I made a mistake a few weeks ago. I double-booked myself, and it wasn't just a coffee date. My double-booking meant that one way or another, I was going to disappoint someone close to me. I was embarrassed and so disappointed in myself.
I told this story to my best friend and she responded (as she always does) with grace and empathy. "I feel like you're describing my life," she said, "so I'll tell you what I'm sure you'd tell me. Everyone makes mistakes like that sometimes." She went on to say that she was beating herself up for a similar error but listening to me tell my story reminded her to offer herself the same grace she was offering me.
When we care about people, we gladly and generously share the encouragement and truth they need in moments of struggle or weakness. We offer solidarity and a "me too," and we believe these things for them. So why is it so hard to believe them for ourselves?
At 1 year old, my oldest son Ian received a set of magnetic blocks for Christmas. They've gone on to become one of the most used toys in our home—the boys can spend hours every day building towers, houses, and cars. The thing about Magnatiles, though, is that they are a bit wobbly. You can imagine what this is like for a toddler with chubby hands and a limited understanding of physics.
If Ian's structure fell, he would always scream, knock the rest of it over, and throw himself onto the floor in a fit. He's grown past this a bit, but now my youngest has taken up the habit. So, wherever you find Magnatiles in our home, you'll likely find my boys' tempers lurking.
We spend a lot of time talking about how it's okay when things fall down. That we can rebuild, and that sometimes it's just the nature of the game. We talk about taking deep breaths and trying again. And again, and again, and again.
Once, while I was still pregnant with my youngest Leo, 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. 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 okay, Mama. You build new house!"
A few weeks later, the same thing happened. 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 okay, Mama. You no need be sad."
I wish I recorded videos of those little moments, so I could play them back for him in the future. 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 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 loved. You are enough."
I know that in those sweet moments, he was mostly mimicking me. He heard me offer those same phrases many times before. Today, he tells his little brother not to worry, only to quickly follow up with his own frustration-fueled meltdown. But you know what? I think there's value in the mimicking. Maybe if that thought—it's okay, 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 a tantrum is during the terrible twos. I have hope.
This is the thing about parenthood: I need the reminders as much as my children do.
Motherhood helps me recognize my own weaknesses while learning to help my children avoid the same pitfalls. I don't want failure to derail my boys and their sister the way it often has derailed me. I want them to know their identity is not molded by their achievements, friendships, or reputation.
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 for fear of knocking them over. We'd build with enthusiasm instead of the fear of making mistakes along the way.