Practicing Parents

A Litany of Failure


By Erika Marksbury

Every winter, we ski. I’ve only learned to ski in the past few years, and being leisurely is more fun for me than being speedy, so my husband usually takes our older kid on the downhill slopes while the younger one and I head for cross-country trails. A few weeks ago, we bundled up, drove to a new (to us) lodge, stepped into our proper footwear, and headed out into the snow. We made our way together to where the faster ones got in line for the lift, and then Beckett and I found the signs pointing to the cross-country trails and took off in that direction.

It was a disaster. We made it about a hundred yards. But to really get to the trails, the ones that would take us back into the woods and on a great winter adventure, we had to climb a hill. Not a steep hill, but enough of one that I had to turn my skis out to hold my place once I’d gained some ground. And enough of one that poor Beckett never made it up.

He’d make some progress, and slide back. He’d get up, and take a few more steps forward, and then begin to slip, losing all the distance he’d traveled. He’d get up again – not easy, with skis twice as long as his body – and take some more steps. He’d make it almost to where I was standing, and begin to lose his balance, and end up on his bottom at the bottom of the hill.

I was a pretty terrible mother through all of this. Because I’m a pretty terrible skier, too. It’s hard for me to stay on my feet. And I didn’t want to risk the half-hill I’d climbed to that point. So I mainly stayed put, skis aimed outward, and cheered for my kid. This was not as helpful as I might have been.

I eventually started to feel bad about it, so I made my way back down toward him. I landed on my butt at about the place he was struggling to get up off of his. We both got up, took a few steps together, and began to slide, backwards, together. We fell, of course. This was probably his tenth time on the ground. He’s got a good spirit, but he’s five, and I wanted him to have some fun.

I said, “What if we go back down to where it’s flat, in front of the lodge, and ski around there for a while?” He liked that idea. And to try to keep the mood festive instead of frustrated, I added, “You know what? I’m having a good time. I like this. I like being out in the snow with you.”

And he said back cheerily, “I like failing with you!”

It took me aback a little. I don’t remember introducing him to the idea of “failure.” I wondered if I was mishearing – maybe he was saying “falling” with that unidentifiable accent that sometimes slips in – so I asked, “Do we fail together a lot?” just to get a better sense of his understanding of the word.

“Oh yeah!” And he began to list our joint failures: craft projects that ended up as disasters; cooking experiments rendered inedible; that one time we tried to help grandma clean and ended up losing her jewelry. When I sent him to school without a lunch. When I said I was done yelling at him and then proved myself a liar. And on and on.

I started to feel bad that I’d asked the question. And even worse that, in reply, my kid had a litany of failures he could rattle off to me. I wanted him to stop talking. I wanted to tell him I was sorry for all of those.

I decided to keep listening instead. It was humbling. I was a little unsettled that he remembered so much I’d apparently quickly put out of my mind. He just kept going. Honestly, it’s an impressive list of failures he’s retained and can recite.

And then I realized: there was no judgment in his “failures with mom” list. My kid was telling me stories of times we’d spent together. And they hadn’t gone exactly as we’d planned, or hoped. At times they’d gone horribly awry. Often it had been my fault. But he laughed as he remembered. And eventually, I did, too.

And I realized it’d be ok if we never made it up that hill. Add this ski trip to the litany. We were having a great time on our butts, laughing at ourselves. We were total failures.

Sometimes I imagine that there are standards for success in parenting. Just the right balance of tending to one’s own needs while ensuring the needs of one’s child are met. Just the right combination of patience and creativity and care and toughness. Making sure there’s time for play and prayer and reading and getting dirty. I’ve read the articles about hugging my kid when I’d rather yell at him – they’re right; it works. I often remember that advice just after I quiet down.

I’m never going to get it all right. But when I realized there was no judgment in my kid’s voice, I could silence, for a moment, the critic in my own head. And what a life-giving turn it is, when a litany of failure begins to sound like a song of grace.


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