I recently listened to Liz Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast, and she said that we should speak to ourselves the same way we speak to our very good friends.
When I am writing, I’m quick to think, “This is terrible and boring, and no one will ever read it. I am a terrible writer.” But if a good friend was struggling with writer’s block, I would tell her, “Keep trying! You are a phenomenal writer. The effort is worth it, regardless of the outcome.” With motherhood, I think, “I am terrible at this! I can’t believe I’m so impatient.” But I would tell my friend, “Motherhood is hard work, and you are the best possible mother for your children.”
When we care about people, we gladly and generously share the encouragement and truth they need to hear in moments of struggle or weakness. We offer solidarity and a “me too” as a shoulder to lean on. And we believe these things for them. Why is it so hard to believe them for ourselves?
Ian received a set of Magna-Tiles for Christmas, and he loves them. He will spend hours every day building towers, houses, and cars. The thing about Magna-Tiles, though, is that they are a bit wobbly. There are limits to how secure you can make them, so you can imagine what this is like for a toddler with chubby hands and a limited understanding of physics. If his structure falls, he almost always screams, knocks the rest of it over, and throws himself onto the floor in a fit. Wherever you find MagnaTiles, you can find Ian’s temper lurking.
He and I spend a lot of time talking about how it’s ok when things fall down, we can rebuild, that’s just the nature of the game. We talk about taking deep breaths and trying again. And again, and again, and again.
Several weeks ago, Ian grabbed my hand and sat me down on the living room floor. “Build big house, Mama, pwease,” he said. I’m no architect, but I set out to build the biggest house our stash of magnets would allow. But I didn’t have the exact pieces I needed to make it sturdy, and I kept bumping it with my clumsy hands. (The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, perhaps.) The fourth or fifth time I knocked it over, I let out a loud, “Ughh!!”
Ian looked up at me and said, “That ok, Mama. You build new house!”
I wish I recorded a video of that little moment, so that I can play it back for him in the future. Then, every time he knocks over a block tower, can’t sound out a word, or doesn’t make the team, I could gently remind him, “Try again, sweet boy.” Each time he grows frustrated, loses hope, and needs to be reminded of who (and Whose) he is, I can remind him: “Deep inside, little man, you know the truth. Failure is fine. Mistakes are good. Let’s try again. You are brave. You are beloved. You are enough.”
It happened again last night. I made a batch of meatballs to serve with spaghetti, only to realize that we didn’t have any pasta sauce in the house. In moments like that, I am likely to succumb to the inner critic who says that I will never be able to get my act together, can’t remember a simple thing, am terrible at this housewife gig. These small mistakes reveal that I am still struggling with perfectionism in the worst way.
Just minutes before, Ian had been dancing around the kitchen yelling, “Hooray! Yummy meatballs! Hooray!” I looked at him and said, “Ian, we can’t have meatballs. I forgot the sauce.” I expected a meltdown, but he looked at me and gently said, “That ok, Mama. You no need be sad.”
I know that in those sweet moments, he was mostly mimicking me. He has heard me offer those same phrases many times before. Just a few minutes after my own MagnaTile house collapsed, he built a truck, it crashed, and he threw a fit. It’s happened a million times since then, too. But you know what? I think there’s value in the mimicking. Maybe if that thought– “it’s ok, deep breath, try again,”–crosses his mind every time a tower falls, he will eventually internalize it. The deep breaths and second chances will become second-nature, as much as the temper tantrum is now. I’m not sure. But I have hope!
This is the thing about parenthood: I need the reminders as much as Ian does. Motherhood helps me recognize my own weaknesses while learning to help my boys avoid the same pitfalls. I don’t want failure to derail my boys the way it often has derailed me. I want them to know their identity is not molded by their achievements, friendships, or reputation. Their identity is formed fully and completely by merit of being a beloved child of God, a friend of Jesus.
Maybe if we actually believed the things we say, the entire structures of our lives, vocations, and relationships would feel less tenuous. We’d believe that even if they got knocked down, we could put them back up just the same as before but with the weaker areas reinforced, stronger in the long run. We’d step less gingerly around them for fear of knocking them over. We’d build with enthusiasm, not afraid of mistakes along the way.