A tampon, a nickel, and a tooth...and a parent-teacher conference that taught me about motherhood
‘Tis the season of the parent-teacher conference...
...and even though my last of 5 children just moved on to college, I’ll never forget the anxious feelings I wrestled with before those meetings, as well as one of the most important parenting truths I ever learned from it that’s still impacting me a decade later. You see, back in the parenting season of pediatric well-checks and parent teacher conferences, I was addicted to the charted progress reports confirming my children’s academic, social, and physical progress. I liked the measurable results that clearly validated all of my parenting investment. Any lagging behind certain percentiles was like getting a “D” on my own personal parenting report card. Because I firmly believed that my children’s successes or failures were in direct correlation to my parenting skills. But in October of 2007 at 4:07pm, during my youngest son’s parent-teacher conference in Mrs. Haugen’s second grade classroom, I learned a profound truth that forever changed my perspective on parenting. I remember the time vividly, because I was running late for our appointment that started at 4:00pm sharp. Parent-teacher conferences were scheduled as back-to-back fifteen minute slots that started and ended firmly, and as PTA president that year, I’d been in charge of communicating to parents about the importance of honoring the schedule. [Side note—I believe I was recruited to be in PTA leadership because of my knack for party planning, but I secretly hoped that by taking on this role that the elusive skills of organization and promptness would manifest upon me.] Not. Even. Close. Being a parent, or PTA president, didn’t change how I was wired. It just made my weaknesses affect more people. I’m a chaotic whirlwind of energetic ideas and radiant creativity. In other words, I’m also chronically late, massively disorganized, confounded by clutter, and frequently forgetful. I exist in a constant state of feeling “not enough” or “too much.” Mean people would probably call me a flake, or even a total train wreck. I know this because it’s what my inner mean girl has been whispering inside my head for my entire life. Unsurprisingly, at 4:07pm, I illustrated how to be a train wreck by rushing into Mrs. Haugen’s classroom late, tripping and losing the grip on my purse, and scattering a crap-load of purse clutter everywhere. I dropped to the ground and frantically gathered loose change and feminine products from underneath the desks. I even found Caleb’s tooth that I’d stashed in my purse weeks before, and suddenly remembered I’d forgotten to be the Tooth Fairy again. And I also remembered the day I’d put his tooth in my purse, and my son's response when I’d told him we’d save it for the Tooth Fairy that night. “Don’t worry about it, Mom. I know the Tooth Fairy isn’t real, because she always forgets to come. If she were real, she’d remember.” So there I was, halfway into a parent-teacher conference, on my hands and knees under a desk holding a nickel, a tampon, and a tooth—feeling like an utter failure and trying not to cry. Mrs. Haugen sighed, looked at the clock and told me there was really just one thing she wanted me to know. She walked over to Caleb’s desk and invited me to come take a look. Inside his desk were two meticulous stacks of books and folders. Perfectly sharpened pencils lay side-by-side, in order of largest to smallest, all exactly in line by their tips. Erasers and paper clips were organized by color in neat little rows. She told me that Caleb’s desk had looked like that every day since the beginning of school, and that he was the most organized, responsible kid in the class. She’d also known his two older siblings, and said even though they had different personality types, when it came to organization and responsibility, they were just like Caleb. His teacher explained that most second graders’ biggest maturity struggle was the increased demand for responsibility and organization, and many of her parent-teacher conference conversations revolved around helping parents instill these skills in their kids. “I’ve always wondered what kind of magical parenting strategy you used," she said with a strange smirk on her face, "and then I got to know you.” And then his teacher said the most profound thing ever: “I've finally figured out your parenting secret. Your kids have learned to compensate for your lack of organization. They've had to build their skills in order to survive, and they are THRIVING because of it.” I will never forget these words. And I’m still not sure if it was supposed to be a parenting compliment or a slam, but I didn’t care. Because I realized this was a truth that God had been whispering to my heart that I’d been unable to grasp: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) These words have rooted inside my mama brain ever since. And they’ve changed my life, because I’ve learned to embrace a new perspective on my weaknesses, and how God covers me with his grace and strength.
Now on the days I feel like a failure—on the days my inner mean-girl whispers I'm "not enough"—knowing these truths are what keeps me sane:
- Our flaws are not failures; they're part of our authenticity.
- Our imperfections don't mean we love our children less.
- And our kids will grow because of what we’re doing, and despite what we’re not doing.
And most importantly:
We are enough because HE is enough
Parents—we can’t do it all. We can’t be it all. We're not perfect, and we’re not meant to be. We're not God, and we’re not the God of our kids. Our kids’ successes or failures are not a direct result of our parenting skills or a reflection of our love for them. The most important thing we can do is be authentic and unconditional. We need to love our kids boldly, and model what it's like to love ourselves boldly too--imperfections and all. And then we just have to hang on and remember to trust God with it all. Somehow He has this thing figured out. He loves us, and He loves our children more than we can imagine. And He fills in the gaps on our behalf. My son, Caleb, who was the second grader in this 2007 parent teacher conference, is now a freshman in college. We just returned from a visit for parent’s weekend (no parent-teacher conferences required!) and he seems to be adjusting well. He’s navigated a bumpy class registration process on his own, hasn’t yet missed a class, and has joined some academic and social clubs without any hand-holding. And of course, his desk is just as meticulously organized as it was in second grade. The only thing I complained about was his lack of calling and texting often enough, and as we hugged goodbye in his dorm room I reminded him that his mama still needed to hear from him even if he didn’t still need me. I tried not to cry as my husband and I walked to our car, thinking of my baby boy who’d grown into this fine young man. Suddenly I heard his voice yelling “mom!” and saw him running down the dorm stairs towards us. Assuming he still needed one more hug from me, I turned to embrace him. “You forgot your purse!” he laughed, and tossed it to me. Thankfully he remembered to zip it first.
Digging Deeper: Devotion Questions for Reflection
If you’re human (guessing you are) you can probably relate to feelings of weakness or inadequacy—especially when it comes to parenting teenagers!
- What “not enough” thoughts do you have about yourself?” (go ahead and list ‘em on a piece of paper)
- Read and reflect on 2 Corinthians 12:5-10. Now read it again, and ask God to reveal His presence in these “not enough” statements and how to lean on His strength in your weakness. Ask Him to show you some ways how you or your kids might have learned or grown from the times you thought you failed, Thank God for how His grace has covered your gaps, and how His love for you and your children is unconditional.
- Now write in large letters over your “not enough” thoughts: “I am enough because HE is enough.”