Four months of lockdown with other people will bring to light everyone’s most exaggerated versions of themselves, parents and children alike. One of my favorite by-products of that exaggeration has been my kids’ on-point observations of me and my husband, their entertaining impressions of us and their maturing generosity around our shortcomings and failings. I have never enjoyed being made fun of (does anyone really?) but my kids’ observations are so hilarious, so well-meant and so perceptive that I can’t help but laugh and appreciate them. My older boys communicate their perceptions via TikToks that mock our parenting style and annoying rules. My daughter’s observations usually start something like “I know you may not want to hear this but…” and then she shares a mind-blowingly perceptive insight. And my youngest son, armed with the world’s most delicious dimple, peers over his graphic novel and launches into a spot-on, deadpan impression of our conversational tics, “Sure…Right…100%.” (Occasionally the kids even dish out some good-natured impressions of their grandparents too.)
This process of being on the receiving end of my kids’ “feedback” during lockdown has provided two important benefits to my time-suspended life during these endless days. One, their feedback is helping me on my LIFELONG journey toward getting better at taking constructive criticism. I’m about 17% of the way there — only 70 more years and I’ll be really excellent at receiving criticism graciously. And two, my kids’ feedback helps me truly appreciate how they can recognize my fallibility and laugh about it, communicate it and accept it (most of the time.) That may sound like no big deal, but that realization and my peace with it is it’s a long way from the kind of parent I was when my kids were little. I was so terrified of messing up in front of them or worse, losing my cool — shouting, crying and swearing at them. Back then, I felt like I needed to present as a picture-perfect parent in order for for my kids to feel safe and believe that they had a good mother — whatever that even means. Somewhere along the way, however, I recognized that perfection didn’t need to be the goal as a parent, it was kind of like hoping to score a touchdown in a soccer game: mismatched, hopeless and not useful to anyone.
I don’t remember exactly when I dropped the aspiration to the perfect front because it has been a long, slow, messy process, but I do remember one particular moment when I knew my kids not only saw my fallibility but also had healthy, constructive insights into it. My husband had been away for a week and I was home alone with my four kids, then aged 4 to 11 years old. The family room was a mess, dinner was burning on the stove, I hadn’t showered that day and I still had bath time and toothbrushing ahead of me (my most dreaded kid-related activity ever.) Out of frustration, I stormed into the family room, dropped a choice expletive at my 11 year old son and stormed out, only to then lie face down sobbing on my bed. What was wrong with me? Who drops the F-bomb at their 11 year old? Why couldn’t I just hold it together for one more hour until they were in bed and then self-soothe with a glass of white wine and trashy TV? I took a few deep breaths, wiped the tears off my cheeks and walked back into the family room to apologize to my son. He looked up (having cleaned the disaster area that had set me off) and said: “That’s OK Mom. I know that it’s really stressful when Daddy is away and when you say the “F word” I just know he’s been away too long.”
My mind was blown. Not only did my kid accept my apology with incredible grace, but truly, for the first time, I felt that he saw me as a human being. Not just saw me as his source of hot dogs and cut strawberries and Pirates Booty and clean laundry and rides to soccer games, but saw me as a human being who makes mistakes and is deserving of forgiveness. Until that point, I had been so focused for so many years on putting up an infallible parenting front for my kids because I thought that was what they needed, when really, it was more important that they saw my imperfections. They needed to watch me screw up and come back and apologize because it helped them understand how a family works; what is stressful and what is hard; how partnerships can succeed and how they can be strained; that every person has her breaking point and needs help to find a way home from it. And even more than that, in order for my kids to see me as human, deserving of love and forgiveness, grace and generosity, they also needed to see the messiness, the mistakes, the anger, the sadness. My imperfections became the window through which my kids could recognize me as a whole human being the way I recognized them as whole human beings.
So now, seven years later and in lockdown, episodes like that seem to occur on a nearly daily basis. Emotions are VERY close to the surface. Patience is hanging by the thinnest of threads. Everyone is feeling the strain of this time. Frankly, all of our language has gone down the toilet, so F-bombs are the least of our problems, but I am often coming back around to apologize or explain my over-reactions or asking for a do-over (our favorite Dynamo Girl expression.) At the same time, with the passing weeks, my kids’ constructive criticism becomes more perceptive and honest and funny and nuanced as they hone their understanding of their parents as whole human beings. Instead of those insights making my relationships with my kids worse, the stress of this time, the honesty (with boundaries) and repeated parenting do-overs have actually strengthened and deepened our connections. By moving the goalpost of our relationships away from perfection and toward humanity, we are loving and supporting each other in new and more powerful ways. My own fallibility, my screw ups, my asking for forgiveness has provided our family with more truth and love than my abandoned perfection ever could have. It’s also a lot funnier.