We Can’t Give Our Children What We Don’t Have

Mom eating frozen cherry while toddler daugther tries to scold her

I spend a lot of time blaming my parents for all the crap I’ve had to unlearn in my adulthood. I wish they had taught me to be confident. I wish they had taught me to speak up for myself and set better boundaries. I wish they had taught me magnanimity. I wish they had taught me the skills of being with and naming my feelings. But when I sit with it, I realize they never could have taught me those things because they were NOT those things. 

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I had all the grandiose ideals about parenting indicative of someone who’s never had a real live child. She was going to have an expansive pallet, learn to read well before kindergarten, listen the first time every time, go to sleep at a reasonable hour and make everyone laugh. And as she grew, she would be body positive, kind and supportive to her friends, non-deferential to boys, outspoken, but not argumentative at home and good with money because I would *teach* her these beautiful qualities. All of you experienced parents smugly nodding and snickering…you’re right, but that’s beside the point. The point is, I was going to be better than my parents. I was going to do this better than they did and teach my children to be wonderful people. Then reality happened. I was a real live messy person with a real live messy kid and I was sure I was screwing it all up. 

In her book, Daring Greatly, Dr. Brené Brown writes, “The question isn’t so much, Are you parenting the right way? as it is: Are you the adult you want your child to grow up to be?”

Well damn, Brené. Does this mean all the parenting books in the world aren’t going to make me a better mom than my mom was? 

Mmmkay, so to help MY daughter be confident, *I* have to be confident? I have to be confident even though I learned how to hate my body from watching my mother hate hers? I can’t just TELL my daughter confidence is important, love your body, it’s beautiful and perfect and please do as I say, not as I do? 

Are you saying my kids will learn how to be a good friend by watching the way I treat my friends? They’ll stress under the same situations in which I tend to lose my cool? AM I the adult I want my child to grow up to be?

This question is worth asking. Because we can’t give our kids what we don’t have. 

The hard news is we physically, emotionally, logically, and literally canNOT give them what we don’t have. We can’t give them peace if we don’t feel peaceful. We can’t give them hope if we’re not hopeful. We can’t teach them to be kind if we’re unkind. We can’t convince them to give grace to other messy humans unless we extend grace to our messy selves … On. The. Regular. 

The good news is we’ve got it. We’ve have what it takes to do the work; to pour into loving our own ragamuffin, imperfect, bedraggled, magical selves until our cups runneth over and spill onto our children. Here are a few steps we can take to be a little kinder to ourselves as we do this work:

  1. Talk to yourself like you would talk to your child. If my son brought his school picture home and hated it, I would not say to him “Ew buddy, look at that double chin, you have GOT to get yourself back on that treadmill. You used to be so cute but now everyone will see how you’ve let yourself go. You should avoid being in pictures from now on.” It makes me cringe thinking about talking to a child that way. So then, why would I ever talk to myself that way? When I see half the photos I’m in, unless it’s a perfectly curated selfie with my chin at the right angle, I sure as hell say those things to myself. But for my baby, instead, I would sit next to him, put my arm around him, and tell him I love seeing his smiling face and it is perfect to me. I would tell him how much I will cherish this photo and someday when he’s grown I’ll look back at it and remember how he lost that tooth this year and those funny jokes he used to tell. Your kids will be able to engage in positive self-talk if you engage in it.


  2. Embrace your perfectly imperfect self. Wear that two-piece bathing suit to the beach. Stop thinking about your stretch marks, your cellulite, and who’s looking at you because none of those things matter. And damnit, you’ve got a sand castle to build! Your kids won’t remember your belly rolls. They will remember building sand castles. And while we are at it, get in the photo! And then cherish the photo. Do not hone in on your double chin. Look at the photo and remember that year at the beach: how much you laughed, how tired you were; how you made it through the day and got to sit down with your kids piled on top of you as you breathed in the smell of their sweaty, sandy selves. It’s essential to give ourselves grace upon grace upon grace if we want that for our children. It will never be about the double chin or belly rolls, I promise.


  3. Go to therapy. Literally everyone, do this. Don’t ask questions. It’s general maintenance. Find yourself a therapist who both validates and challenges you.


  4. Be intentional about what your kids see you doing and saying. If you say it’s important to try new things, let them see you trying new things. Show them the way. Be the representative of all the qualities you want them to have in life, so far as you are able. And then when you fall short, see step one.


  5. Surround yourself with people (and social media accounts!) that make you feel awesome. Stay away from the stuff that drags you down. Think, “would I want this influencing my child?” If the answer is no, cut that shit off. If it’s a complicated relationship to break, consider setting clear boundaries to protect your mental and emotional health. This WILL trickle down to your children’s mental and emotional health.


  6. Make changes. If something isn’t working, try changing it. If that proves to be difficult, use all the previous steps to help get you through. You can change your mind as many times as you need to. Your children need to know this. They need to see that as humans, we can pivot and reevaluate and refinance and adjust our meds. They need to see us finding solutions that work for *us* and our specific needs at any given time. If you want to give your kids the resilience you never knew as a child, they need to see you being resilient. Sometimes resilience looks like meditation and exercise but it also looks like taking a day to stay in bed and cry. Both are perfect. Life is about continuously trying, failing, succeeding, and learning.

Friends, we can do this. Parenting is hard, hard work but we’re built for it. We’re raising ourselves as we’re raising them. Don’t try to martyr yourself, it won’t work. You cannot let your own well-being go by the wayside because you’re focused on pouring into your kids. One absolutely begets the other.

Thanks Brené, for the hardest and best lesson I’ve ever gotten as a mom. Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to head to the playground with my perfect, messy children and my perfect belly rolls.


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