I watched him walk bravely with the other kids as the swim instructor explained the rules. “Ok, kids, I’ll call your name, and you can follow me to your group.” The little brave blondie turned away in tears and ran into the shelter of his mom’s arms.
I didn’t meet the eyes of the mother in that moment. I saw her gentleness and patience with her son, and memories of my own failures began to rain down on me.
I immediately recalled a time when Jacob was 3 years old. We signed him up for soccer, and he loved practices and loved his first game. We were so proud of his bravery and invited our families up to watch a game.
We fully expected our 99.9% of the time obedient child to do as expected. We expected him to play the game. We expected him to have fun. We expected him to do exactly as he’d been doing. We didn’t expect what happened. And I certainly never expected to be the parent I was that day in that moment where my child didn’t do what I expected of him.
My too-high, unfair expectations set my child and me up for failure that day.
The ball was in play, and my always-obedient child ran off the field in tears, refusing to play. This couldn’t be. He had to play. People were here to watch.
Rather than trying to understand his fears and tears, I became the parent I never wanted to be on the sidelines of a sporting event. I wasn’t one of the screaming parents fully displaying their folly. I was worse. From a distance no one saw the anger simmering inside of me. My child saw. I was parenting from pride. I failed to see that this was abnormal for this child and seek to understand his feelings. Instead, I focused on not getting my way. He wasn’t doing what I wanted him to do. It wasn’t turning out the way I planned for. It was completely out of my control. My pride stepped in and tried to take control.
It’s one of the moments of mothering I wish I could erase from my memory forever. I held him tightly and told him he had to play, he had no choice. I threatened him with anything he loved. Forget bribery, I went the opposite direction. Whatever pressure he felt multiplied by 100 in that moment.
I placed the weight of my parenting pride on the shoulders of my 3-year-old and expected him to carry that load. A load too great to bear.
The tone of my voice alone crushed his heart. The anger in my eyes cut him deeply.
The worst part is that in those moments, it was all about me. I was not parenting my child out of what was best for him. I was parenting out of what was best for me. I didn’t want to look bad. I didn’t want to disappoint his teammates. I didn’t want the coach to be frustrated. I didn’t want our families to feel they wasted their morning to come watch him sit on the sidelines. It was all about me, and I gave no thought to the pressure this placed on a little 3-year-old. My first child.
All over a silly soccer game played by a handful of 3-year-olds. In hindsight, it is ridiculous. In the trenches of motherhood, issues and battles can disguise themselves in clothes 3 sizes too big.
I wish some wise mother on her 3rd or 4th child had come along in that moment and saved me from my failure. I wish she had gently laid her hands on my shoulders, hugged me, and said, “Motherhood is hard. They will not always do what you want them to do. They are their own unique little self and were not created by God to be robots or clones of you.”
I wish that mother in my imagination had said, “Try to become him in these moments of frustration. Try to see the world through the eyes of a 3-year-old. Try to see how confusing this soccer game is for him. Try to feel the pressure he feels if he messes up. Try to imagine how scary life may feel to him at times. Then let him know that none of it matters. Hug him tightly and tell him you love him. Encourage him and cheer him through his fears. Don’t belittle him because you feel like a failure.”
I wish she had said, “Success in motherhood isn’t based on what your child accomplishes or how well they perform. Success in motherhood isn’t raising a child that does everything your way or the way you plan. Success in motherhood is that you raised a child that knows 2 things: They are loved by God unconditionally. They are loved by you unconditionally, no matter what they accomplish or how they perform. Let them know you love them.”
I wish she had shaken my pride right out of my bones so I would have viewed my child with tenderness and compassion in that very moment.
That wise mother never came along in that moment. But my Heavenly Father was right there with me the entire time. Where I failed to encourage my child, the Lord didn’t fail me. Where I failed to speak kindly to my child, the Lord spoke kindly to me. Where I failed to have compassion for my child, the Lord had compassion with me. And His kindness led me to repentance.
The Lord was kind to me in showing me my weaknesses so I could cling to Him to make me strong. The Lord was kind to show me that to mother well, I need to cling to Him moment by moment. To love my child unconditionally, I need to bathe in His love for me.
The smell of chlorine and the sounds of splashing little feet brought me back into the current moment. I sat watching my 3rd child as a 5-year-old taking swim lessons for the first time. I don’t care how he performs – I just want him to know I love him and love watching him do what he loves. I now realize that if he has a melt down at some point during that lesson, it’s not the end of the world, it just means he needs me to help him, love him, and guide him. I now realize that I’m parenting for my child not the assumed watchful eyes of all the other parents around me. I now realize that to be a great mother means to love in a way that leaves no room for pride to elbow its way in.
The mother at the pool that day reminded me of this lesson I wish I had known with my first child. The lesson that I now realize makes all the difference in the world when we hit the moments with our children when they don’t do what we expect them to do.
I watched as this mother held him, comforted him, and assured him it would be alright. I don’t know if she wondered how many parents were watching her as their obedient children did what they were told. I don’t know if she wondered if all eyes were on how she handled her child’s tears and cries at the poolside. It certainly seemed she didn’t give it a thought. In fact, she parented as if it were just the two of them in that moment.
She listened to his fears. She showed him patience and understanding. She didn’t belittle him. She didn’t let his fears and reactions influence how she loved her child in that moment. Together they sat on the side of the pool while he watched the kids in his group begin their lessons.
I wasn’t listening as I watched from afar. But it appeared that she didn’t rush him to hurry up and get in the pool before the lesson was over. She didn’t hurry him to perform. She gave him space to be a kid. She gave him freedom to be afraid. She gave him space to understand his fears. She gave him patience while he worked through it all. All the while, she stayed by his side – encouraging, supporting, and loving. From the other side of the pool, she appeared to give not a thought to anything other than allowing her child to work through his anxiety on his own time while she stood cheering him on, assuring him everything would be fine. She loved him well in that moment.
And you know what happened? That child got in the pool. His mom stayed close for a time until she realized he was fine and she moved further away. The end result – her child did what she wanted. But in the process, he felt loved, protected, understood, and secure. The end result was beautiful.
In comparison to my soccer game failure with my 3-year-old many years ago, I didn’t get the end result I wanted that day. He didn’t play the game. I still didn’t get my way. But in the process I left scars on both of our hearts. I sought forgiveness, and I know I’m forgiven. Scars can’t be erased, but I know the Lord doesn’t want me to be haunted by regrets. The Lord forgives, the Lord restores, the Lord redeems. And He is faithful and trustworthy. He uses all things for good, and I’m grateful He allowed me to see the depth of my mistakes and turn away.
These are the lessons I wish I had learned before parenting my firstborn child. I wish I had learned to think like a kid rather than parent based on what others thought of my child and my parenting skills.
Just as our children fear, we fear. Just as our children grow, we grow. Just our children fail, we fail. Our Father is right there with us. He is growing us through our fears. He is picking us up from our messes. He is loving us unconditionally. That gives me what I need to love my children well. It makes me love Him more. The more I love Him, the more love I have to love my children well.