalance in bedtime attention is indisputable.

Aside from the massive lump of guilt that threatened to strangle my tearful apology, I had two lingering reactions to my daughter’s calm, quiet plea for more attention. One was actually mingled pride and joy at the way she had expressed her needs. Joy that, at 6 years old, she is already showing such emotional control and clear communication skills, including the patient strategy of contriving a private, focused context for presenting her clearly worded complaint. Pride because I get at least some of the credit for this, considering that I have (inconsistently, but intentionally) modeled for her this type of calm presentation of my feelings and observations. In whatever context, it is one of those priceless parenting moments when your child shows that they have understood the lessons you have tried to teach. On the other hand, the context in this case gave me no cause for pride. Princess Imagination had recognized the need for this effective model of communication because it was apparently the only way to focus my attention on a very legitimate complaint. At least, I assume that she had determined this strategy to be the only way to get me to listen that didn’t involve following her brother’s tantruming example (which she has learned generally gets less traction from her because she is “older”). That’s not really the stimulus I wanted for fostering my daughter’s emotional maturity and communication skills.

Princess Imaginations request was successful in drawing my attention, not only to the imbalance of bedtime attention, but to the problems with my attention more generally. Put simply, my attention is usually focused on what I am trying to achieve, as opposed to understanding the needs of those around me. Thus began my week of trying to actually practice the behavior I am constantly requesting from my children: “listening.” Listening to the sounds of rising tension in a game in the next room and interrupting my own activity to help diffuse the tension before it erupts into fighting and tears; Listening to the sadness in my husband’s voice as he comes home for the fourth straight week to an empty house, and recognizing that a daily phone call is really important even though we will be home in just a few days; Listening to the pain of other family members who are going through life-altering challenges and trying to remember to offer comfort rather than unsolicited advice.

This discipline of intentional listening brought with it a realization: listening is really hard work! It requires putting aside your own agenda, whether that be the activity you were engaged in or your own thoughts on the topic at hand, and instead focusing your attention on what the other person thinks is important.

Our family recently began another discipline as part of our nightly dinner routine. We each have our own hand-made “Bible memory book” containing passages of scripture we want to learn my heart, and we quiz each other each night on these verses. The very first passage I chose for this task was James 1:19b-20:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. For man’s anger does not produce the righteous life that God desires.

When I memorized these verses my attention was focused on the part about anger, but the past week’s reflection has reminded me that being slow to become angry comes after being quick to listen. Listening to what other people need provides the foundation for being able to respond to them in a way that accounts for those needs. Of course, I can’t meet every need of every person all the time, but if I can at least strive to listen long enough to understand them.

And yet, this is precisely opposite to the way that I, and I think most parents, usually talk to my children about listening. Instead, “listening” is more commonly a word of command, as in “listen to me and do what I say!” I learned the Italian word for listen (ascolta), very soon after moving to Italy precisely because I heard it so constantly in the interactions between parents and children on the playground. Actually, you hear it frequently in adult conversations as well. The energetic Italian matron who helps me with  house-cleaning every other Saturday frequently prefaces her remarks to me with the phrase “Serena, ascolta…”. It is her way to gather my attention so that she can make a suggestion or ask a question. It is her way of politely, but directly, insisting that I focus on what she is saying.

The use of this phrase in Italian interactions may be more ubiquitous than in American conversations, but I don’t think that reflects an underlying cultural contrast. When it comes to listening, Americans (like Italians and I would guess members of most Western cultures) are generally primarily interested in demanding that others listen to them. Just consider the level of political debate in the U.S. From campaign “debates,” to radio talk shows, to Facebook comment threads, everyone wants to be listened to, and scant few demonstrate the capacity or willingness to really listen to anyone else. I am clearly guilty in this regard so I don’t make these observations from any moral high ground. Rather, I confess this difficulty as a serious challenge to the daily demand I make of my children.

How can I constantly ask my children to do something that most adults in both my native and temporary culture find so difficult to do? I expect this of them as though it were such a simple thing. And in one way it is. In the past two years I have learned again that comprehension comes before speaking in language acquisition. But, listening requires more than just the capacity to comprehend. As Princess Imagination so powerfully reminded me by sequestering me behind a bathroom door, listening requires also the ability to attend – to block out other stimuli in order to focus on the person speaking. True listening requires one more component as well, the receptivity to hear the other person’s perspective without interrupting this attention with a reversal to one’s own needs and point of view.

That requirement became all too clear to me on our 19-hour journey back to Milan on Thursday & Friday of this past week. Countless friends and family members have expressed some level of awe that I routinely make this transcontinental journey as a solo parent. I generally down-play the difficulty with some remark about the kids being really good travelers or the lessons I have learned about equipping myself with adequate entertainment and snacks for them, and I often throw in a little anecdote about how impressed my fellow-travelers express themselves to be at the end of most of our flights. Well, this last trip eroded my self-congratulatory confidence just a bit.

It’s not that the kids acted horribly, they just didn’t want to sleep. This trip we had departed from our usual preference for a long red-eye flight from the west coast to Europe and a short second flight to Milan that would land us home around dinner time. Instead we had departed from California in the early morning to make our transfer in New York and then fly directly to Milan for a morning arrival. It is not a terribly significant difference for adults, who can mentally adjust our internal clocks to a 9-hour time change. For the kids, however, it was a disaster. The early departure virtually guaranteed a longish nap on the first flight, which left them wide awake when we took off for our 8-hour flight across the Atlantic. Mommy, of course, hadn’t taken a nap earlier because I understood that the precious 8 hours of flight time would have to encompass both our dinner and our only sleep for the night. I tried to account for the kids’ west-coast time orientation, but when my watch showed me that there were only 4 hours left in the flight I got serious about bed time. Unfortunately, the kids didn’t want to “listen” to my demands that they go to sleep. They weren’t tired, and there were so many more interesting things to do, like watching movies on the personal entertainment device, or investigating the wealth of toys and books and snacks that I had so cleverly packed into their carry-on bags.

The next several hours demonstrated just how far I have to come in my effort to become a better listener. In that dimly lighted cabin, surrounded by sleeping passengers who weren’t likely to compliment my children’s docility on landing if we woke them up, all I could focus on was my need for the kids to be quiet and go to sleep. I cajoled, I hissed, I issued toothless ultimatums. None of it was successful, and none of it attended to my children’s needs. The Gigglemonster said he was hungry. “Then you should have eaten earlier when I was offering you food.” Princess Imagination wanted her backpack. “No, it’s time to sleep,” followed by “Fine, but you have to be quiet!” And my crowning parenting moment (delivered through angrily clenched teeth): “If you don’t stop making noise, I am going to take away all your cars!”

It’s not that I was wrong in my goal. We did need to be quiet so that other passengers could sleep, and we would have certainly benefitted from getting some rest ourselves (the last 3 days of painful jet lag are ample evidence of that). But my children were right too. They had needs that they were trying to express to me, and they couldn’t just suppress them because I was hissing at them to listen to all my practical reasons why they should go to sleep. Maybe if I had taken advantage of the available snacks promised by the business class menu the Gigglemonster could have filled his stomach with more substantial food and been able to get to sleep. Maybe if I had offered Princess Imagination her books, rather than free access to her whole bag, she could have settled down with a less-stimulating activity. Maybe if I had remembered that the Gigglemonster needs my physical presence to soothe him to sleep in unfamiliar beds I could have earned us both a few hours of rest. Maybe if I had listened, rather than just demanding that they listen to me, I could have actually achieved my own goal.

And so, as I struggle to emerge from the time-change/jet-lag fog that has held my family captive for the last three days (and nights!), I am confronted by the question of just how to teach my children and myself the skill of listening. It’s an important thing to be able to do. It’s a skill that could help our family to be much more connected and could help each of us individually to communicate much more effectively. I am beginning to understand, however, that it is not the simple task I imply by my frequent demand for my children’s attention. Especially, it is not easy for them to learn it when I am so inconsistent at modeling it for them.

It’s not impossible. Princess Imagination proved that she has listened to my teaching about how to share her feelings. I’m so proud of, and challenged by, her example. The last week hasn’t defeated my ambition to both practice and require respectful listening.  What it has taught me is that teaching and practicing listening skills starts with genuine attention.

I think it’s time I stop writing and start offering some of that attention now.

(We had a lot of fun on our trip too, so the pictures celebrate the joyful time)

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Good Enough VS. Good Guilt

In a recent post I shared about my not-so-innocent addiction to the little source of electronic distraction and entertainment that spends its days nestled in either my palm or my back pocket(see https://faithfamilyandfocaccia.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/my-innocent-addiction/). A dear friend of mine responded on Facebook. One response was indirect –  a link to a Pure Derry article farcically linking childhood weight loss to motherly obsession with my phone game of choice: “Candy Crush Saga” (CANDY TO BLAME FOR DRAMATIC WEIGHT LOSS); the other was a personal note to me gently suggesting that I am a bit too hard on myself.

I certainly enjoyed the entertainment offered by the article (I laughed so hard I cried when I read the allusion to a printscreen as an enticement to marital union). I also deeply appreciated the encouragement offered by her personal comment, and for several days it would return to me when I was feeling frustrated by my own failure to live up to the mothering and partnering standards to which I aspire. She’s right I would say to myself, my children are doing fine. They love me and they know they are loved. I can’t be perfect 100% of the time so I shouldn’t beat myself up when I hide in the bathroom just to get away for 2 minutes. The determination to rid myself of my addiction and to strive to be a more engaged and responsive mother and wife slowly settled back into the reassuring philosophy of “good enough” parenting. My cold-turkey detox from Candy Crush relapsed, and my husband kindly beat level 29 for me so that I could interact with the game in a less obsessive mode (the fact that I am currently engaged in a fruitless struggle to earn 3 stars on level 32 is beside the point). Everything was good. I had confessed my failing, exposed my dirty laundry, and instead of retribution and shame I got to laugh and feel reassured that at least my children weren’t being nutritionally deprived. I could stop worrying so much…except for this nagging feeling that I had lost an opportunity.

I mentioned in my “addiction” post that its appearance in the world of the web had actually been long-delayed by my secret fear that publicly sharing my struggles with electronic distraction would require me to do something about it. The old adage “the first step is admitting you have a problem” suggests that such an admission gets you stepping, moving, along the path to change. And it did get me moving for about a week. Then, I started to reassure myself with the “don’t be too hard on yourself” messages, and very soon my steps reversed themselves. As long as you don’t play when the kids are home it’s fine…never mind that your peripheral vision occasionally throbs with shadowy enticements of “stripy” candies next to “cupcakes.” The next step in the mental anesthesia progressed to, they are busy playing in the other room, I can check my Facebook feed… if the sound of John Stewart draws their curious attention to a video clip that might not really be that appropriate, I can forgive myself for that one little exposure, right?

I really love the idea of the “good enough” parenting philosophy — the perspective that getting too up-tight about all the little stuff actually detracts from the parent-child bond and disrespects the child’s need to learn about and make their own decisions in the imperfection of reality. The problem for me with this philosophy is that, in daily practice, it plays upon my tendencies toward laziness and self-justification. However well-intentioned they might be, encouragements to stop judging myself are not really what I need. What I need are encouragements to keep working to achieve the good that I want for myself and my family; encouragements that the effort and ‘sacrifice’ required to achieve this good are worth it.

This realization really came home to me in a discussion with the ladies in my Thursday morning Bible study group. Through a rather circuitous route that I can no longer remember we arrived at a discussion of the role of guilt in our lives, and whether guilt could be a good thing. As I listened to the sharing of these lovely, thoughtful women, I found my own voice articulating the reason for my discomfort with “going easy” on myself. Comparative morality doesn’t move me toward growth. There is always someone I can point to who is far more guilty that me in any particular area, and (often) despite this failing they are still doing alright by common social standards. If my bar for adequacy is doing better than most, then I can usually meet that standard in the areas I really care about, so there is no incentive to try harder. But “better” is not really the best that I want for myself or my family. In contrast, guilt (or conviction, as my friend Dawn clarified) can actually be a gift. Good guilt can focus my attention on the truth that there really is something in my life that is hurting me or someone I care about, however comparatively insignificant the hurt. Good guilt can motivate me to keep striving to live the life for which my renewed soul longs, and not to collapse into the numbed stupor for which my tired body, or spent emotions, or overwhelmed mind temporarily years.

The other clarification I have been coming to in my own spiritual journey is that I need to attend to the source of motivation in such efforts at self-betterment. The appeal of “good enough” parenting is that it rejects the false mission to earn my personal value or self-esteem from being a perfect parent. Such effort at proving my own worth is not only doomed to fail, it is in many ways arrogant idolatry! Of course I will never be the perfect parent, and trying to be one will make me crazy, so it feels logical that the better path is to relax and just try to be “good enough.” But this philosophy assumes that the motivation for parental striving is the achievement of perfection, and implicitly the consequent proving of my own worth as a parent.

But, in my opinion, that’s the wrong approach to parenting. My personal worth is not determined by whether or not I am a good mother. Rather, parenting is an awesome opportunity to pour into the lives of two little people I love intensely in a way that can potentially help them to grow into better people than they would otherwise be. My own worth is completely unrelated to that task. The payoff for my striving has nothing to do with my value, it has to do with the intrinsic joy of giving good things to my children. Thus, the more successful my striving, the more joy I have. It is the same principle that has transformed my personal life of faith. I want to live a holy and blameless life. I know I will never completely succeed, and that’s OK. My standing with God has nothing to do with my personal morality because Jesus took care of that for me already. But I still want to life a good life. My freedom is in the fact that such living does not earn me anything, and thus I can pursue it just because it is actually the best way to live. It honors the God who gave me everything I have and it makes me happy in the process. Sometimes that means decisions that feel like sacrifices in the moment (just as parenting sometimes requires ‘sacrifices’ like listening to the slowest reading ever of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe rather than checking my Facebook feed), but ultimately it makes me less self-involved, which makes me happier.

This is a lesson that I want to teach to my kids in both my words and my deeds.  I want them to make good decisions not in order to prove that they are good people, but because the decisions themselves are actually good. This is so important because the reality is that they will screw up sometimes. It’s just reality. Those failures do not have to be a catastrophe unless their success or failure in reaching whatever standards they have set for themselves determine their personal value. A real danger of our self-esteem obsessed culture is that failure is interpreted just this way. By never wanting to tell our children that they failed, we set them up to be devastated by failure when it inevitably occurs. Of course, it is important to give our kids positive messages about their self-worth. I want my kids to love themselves and see themselves as intrinsically valuable… but not as perfect. As much as I love them – I know they do lots of things wrong! And if I didn’t tell them that I would turn them into either spoiled brats or psychopaths!. They need to know that they make mistakes and that these mistakes give them a chance to learn and grow and do better next time. This growing can be a joyful (if sometimes painful) process as long as their performance is not the source of their ultimate value. That value comes from their identity as children of a loving God, just as mine does.

So what does this mean for me, in both my personal development and my parenting? Well, I have realized that there are times when “good enough” is an important message. For example, Princess Imagination loves to sing despite the unfortunate reality that she struggles a bit to carry a tune. A friend who was playing at our house pointed this out to her, and we had a good discussion about how she can enjoy singing even if some people don’t think she sings very well. As long as she enjoys singing, it is “good enough” and she doesn’t need to worry about reaching an external standard of perfection.

BUT, I don’t think the “good enough” consolation is appropriate when I, or my children, or perhaps you recognize a flaw in our behavior or our character that makes us unhappy. That is the time to strive. We will certainly fail repeatedly in that striving. But when we do, the kind of encouragement we need is the kind that says – it’s still a good goal. Get up and try again. And if a little guilt about the failure gives us the kick in the pants that we need. Then I say that guilt can be good.