Turning to the Perfect Parent when you feel like the worst parent

This morning my husband took both our boys to a toddler group specifically for dads and their children, so I took myself and a book to a coffee shop! It was glorious! I was reading a book about homeschooling and it was discussing a theory by Alice Miller (who sounds fascinating – I’d love to read more about her thoughts). My book said this:

“Alice Miller has long been a rare voice in the field of psychology to recognise that deciding what is good for a child and then forcing this so-called good on them by any coercive means possible is highly damaging to personal integrity and rational thought. Miller defines abusive behaviour against children very broadly to include many of the more subtle forms of manipulation which children experience. She posits that since there is a wide conspiracy to redefine this abuse as ‘acceptable parenting’ for the child’s own good, the child, in order to survive, has no choice to repress his or her feelings and idealise what is actually a painful situation.”

This reminded me of a conversation I’d had with Boaz only a few days earlier, and sent me into a total crisis of confidence about the way I’ve been parenting him. The conversation had gone something like this:

Me: Boaz, I think you’re quite tired. Let’s go for a nap.
Boaz: (going as slowly as possible up the stairs) Mummy, I saw a boy today who didn’t trust his mummy.
Me: What makes you think he didn’t trust his mummy?
Boaz: He wasn’t being obedient.

I nearly burst into tears right there in the coffee shop. Had I parented such that Boaz had now reached a point where obedience and trust were one and the same? Have I being coercing and manipulating him into doing what I think is good for him by making him believe he does it out of trust? Do I qualify as an abusive parent? What have I done?!

After a few deep breaths, a slurp of cappuccino and some chocolate brownie I was able to think a bit more rationally and see that my initial reaction was probably wrong. Actually, sometimes I do know what is best for my 3 year old, and sometimes he does need to trust me, even though it might not be what he wants to do. Like the other day when, having decided he wanted eggs for lunch, I asked whether he wanted boiled egg or scrambled eggs. He answered he’d like chocolate egg. Now, I know that that is not a nutritious lunch and is not going to be good for him. And, even though he might disagree and still want chocolate egg for lunch, I need him to trust me that I, at this stage, understand more about nutrition and so he can chose between boiled and scrambled egg only.  I don’t think this was damaging to his personal integrity and rational thought because I explained to him why I need him to trust me on this. I don’t ask him to trust me on everything, and if I do I explain why. And I don’t expect him to trust everybody – I hope that he is able to use his personal integrity and rational thought to determine who he can trust.

But I don’t suppose I’m the only one to feel wholly inadequate as a mum and enter into a total crisis of confidence every time I read a parenting book or article. Nor do I suspect I’m the only one to lie in bed at night listing all the ways I’ve failed and possibly hurt my children that day. There are two solutions to this. The first is we can ignore it and take a ‘meh, actually I’m doing ok’ approach; or we can turn to and trust in God the Perfect Parent.

The first approach is embodied in the phrase ‘you don’t have to be a perfect mum, you just have to be a good enough mum’. My dislike of this phrase is two-fold. Firstly, our mission as mothers is God-given. We should be aiming to continually serve God and fulfill our calling and vocation the best we can. In every other area of life we’re told ‘be the best you can be’, ‘strive for more’, ‘aim high’, but when it comes to motherhood we’re told it’s ok to languish in mediocrity. Secondly, ‘good enough’ isn’t actually mediocrity – being a ‘good enough’ mum means being a ‘perfect mum’, because our children are the children of God entrusted to our care. But we can’t be perfect. Any suggestion that we can is a lie, because we are sinful people and we cannot parent as God the Perfect Parent does. But we can turn to God the Perfect Parent in our failings and shortcomings.

One of our children is called Josiah, and this serves as a constant reminder to me that God’s sovereignty is so much bigger than my failings as a mum. If you recall, Josiah’s father Amon was a wicked and evil king (2 Kings 21:19-22), but of Josiah it is said ‘Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him.’ (2 Kings 23:25) Humanly, Josiah should not have been a great king, but he was, because God’s plans were greater than Amon’s wickedness. And I hold onto this often: God’s plans for my children and His love for them far surpass my weakness and failings.

But in turning to the Perfect Parent, we find more than an assurance that our parenting is not the only defining feature in our children’s lives. Paul says of sin and grace: ‘What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life’. (Romans 6:1-4) Parenting to anything less than the best of our abilities is sin (often manifest in my case as selfishness or idleness) – should we continue to parent like this so that the grace of God and the perfection of his parenting may abound? Paul says not. The sin of mediocre parenting is also to be buried, as we walk in newness of life.

And, as with all other aspects of life, God does not leave us stranded in coming to understand what it means to walk in newness of life as a mum. Those parenting books that leave us feeling useless? We should note those convictions of the Holy Spirit, rebuke the lies of the devil that say we are useless, and seek a way forward. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to highlight those areas of our parenting which we need to make a priority for study, development and prayer. Titus 2:3-5 reads: ‘Older women…They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and their children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.’ We can ask the Holy Spirit to help us discern which of these we most need help with now (I defy anyone to have nailed all, or any, of these!) and seek out Godly women to help us.

I’m not the worst mum in the world. But neither am I a perfect mum, or even a ‘good enough’ one. That place is reserved for God, and that liberates me from the fear that otherwise comes hand in hand with my failures. But I am also called to mother three of God’s children – it is a great privilege and a great mission. We cannot simply settle for mediocrity. With the convictions and guidance of the Holy Spirit we can identify the areas of our parenting that need to most immediately be a priority and seek the provision that the Perfect Parent has made for us.

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