One thing about parenting is that you just never really get it. Each season of childhood presents new struggles and new puzzles to be solved. As soon as you feel like you have a handle on the challenges at hand, they change. New ages, new stages, new problems—new realizations about your own inadequacy as a parent. Perhaps that is the whole point of parenting… to be constantly humbled over and over again as we acknowledge before God that we have no idea what we are doing and desperately need His help.
Let me just cut to the chase. I have an anger problem. It’s something I’ve struggled with ever since my little boys were toddlers and unwittingly did things that exasperated me. Once, as a flustered young mother, I marched myself up to the Barnes & Noble Help Desk and asked the unsuspecting clerk for a book about anger management for moms. He looked frightened. I quickly explained that I didn’t mean yelling and throwing chairs or anything, just getting annoyed and not being able to get over it.
This is something I have been trying to study and pray about and understand for years. One thing that I’ve figured out is that I’m probably more irritable than angry. Maybe it’s a subtle distinction, but it helps me to see more clearly what I’m up against. I think I take my children’s disregard or disobedience too personally, and the resulting feeling is a gnawing frustration. This post is not meant to be a grand confession, but more of an explanation of the learning journey I’m on. Anyway, now that my children are approaching the teen years, I feel like I really need to get a handle on this because I don’t want to ruin our relationship in an already treacherous stage of their lives. I have got to learn how to relax even when I am being ignored or challenged. It’s not like my kids are the only delinquents in the world who sometimes talk back or ignore their mother’s instructions, right? Right? Please say I’m right.
I’m getting closer and closer to the magic answer—not the answer that magically makes them do everything I want, but the principle or doctrine that helps me know HOW to change my thoughts and reactions. I just wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned in the past couple years with the hope that it might help you see your own parenting struggles in a new way. I remember listening to a Julie Beck interview once where she talked about her scripture study giving her “bread crumbs” that pointed her in the right direction. That’s exactly what I mean. Bread crumbs:
- Ongoing repentance allows for repeated mistakes. I get really disappointed in myself when I want to do better, try, and keep making the same mistake anyway. In Brad Wilcox’s book, The Continuous Atonement, he shares an analogy of the priests blessing the Sacrament. They have to say the words just right, and sometimes they don’t. Does that mean failure? No, they can try it again and again and again, until the words are correct, and then it is “perfect” and blessed, and we all benefit. Elder Russell M. Nelson gave a talk called “Perfection Pending,” and spoke these reassuring words:
“My heart goes out to conscientious Saints who, because of their shortcomings, allow feelings of depression to rob them of happiness in life. We all need to remember: men are that they might have joy—not guilt trips! …brothers and sisters, let us do the best we can and try to improve each day. When our imperfections appear, we can keep trying to correct them. We can be more forgiving of flaws in ourselves and among those we love. We can be comforted and forbearing. The Lord taught, ‘Ye are not able to abide the presence of God now … ; wherefore, continue in patience until ye are perfected.’ We need not be dismayed if our earnest efforts toward perfection now seem so arduous and endless. Perfection is pending. It can come in full only after the Resurrection and only through the Lord.”
The lesson I’m learning is that mistakes—even continuing mistakes—are not failure. As long as I have a desire to improve, I’m on the right track. This is why Christ atoned for us—to give us the chances we need to try and try again. Failure is giving up and not trying any more.
- Weakness is not a sin. Acting out or speaking out in anger is a sin. I get that, and I have to repent when I do. But, my struggle with angry feelings is not a sin; it’s a character flaw. It’s a challenge and weakness of the “natural man” that I’m struggling to overcome. A little over a year ago in General Conference, these words from Elder Richard G. Scott jumped out at me:“The joyful news for anyone who desires to be rid of the consequences of past poor choices is that the Lord sees weaknesses differently than He does rebellion. Whereas the Lord warns that unrepented rebellion will bring punishment, when the Lord speaks of weaknesses, it is always with mercy.”
Then, just last month, in the Ensign, Wendy Ulrich had an awesome article called “It Isn’t a Sin to Be Weak.” Go read the whole thing, but here’s what stood out for me:
“We might define weakness as the limitation on our wisdom, power, and holiness that comes with being human. As mortals we are born helpless and dependent, with various physical flaws and predispositions. We are raised and surrounded by other weak mortals, and their teachings, examples, and treatment of us are faulty and sometimes damaging. In our weak, mortal state we suffer physical and emotional illness, hunger, and fatigue. We experience human emotions like anger, grief, and fear. We lack wisdom, skill, stamina, and strength. And we are subject to temptations of many kinds . . . We cannot simply repent of being weak—nor does weakness itself make us unclean. We cannot grow spiritually unless we reject sin, but we also do not grow spiritually unless we accept our state of human weakness, respond to it with humility and faith, and learn through our weakness to trust in God.”
I personally find it really comforting to know that I’m battling a weakness, something that God allows me to have and will help me to work through. It is not rebellion; it does not make me unworthy of mercy.
- Gratitude is part of the answer. In case I haven’t repeated myself enough, I’ve been trying to “solve” this issue for years. Every general conference, it is on my list of personal questions, and I listen intently for The Answer that will fix it all. I’ve received a lot of little puzzle pieces that help me to move forward, but last year, President Uchtdorf said, “I have learned that there is something that would take away the bitterness that may come into our lives. There is one thing we can do to make life sweeter, more joyful, even glorious. We can be grateful!” The Spirit impacted me powerfully in that moment, and I felt, “This is your answer.” I will confess that this bewildered me because it seemed kind of unrelated, but it has been confirmed to me several times that somehow this principle of gratitude is part of my answer. I haven’t quite figured out how yet, but I know it’s an ingredient. It’s a work in progress.
- Persuasion, gentleness, love unfeigned are the antidote to frustrated parenting. Last week, Matt and I studied “The Music of the Gospel” by Elder Wilford Anderson. He warns against the tendency to force our children to do or believe what we think is right, referencing instead the Lord’s pattern found in Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-42. This may not seem very connected to anger, but for me it absolutely is. I get upset because people are not doing what I want them to do. My reaction is generally not “love unfeigned,” unfortunately. So between that talk and another one I read, I’ve decided that I really need to study, ponder, and make practical sense of that scripture. Again, HOW do I incorporate those attributes into my parenting? I’m not at the answer yet, but what I’m doing is using the LDS Scripture Citation site (my favorite gospel study website of all time) and studying every talk that has been given in general conference about that scripture. I’m determined that by the time I’m done, I’m going to have some ideas and inspiration about how to better implement the Lord’s charge to effectively persuade and not force, and do so with meekness and persuasion.
- Make an offering. Any offering. Through this whole learning process, it has become more clear to me what my struggle is, and more clear to me what kind of mother I want to be. The trick is bridging the gap. I don’t know how, in practical terms, to move from where I am to where I want to be. I’ve prayed many times to just be more patient and express myself with more kindness, but in the heat of the frustrating moment, my feelings are still the same ones that have been my companions for all these many years. So I’m kind of at the point that I don’t know even what to pray for. I had a conversation about this with a wise friend the other day, and she told me that in a similar circumstance of her own, she just went to the Lord and said, “I don’t even know what to do about this, so I’m going to give you X, and I need you to just give me whatever it is that I need to know to deal with it.” I thought that was brilliant. In other words, I’ve been so stumped by knowing exactly what specific thing to change or do, but I can sacrifice something—even something random—like a down payment on an answer. The idea that came to mind was maybe offering a more regular and meaningful temple attendance in exchange for more insight into what steps He wants me to take. It’s a place to start that makes me feel like I can actually do something that’s an investment in my progress.
So there you have it. My learning curve. My bread crumbs. You can see that going a year or so without writing a blog post gives a person a whole lot to say once the fingers hit the keyboard again. Even though personal weakness is a struggle, I feel hope. I can sense that God is moving me towards a better me, and He’s way more patient with the process than I am.