Dear Tristan: on failing to live up to ideals

For Christmas this year I have decided to write one letter to Tristan each day from December 1st to 25th. I hope to continue this tradition each year as a way of sharing my heart with my little boy.

My husband Mike is also writing a series of letters; his first is here.

Dear Tristan,

I’m an idealist. For me, this means not that I see the world in a way that is less-than-real, for I am also a realist and being honest about reality is very important for me. No, it means that I have high ideals and believe in striving for them.

But something I really struggle with is that I often feel like I’m failing to live up to those ideals. When I was pregnant with you I had an ideal picture of how I should take care of my health and also yours…how I should eat, how I should exercise, how I should sleep, how I should watch over my emotional health and my soul. I knew that all those things affected you too, not just me.

But when the going got rough – and pregnancy for me was very, very rough – I gave up. I didn’t consistently eat the way I should, or take the supplements I planned to, or exercise enough. I definitely didn’t get enough sleep and all too often I let my worries and depression get the best of me.

What saddens me about this isn’t that I failed myself, it’s that in at least some ways I failed you too. It is said that amniotic fluid contains flavors from the food mama eats. I wanted to give you the best possible exposure to healthy tastes, even in the womb. To spare you from the various food addictions that have plagued my life. That was my ideal. Instead I consumed all kinds of things like sugar and I’m sure will make it harder for you to resist those tastes later in your life.

When I got pregnant with you I was determined to “do it perfectly”, even though I wouldn’t have put it in those words because I know – don’t we all? – that I couldn’t do it perfectly. But I was sure as hell gonna try. I was sure that my failures as a mom would be far down the road. Instead, they came around your 4th week of life (my 6th week of pregnancy.)

I will fail you, Tristan. I have already and I will continue to do so. I am human – as are you – and we humans don’t always live as we should. But I hope that by having high ideals, I will also be able to do some things right. Ideals matter, and I will never apologize for how high mine are. Sometimes I’ve been criticized for having high ideals. People have told me that it’s not worth getting stressed out about those things, or that I should just chill. Or – this is maybe the worst thing – that I should lower my ideals, and just do what is practical, or easy, or effective immediately.

I hope this is something I will be able to model for you – to never, ever give up. Even if you’ve failed at something, to pick it up and try again. To not just go for the easy things in life. The truth is, the things most worth doing are hard. The things most worth doing are things you might fail at many times before you finally succeed.

Oh, and when you fail – don’t beat yourself up. Just as important as having high ideals is giving yourself empathy and grace when you aren’t able to fully live up to them. I’m really good at beating myself up and being down on myself, and I’m not so proud of that. I think it’s in having empathy and grace for ourselves that we learn how to give it to other people. If you’re always hating on yourself, you’re going to have a harder time being compassionate to others. This is a problem because the highest ideal, more important than healthy habits and self-discipline and working hard, is loving well. I’ll write more about that in another letter because it’s a huge topic, but it applies to this subject of ideals because it’s easy to get really judgmental of those who don’t live up to your ideals, even when that person is you.

Judgments – of you, or of other people – aren’t helpful. “I’m a failure”, “I’m pathetic” – “She’s lazy”, “He’s just a slob” – these statements only serve to cripple and harm. We can do harm to ourselves, and we can do harm to others, by the words we speak over ourselves and over others. Words have power, and the power of judgment words is to harm.

It’s why I’ve never called you a “good baby”, because while this is a positive judgment, it’s still a judgment. I always wonder what, exactly, is a bad baby? “Good” and “bad” are judgment words we used to describe most things so we know where to categorize them. Sometimes I ask my violin students what they noticed about something they just played. “It was really bad!” is a response I hear alot. I always point out that there is nothing helpful about that statement. It doesn’t tell us anything about how to improve or what to work on next. All it does is make us feel badly but doesn’t help us do anything to change.

So too, the judgements we make on ourselves or other people are not helpful when there is some form of failure to live up to the ideal. Judgment statements don’t encourage change, they just make us feel worthless and pitiful and let me tell you – when you feel like that you aren’t inspired to do things differently or better.

Just like I have and will fail to live up to my ideals, you will fail to live up to yours. When you do, know that it’s okay. Know that you are still loved, and that those little failures don’t make up the sum of who you are. They speak to your humanity, to your need for God. You can choose to wallow in judgment statements about yourself, or you can pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and forge ahead.

Here’s another thing about ideals. Your ideals might not be someone else’s ideals. Don’t spend your life trying to live up to someone else’s ideals – not even mine. Figure out what yours are, and pursue them with all your heart. And when you fail to live up to them, as you surely will, know that you are loved and that love does not hinge on what you do or do not do. Let this give you the freedom and courage to have high ideals without living in fear of failure.

love,
mama