Last week, as I was getting ready to attend a fancy law firm event as my Smartner's formidable arm candy, my eldest Smartling joined me at the bathroom mirror to watch me get ready. It's a special time for her, my little cosmetics-loving 7 year-old, because I rarely wear anything beyond sunscreen and tinted lip balm. She was eagerly rummaging through my paints and powders, watching me apply face-colored lotions to my face to make it look more appropriately facelike,* begging to try things on, and gently stroking my makeup brushes against her own face, when she asked about the event I was getting ready to attend. That's when this exchange happened:
Smartling: What are you going to again?
Me: I'm going to an event to meet other lawyers from Daddy's old law firm.
Smartling: You're going to meet Daddy's friends?
Me: Kind of. They're all people who used to work at Daddy's old work, but at different times, so most of them will be new to us. I'm a little nervous, because I haven't met any of these people before. But we'll all be nice and have a delicious dinner.
Smartling: Be brave, Mom! You'll make new friends, and then you can give yourself a sticker for being brave!
A few days after our conversation about courage over assorted beauty implements, my big girl offered up a glimpse into her own efforts at being courageous. "Mom," she said out of the blue as we were eating dinner, "Did you know I'm not the shy girl anymore?" "Really?" I asked, not knowing that she had previously considered herself "the shy girl." "Nope!," she chirped. "I've been practicing being brave! Today I volunteered to play an instrument by myself in music class, and I've been raising my hand in class every day this week!"
Herein lies one of those great ironies of parenting that surprises me over and over again. Our kids really benefit from seeing our weaknesses and from seeing us struggle to overcome them. So often I find myself straining myself painfully to perform parenting - to act like I've always got a plan, maintain a firm grasp on every situation, that I'm In Control, when really I'm flying by the seat of my very comfortable pants almost all the time. I put on this show expressly for the children, so that they will feel secure knowing that they're cared for by a competent mother. But perhaps what they really need, what they'll really learn from, is by seeing me work at being this mom-character I present to the world. They need to see behind the curtain, to watch the work that goes into being an adult, a woman, a parent, so that they can replicate it as they grow into being their own people.
Learning who you are, growing into who you want to be, and functioning in the space between the two takes thought, effort, and, sometimes, stickers. Showing our children both why we work at our goals and how we do it is scary. We don't like for them to see us as weak, as works-in-progress, as possibly fallible and, therefore, undependable. But it's through watching us reach, try, fail, and try again that they see ambition and resilience at work, that they see the effort of growing through adulthood. It's a risk being vulnerable in front of our children, and it is one worth the discomfort.
I used to have a postcard of the above quotation above my desk in graduate school and later in my office when I was teaching. I found it reassuring to remember that failure isn't just possible, that it's, in fact, a sure thing when one attempts, when one tries, when one grows. I know my children know this because so much of childhood is lived through experimentation, failure, and then re-experimentation. I don't know that they knew that much of adulthood is lived in the same exact way. But by making my own struggles transparent and marking my small victories I hope to instill in them the knowledge that we're all just trying here, sometimes successfully, sometimes woefully, but always resiliently, hopefully, and bravely.
It's time to find that old postcard and hang it up again, or maybe tape it into the back of my Passion Planner where my sticker chart lives. And when I do, I'm going to go ahead and give myself a sticker for being brave.
I want this one, too.
*I will never fully understand the practice of wearing makeup, but I do it anyway.