When Your Child Disappoints You (Or You Disappoint Yourself)
I don’t like to admit this, but I’ve spent a good part of my mothering career feeling responsible for every tantrum, every scowl, every less than desirable behavior my child revealed to me or to the world. If a child screamed at her sister, it was because I was not always gentle with my words and she was modeling my not-so-nice behavior. If a child threw a titanic tantrum, it was because I had failed in teaching her how to express her emotions in a healthy way. If my child showed any sign of insecurity, it was because I’d let her cry for .8 seconds that night when I was too exhausted to respond to her needs. Parenting was my highest calling (or so I thought), and it was up to me to rise to the challenge and to mold my children well. Any misstep they made was a reflection on me and the choices I had made as a parent. If they weren’t perfect, it was because I wasn’t the perfect parent.
This is no way to parent. It’s no way to live either. It takes the joy out of raising children. It makes every decision you make a test. It means you’ll eventually collapse under the pressure. Trust me. I speak from experience.
The problem was not my desire to be a good parent. God gave me this desire. When I first became a parent, it was out of love. I loved my husband. I could think of nothing more beautiful, more romantic even than to turn this love into something tangible – to create a child, to nurture a body, mind, and soul. My first baby came into my life, and all I felt was love. This was a good thing. I didn’t have to deal with fears of not bonding with my baby or postpartum depression, not with my first child anyway. But my overwhelming feelings of love made me forget something critical about parenting. God gifts us with children – whether biologically or through adoption – not only because we are creatures of love and have an innate desire to share this love, but because we need to be taught how to love. And children are very good teachers in lessons of real love – the kind that isn’t a feeling but a daily – or sometimes it feels by the second – decision.
Real love demands mercy. It also demands that I see myself as imperfect. But accepting my imperfections does not mean I’m a big, failing louse who screws up everything – including her children. I’ve made a lot of mistakes as a parent. I’ve done a heck of lot of things right, too. Yet, how my children behave, how they will eventually turn out isn’t all about me or what I did during their formative years. Parenting matters. Definitely. But I’m fooling myself if I think my children are products of my work and effort rather than people with innate desires, faults, impulses, wishes, gifts, crosses, and, yes, free will.
Looking back on my fears and insecurities as a mother, I see that my number one problem as a parent had nothing to do with me not loving enough. I was trying to love too much. I saw my love as a way to fix everything that was not perfect in my children. I could love my children into near-perfection. If I loved them enough and the right way, they would grow to be empathetic, caring, Godly women who never let boys hurt them, who recognized the redeeming value of suffering, and who always remembered to call on my birthday. I left little room for mistakes in my own parenting behavior or in my children’s. My expectations were out of whack. I told myself I was seeking to be a good parent and to raise good, God-ward children. What I was really expecting was perfection. I still struggle with this, but I’m getting better little by little, day by day, grace by grace.
Even now, when I lose my temper or my gentle approach to parenting dissolves almost as quickly as the tears trail down my children and my own faces, it’s almost always because my expectations are set too high and I’m scrambling for control. Why won’t my children just listen to me? Why won’t she just eat or go to sleep or stop poking her sister? There are days, usually when I’m more exhausted than normal and trying to do too much, when I try all the gentle, loving approaches, but the behavior still isn’t modified and I lose it. You will listen to me because if you don’t listen to me that means I did something wrong and didn’t teach the right lessons about respect and love. Says who? I’m my children’s guardians. I am here to guide them and give them boundaries, but I’m not their puppet master.
One of my children recently did something that not only surprised me, but it disappointed me. I’ve always worked hard to tell my children that I always love them and my love for them is not conditional on how well they perform. I’ve told them that they’re never bad, but their behavior sometimes isn’t good. This doesn’t take away any scrap of their dignity. We are all children of God even when we are very, very bad. I try to keep my admonishments from being personal, but this time it wasn’t just the behavior – an act that was so out of my child’s compassionate and empathetic character that disappointed me – I truly felt as if it was my child who let me down. Then I started to feel like I must have let her down for her to behave in this manner. But I took a deep breath before conveying any of this to her. And God gave me the grace to respond to the situation instead of to simply react to it. I’m so thankful for this because my disappointment quickly faded into the background and was replaced with gentle mercy for my child, my beloved child, God’s beloved child.
Her surprising behavior not only provided me with the opportunity to impart some important lessons to my daughter, but it gave me the gift of realizing how far I’ve grown as a mother.
When my daughter committed the recent offense, I felt disappointed, but I didn’t blow it out of proportion. What she did was not a reflection of me as a mother. Nor was it reflection on her as person. It was not a fearful premonition that my child was heading down a path of destruction. I didn’t condone what she had done, but I also recognized it as a sign that she was human. She is her own person, not a product of my own morality. She will make right and wrong choices. She will be like her mother – imperfect but still a beautiful, beloved child of God. My daughter as well as my own infallibility will sometimes disappoint me, but it won’t deprive me of thinking she is a valuable person and that I’m a decent mom.
I also was able to let go of what another person, whom I don’t know all that well, who happened to be the hapless target of my child’s aberrant behavior would think of me as a mother or of my daughter. No one can tarnish your reputation except yourself. Others might catch your otherwise saintly child having a really bad day, and maybe they will think she’s a beastly child and/or that you’re a lax mother. So be it. Their thoughts are theirs. My thoughts are my own. I don’t have to let what anyone says or thinks about me or my child impact the way we see ourselves or how I parent.
Now this particular person was very understanding. She understands child development. She knew that the behavior was an expression of a feeling that my child did not know how to express at the time, and she did not think my daughter was an unruly bratt (or she was really good at covering up how much she despised the deviant cretin!).
But this won’t always be the case. There will be people who judge me based on my children’s behavior or even their personalities. Just recently my children were perfect, little ladies at an adult bridal shower (other than Rae trying to nibble her toe nails during present time, but we’ll let that one slide). Someone told me how patient I seemed and what a great mother I was. It was easy for me to get wrapped up in that and to blush with pride. However, I can’t give myself too many pats on the back when things go right. On the other hand, no more scourging or blaming when my kids falter. Judgment – good or bad – can’t dictate how I feel about my maternal aptitude or how I feel about my children.
No one owes me their kindness or their understanding. I can desire this – that all people I encounter will see my children and me through God eyes and offer empathy rather than judgment – but I can’t expect it. Unrealistic expectations have a sneaky way of coloring your life a disappointing shade of darkness. I’m a recovering perfectionist; I’m through with feeling like I’m always falling short in the eyes of others (or in the eyes of my hyper-critical self). I don’t want my children to feel that way either.
So my daughter and I spoke and she tearfully, honestly, told me what had happened (she denied it at first), I patiently asked her why she thought she did what she did. “Because I didn’t want you to leave.”
She didn’t want me to leave. This was the feeling behind the bizarre behavior that wasn’t even directed at me. This was also, I realized, an opportunity to talk about some important things.
If my child cannot tell me, as the most authoritative figure in her life right now, what she is feeling – even if it’s a negative feeling directed toward me – then how will she be able to say no to her peers, to express just anger when someone wrongs her? How will she be able to speak up when someone does something that doesn’t jive with her morality, to be assertive with her emotions and to not hide them away or deny them or let them erupt like a volcano when she’s had it?
Her behavior was not acceptable, but her feelings were, and at least I could be proud that she found the courage to express the feeling. It was now my job to teach her to next time express her resentment in a more healthful way and to direct it toward the person she was angry at rather than projecting on someone else.
It was also my job to show her mercy. I have one very painful memory as a parent. I was depressed, but I didn’t recognize it yet. I’m not using this emotional sickness as a scapegoat, but there was something biological going on. I lashed out at one of my children. It will be a day that haunts me for a long time. But it is also a day that was redeemed by the mercy of my children. Hugs and kisses. Little hands wiping tears away. A small voice speaking softly and saying something beyond her years, “Only God is perfect.”
Only God is perfect.
And so I showered mercy on my child. My husband, when he heard about the recent incident, said we should think of some sort of punishment – taking a privilege away or something like that. I said she was punishing herself enough. Plus, she would be writing an apology note and taking money out of her piggy bank to help pay for a replacement for an item her hands had damaged. This was enough.
I’ll never disagree that parenting is a sublime vocation, but in the past I sometimes distorted my duty as a mom to being the most important thing I was doing. I’d forgotten that God was perfect, but I am not. I thought of myself a Christian mom, but I’d pushed God out of the picture. I was placing more confidence in myself and in my power over my children and their behavior when I should have been placing more confidence in my Father. My highest calling is not being a mother or a wife. It’s being a daughter of God. It’s serving and loving Him. When I put God first, I am liberated from allowing my disappointment in my behavior or that of my children to cloud my life and my dignity. I am free to love my children as God loves me – simply because they are mine just as I am His.