Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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


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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.

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My “Innocent” Addiction

Hi. My name is Serena, and I’m addicted to my I-phone. I have been clean for about 30 minutes.

OK. With that confession out of the way, I want to apologize to anyone reading this who has had their life ravaged by addiction (be it to a controlled substance, or food, or gambling, or whatever). I know my addiction has not risen to the bar, or dropped me to the depths, that typically moves someone through the doors of a 12-step program. Nor is it so extreme that I expect my husband and children will be seeking consolation in a support group. I do really know that because I spent a year of my MSW program running a weekly spiritually group for homeless addicts in recovery in Trenton, New Jersey. I have seen just how destroyed rock bottom can be, and I’ve never been there. I’ve never even boarded the bus whose final destination is Rock Bottom. I have deep compassion for people who lose everything to addiction and awed respect for those who somehow find the courage to try to climb their way back up from the chasm. I would never make light of their struggles and strengths.

I borrow the language of recovery, however, because I can recognize the patterns of addiction, even in an apparently innocuous form. I see the classic subterfuge when I am hiding in the bathroom with my phone on mute so that the tell-tale sounds of yet another failed attempt to master level 29 of Candy Crush won’t betray the real reason I told the kids I needed “privacy.” I recognize the addict’s twitch when I hear my phone ding its  friendly notice that “I have mail,” and my instant reaction is to move toward the sound, salivating to my own personal Pavlovian bell. I blush at the misplaced priorities when I feel compelled to “just send this quick e-mail” to the random mom is my daughter’s class while that flesh-and-blood daughter lays waiting for me to read her bedtime story (Really? The clarification about next week’s field trip can’t wait 20 minutes?). These symptoms warn me that I am giving control of my time management, and my emotional equilibrium, and most importantly my attention, to an innocent little device that slides so comfortingly into my back pocket.

While I won’t elevate them with the label “rock bottom,” there have been a few moments in the last week that have made it impossible to hush a persistent little whisper in my mind that murmurs “danger, danger, you are losing yourself and your professed moral priorities to the herald of mindless distraction.”

The first incident was last Friday night, while my family was out to dinner at our favorite little restaurant just around the corner. To say it had been a hard week is rather imprecise, since that category can cover so many diverse levels of challenge. We weren’t in Boston (or Darfur, or Syria) so on one level we had no cause for complaint. But, we were dealing with the follow-up steps after a medical crisis in our extended family, and Tyler had faced some frustrations at work over and above the norm, and we had both missed our 7 hour nightly sleep minimum by a mile, so we were feeling drained and exhausted. Time to leave the cooking to someone else, and get away from all the mess in the house, and just enjoy a quiet dinner in familiar surroundings. While Tyler took the Gigglemonster to the bathroom Princess Imagination asked for her sticker dolly dressing book, seizing the opportunity to maximize her time with that coveted entertainment that is generally rationed out for pre-food restaurant moments like this. Rather than just soak in the few moments of restful silence, my hand groped in my purse for its little blue companion, and within moments I was washing my brain with the flow of status updates, political “posters”, and pictures of various cuties from my friends’ progeny that is my Facebook newsfeed. Tyler and the Gigglemonster returned from the bathroom with the news that he had thought about peeing standing up (but opted for the alternative in the end),  but the excitement of the news slipped away as our little man’s fingers locked on the he had left on the table and he was lost in the world of Cars2. I clicked on “just one more” FB post whose picture had caught my attention, when Tyler’s tired voice called me back to the present. “My daughter is playing with her sticker book, my son is on the Leappad, and my wife is surfing Facebook. I’m so glad I took my family out to dinner!” Oops! Sorry. The phone went back to the purse and I resolutely clenched my fingers for the rest of the meal whenever its dinging voice called for their companionship. I have a problem, I told myself. I need to set some limits, and I clearly need to set a better example for my children!

Fast forward to last night. The frequent post-dinner fog hovers over my exhausted mind in the indeterminate hour before 9:00 bedtime, and I have slipped into the wishful assumption that Tyler is moving the kids through the necessary preparations so that I can have 5 minutes of blissful vegetation. (He is actually asleep on the living room floor while the Gigglemonster zooms cars over his stomach and around his head, but his far more excessive sleep deprivation entitles him to this mini-coma.) Enter Princess Imagination, searching the house for a mother who has answered her persistent, eager calls for attention only with vague promises of “in a minute, Sweetie.” “Whatcha doing, Mommy?” asked with the bright-eyed curiosity that I pray she never loses. “Oh, I just want to finish this one post, Honey. I’m almost done.” I’m ashamed to admit that this satisfies her – my little Observer who sees everything around her as an opportunity to inquire and learn doesn’t even bother to ask what the post is about, or what it means to “finish a post” on my phone. That’s old news, and the quicker she stops bugging me the quicker I will finish and give her some attention – she has learned that lesson very well. I finish the sentence and click the little blue button to send my “wisdom” off into the world wide web, but the irony isn’t lost of me. The subject of my post? My two cents on a comment string from the “positive parenting” web group about dealing with toddlers who throw tantrums when rushed through daily tasks. And the irony? In my post-toddler-stage-wisdom I was sententiously preaching about how you need to make sure you build extra time into your routines so that your children can move at their own pace, not yours.

Zing! That was the boomerang of self-righteous superiority circling back to hit me right in the solar plexus.

After bedtime last night my soul was feeling a bit staggered from the force of the dual-blows dealt to my self-image by these two obvious failures to live up to my own standards for decent parenting and partnering. I sought healing in the pages of a book Princess Imagination had inquired about earlier. The Book of Dads is admittedly not written exactly to me, but its humorous and soulful reflections on the other half of parenting might still offer me some commiseration in my failings. The introduction was witty, and real, and just what I was looking for, and I dove into the first essay full of expectation that I had struck on just the right pick-me-up. This particular reflection was from a Dad experiencing the very earliest stages of fatherhood, but his comments reached back to a time before parenting, when he watched his sister mothering her children and was awed by her example:

“…it was her nonstop selflessness that intimidated me, how she gave so much of herself, always, every day, a perpetual gusher of soul and spirit that left me exhausted just watching it.”

I had to stop reading right there. It just hurt too much.

You see, my younger sister said something very similar to me once, as she watched me mothering Princess Imagination a few years ago. This was before the I-phone, but also before I had the luxury of so much work-free time. In fact, this wonder-filled comment about selflessness had come when I was working fulltime and caring for a toddler while pregnant with my second. How was it that just a few short years ago I really did think nothing of devoting every moment of the wake-time I had with my daughter to focusing on her needs, but now, when my daily routine includes 6 whole hours of child-free time, I couldn’t put down my web-conversation with perfect strangers to respond to her call?  I clearly have a problem. I have lost my bearings in the world of easy-access information and entertainment and I am worried that I am wasting the precious time I have to be a mother who is actually sought out by her children. Worse still, I worry that I am setting an example of disengagement and distraction that could trap my children in a lifetime of electronic addiction as well.

The I-phone: the miracle restaurant entertainment.

The I-phone: the miracle restaurant entertainment.

 

And so, I started this post with a confession, and I am ending it with a request. Please help. If you have struggled with this or a similar “innocent” addiction, I covet any advice you can offer to aid in my recovery. And if you are one of the readers who has contact with me in the “real world.” Please hold me accountable. You see, I started thinking about the danger of the technology-vortex last summer! It was going to be my third or fourth post. But other topics kept coming up that were more located in a specific moment. This was something I could blog about at any time. Besides, once I blog about it, I have to start doing something about it, and that might be too hard. But what would be really hard would be to gradually lose the most precious relationships in my life to the pernicious pull of electronic distraction. I would rather live the rest of myself without a single moment of electronic mail, or games, or status updates, than to see the light of excitement just to talk to me fade from my daughter’s eyes.