I don’t know about you, but failure isn’t something I’m always comfortable with. Whilst we’re told to embrace failure, as it’s part of learning and growth, it’s not something we often consciously seek out.
A friend recently mentioned that she was thinking about trying to find 50 ways to fail, and it got me thinking. I had such a strong reaction to it – why would you do that to yourself?! Whilst I understood what she was getting at, something in me found it hard to adjust to the idea that you would consciously do that to yourself. Because most of the time we avoid it, if we can. It’s not a pleasurable feeling for many of us.
Yet when we become parents, we are consciously taking on a role where we are going to fail again, and again, and again.
Now that might not be how you see it. Especially if you’re not yet pregnant or going through pregnancy, it might not be something that is on your radar as being part of what you’ve signed up for. If you had a wonderful childhood, you might dream of being able to give your children a wonderful childhood too, and if your childhood wasn’t the stuff of dreams you might feel that your chance of being a parent gives you the opportunity to redress the balance.
Yet parenthood, for all its wonderful highs, is also a one-way ticket into a lifetime of failure.
Goodness that sounds awful – why would we do that?
You might find yourself reading that and thinking, “No way – I’m going to be amazing – I’ve got this. I’m good at working at things, I’m good at sorting things out. I’ll just make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Yet almost every parent I know talks about their concern that they are failing in some ways.
How can this be? We can’t all be failures.
And yet we are and we need to be. The paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott talked about how necessary it is to fail our children, in order for them to develop. There is a body of evidence that shows that ‘rupture and repair’ are necessary conditions for psychological growth and learning. So with that in mind, it appears that failure isn’t an option – it’s a necessity.
How do you feel about that – is there still a part of you that can’t quite get your head around the idea that you WILL fail and that actually it’s important for your baby that you do so?
Now that’s not to say that we try to fail – that’s not the point. The point is that we somehow need to adjust to the discomfort of failing and knowing that both we and our babies will still be OK. This is a really tricky one, as most of our lives we spend trying not to fail and often avoiding things where we sense that we are going to fail. Most of us don’t go into parenthood thinking that we will fail – far from it – as I’ve said earlier, we have this idea that we will manage the impossible and be able to not fail our kids in any way, if we just try hard enough.
Many parents I work with talk about this distress, the stress of feeling that they have failed at giving birth the ‘right’ way, they have failed at feeding their babies the ‘right’ way, that they have failed at feeling the ‘right’ way, that they have failed at enjoying the early stages, that they have failed at creating the ‘right’ emotional environment for their kids. Or maybe that they have failed to have the ‘right’ partner to have kids with, that they have failed to understand what being a parent would involve, that they have failed to get their baby to sleep ‘properly’…
The list could go on. And as your kids get older it might grow longer.
And anxiety feeds on that sense of failure – that sense that we are ‘getting it wrong’ in some way for our kids. It loves to remind us of how rubbish we are. Yet if we can only turn that on its head and acknowledge that WE WILL FAIL in oh-so-many ways, and that actually the challenge isn’t to ‘get it right’ but to support ourselves when we feel as though we’re ‘getting it wrong’.
And awfully – sometimes that anxiety about failing can lead us to believe that if we are failing, then that means we are a failure. It can lead us to feel like giving up, or that we’re just not up to the task, or that we have irredeemably damaged our child. These can be truly terrifying thoughts.
However, being more aware of our discomfort with failing, and being more able to accept that we will fail can take off some of that pressure. When we are able to allow that the failure feels awful but is necessary and reparable, and does not mean that we are failures ourselves, then it means that we might also be able to enjoy our goodness.
When we spend less time stuck in feeling like a failure then we can notice more moments when we are glorious successes.
I can’t tell you what these might be for you, but I know that with some of the people I work with there is a joy in realising that they have learnt about how their baby communicates, there is pleasure in realising that they know when their baby is most able to socialise, that there is a real sense of achievement in learning what kind of environment helps their baby to feed or play.
If we don’t get good at supporting ourselves when we fail, then it can make it harder to enjoy these moments of ‘success’. Yet these are the kinds of moments of attunement and connection that make being a parent so pleasurable. Our inability to bear our discomfort with failure can actually interfere with the parts that really can bring us joy.
So how can we cope with this ongoing sense of failure?
The $64 million dollar question… And it’s not always something you can just ‘do’, especially if you’ve spent a long time avoiding those feelings. However, one of the things I recommend is noticing when you’re feeling like a failure. Just look at it, notice it, and take a step back.
Once you do that it gives you space to breathe and take options – you might find you’re able to put it to one side, or you might find a way of turning down the volume on it, or you might also find that you can use distraction techniques. You might be able to ask other people how they feel about ‘failing’ in that way and learn techniques from them. You might find you’re able to be more compassionate to yourself and more able to balance those feelings with your feelings of success. You might decide that it’s too connected to other feelings, possibly from the past, and you might want some help such as counselling to unravel those a bit.
Giving yourself a bit of room to see those feelings starts to give you options…
As ever, I’d be really happy to chat about anything I’ve written here that you’d like to know more about. Or you can read some more of my thoughts here: