June 8, 2020

Motherhood at a Glance: Strengthening A Vulnerable Relationship With Your Children

We are back after a week of muting in solidarity with the Black Community during these trying times. We are still standing with them and doing what we can in our homes and our hearts to continue to fight against racism and pray hearts to be softened and minds to be educated.

This week's feature writer is my friend, Joy Madsen! Joy currently lives in the San Fransisco Bay Area with her husband and four children where they do their best to brighten their little corner of the world. Which, I have experienced being friends with Joy - she is always thinking of how she can make someone smile! Before starting her family, Joy earned a bachelor's degree in English Literature from Brigham Young University. She is such a sincere and honest mother and friend. I'm so excited for you to read what she has to share today! 

It didn’t take long for my first child to utterly break me. As a very young, ridiculously inexperienced mother, I had had idyllic visions of what motherhood was going to be like and it was only a matter of days after my oldest daughter was born when those visions lay shattered at my feet while I sobbed in my rocking chair where I was supposed to be making blissful, bonding memories with my baby. 
She must have been three days old the first time I really thought I must not be cut out to be a mother—what millions of my predecessors and peers had seemingly fallen into so naturally, effortlessly, and flawlessly was something that felt incredibly foreign to me. It was difficult, and I am the furthest thing from flawless—maybe even especially in my motherhood.

I think I was younger than most when the pedestal my mother lived on crumbled. I was 13 when she revealed her hidden prescription drug addiction and subsequently attended a rehabilitation center while I was a freshman in high school. But in every memory leading up to that year she exists in a state that’s godlike and perfect—she could do no wrong and I adopted her opinions, her attitudes, and her behaviors as doctrine because they were never presented with any doubt, so when my mother fell she fell far and hard, and it shook me to the core. To this day I’m working to reconcile my happy early childhood memories with what I know now, and I think it will be a lifelong endeavor for me.

The reality is, though, that we all have moments similar to the moment my mom fell from perfection. We all come to points in our lives where we realize that the seemingly transcendent beings we call “Mom” and “Dad,” are, in fact, mere mortals who make mistakes and say the wrong things and overreact and fall painfully short of perfection constantly. And I think the mistake I initially made when approaching motherhood was thinking I was going to to be different—I was going to do it right. I would not fall from the pedestal my children had me on because I wouldn’t do it wrong in the first place. But that idea was as short-lived as it was impossible, and I think it’s what left me feeling so broken so early on as a mother. How was I supposed to never fall off my children’s pedestal if I couldn’t even get through the first three days without yelling at my tiny, perfectly innocent (albeit purple-faced and screaming) newborn to just latch already?!

The nature of a parent-child relationship in which the parent is portrayed as doing no wrong is that the child ends up carrying more than her share of the guilt and blame for things, and this has certainly been true in my relationship with my mother. I can’t remember her ever having apologized to me for anything—for neglect while she was high, for the feeling of abandonment I endured when she left me with her parents while she went to rehab, or for any of the chaos, confusion, and hurt that came as a direct result of her mistakes. Obviously there doesn’t have to be an apology for there to be forgiveness, but I have come to believe that there’s healing in a relationship that comes from an apology that’s not possible without one—and to this day, 17 years later, that’s the place my relationship with my mother sits. I’ve forgiven her, but she has yet to humble herself enough to apologize, which is something that I believe would soften both of our hearts immensely. 

If I wanted to avoid the fate of my relationship with my mother with my children, it became immediately clear that I had to figure out a way to do it that didn’t involve just being perfect, and so I decided my children would, instead of seeing me as transcendent and godlike, need to see me exactly as I am: flawed, learning, and trying my hardest despite the seemingly endless stream of mistakes that is a result of my humanness. And in order for them to see me that way, I was going to have to be the one to tell them when I was wrong; I was going to have to apologize for my mistakes and paint a clear picture in their minds of their mother as human and vulnerable and very capable of failing. 

It’s not necessarily comfortable to sit down with someone to whom you are the entire world and tell them that their world is actually riddled with faults, but isn’t that the reality for all of us—whether we’re talking about our figurative parent worlds or the real one that we participate in as adults? The world is far from perfect, so what good are we doing our children if we try to create a false sense of perfection in their childhoods? Of course it’s our job as parents to provide safety, stability, and routine for our children to feel comfortable in, but I believe those things can exist right alongside our open imperfections as both humans and parents.

I’m hoping that when my children get older I won’t take an earth-shattering plunge off of an imaginary pedestal in their minds from feigned perfection to my true, flawed nature, but that instead, as they gain experiences and see different things they’ll form their own opinions and gain their own wisdom, and that those things will draw them closer to me instead of pushing them away—that they’ll be able to come to me in their learning and their mistakes and their discoveries because I was their first example of learning and making mistakes and discovering. 

It turns out I just don’t want to be on that pedestal at all.

These experiences and this inner dialogue have cultivated what I believe is one of my greatest strengths as a mother: my ability to be vulnerable with and apologize to my children. Once I decided I was going to apologize often and openly to my children it came incredibly naturally. I apologize after I’ve yelled, or gone into a fit abut the state of the house. I apologize when I realize I haven’t been as present in a day as I’d like to. I apologize when I act annoyed at something my kids have asked me to do or to clarify. I apologize when I forget things—from picking up the thing they requested in the drive-through to ceremonies at school. 

I want my kids to remember me this way, as raw and vulnerable and human. I want them to remember that sometimes I yelled because I was stressed about something that was going on with our extended family and so I was already on edge, or to know that life has felt heavy lately so I spent more time than I should have on my phone, or that I really didn’t mean to forget the orange soda she asked for, but that it completely slipped my mind when I ordered everything for everyone else. Some of these things certainly are easier to apologize for and explain than others, but I can’t tell you how much better it makes me feel when I’m able to sit and look into my kids’ eyes and explain to them why my behavior has been less than exemplary. 

During these conversations I also always try to open myself to hearing their feelings. I ask them if they want to talk about what they’ve felt, I ask them if what I’m saying makes sense, and I ask them if they’ll forgive me. Children are so inherently forgiving, and time after time they forgive me even when I feel unforgivable. 

I find them giving me grace regularly now. I’ll make some error and before I can even apologize they’ll remind me that everyone makes mistakes and we can always try again, and I hope that’s a grace they’re learning to extend to others as well as to themselves.

I genuinely believe that my children are becoming more emotionally self-aware because of these talks. I try to help them identify feelings in themselves similar to ones I’ve expressed. For example, when my oldest overreacts to something my youngest has done I can come to her and say, “I think you yelled at your sister partly because you were already feeling frustrated with your homework before she started playing with her loud toy,” and she can recognize that connection. It’s a beautiful thing when I’ve asked my children why they’re giving me so much attitude only to have them say knowingly that they’re tired and feeling emotional. Conversations like that are helpful as a parent, when I sometimes want to push further and my kids are able to tell me they’re not in a mental or emotional state to tolerate it it’s a lot easier to drop things to be picked back up at a better time.

So how do we go about trying to be better at vulnerability and apologies with our children?

I think it’s important to recognize the behaviors in yourself as a parent you like the least and to then work backwards. 
We need to figure out why some days we overreact more than others, why we struggle some days to put down our phones and be present, or why we just don’t want to play make believe with our kids sometimes. Of course some of the mistakes we need to apologize for (like forgetting things) come simply as a result of being human, and that’s great too. But identifying some of the bigger things can really help when it comes time to talk to our children.

Once we’ve figured out why we act in certain ways it’s important to think about how we want to present those things to our children. My kids may not understand if I just say “mommy’s anxiety is a little higher than usual today,” and I never want to worry them with too detailed of a description, so it’s nice to figure out what our children can process. I can easily say “today I just feel like I have a million things to do, and so when you made that mess it made me feel like I had a million and one things to do and I felt overwhelmed” and know that they’ll understand what it is I’m feeling.

And, ultimately, we have to just start apologizing. I like to do it as soon as I’ve cooled down enough to do it, or as soon as the behavior happens depending on what’s going on. Kids are so responsive to being included in the conversation, and their unfailing forgiveness makes it easy to want to apologize to them. The weight that these conversations lift is incredible, and since I’ve been better at letting my kids know when I’m sorry I’ve found I so much less frequently come to the end of my days feeling riddled with guilt and regret and shame. 

All of this, of course, is most meaningful when we also rededicate ourselves to trying again tomorrow to do and be a little better, and I also think it’s important to let our children know that that’s what we’re doing. Just because our children forgive us for things doesn’t mean we intend to keep doing them, and I like to let my kids in on what I’m trying to be better at so that they can be aware of that part of the process too.

Parenting is so incredibly challenging, and none of us are capable of doing it perfectly, but I’ve found so much peace in becoming more open with my children about my humanness. When we humble ourselves before our children it’s so much easier to give ourselves grace even on our hardest days because we know they’re not expecting perfection from us. Our kids don’t need us to be on a pedestal of perfection to admire us—those pedestals will undoubtedly fall at some point. They need us to love them, to protect them, and to do our messy, imperfect best day after day. 

Your kids need YOU exactly as you are, and they need to learn from you—even in your mistakes.

Thank you so much to Joy for sharing such a wonderful insight and strength she has cultivated in her motherhood! Honestly, this is not something I even truly considered yet, being a mom to such young children. But I am so grateful knowing there is power in being vulnerable with your children! 

As a recap, here are the three main tips Joy shares:

Have regular, real conversations with your children to allow them the opportunity to understand you better.

Look inward to recognize and access the reasons why you may be reacting the way that you are.

Apologize often and sincerely to your children while also rededicating yourself to a better tomorrow.

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