I’m not doing my best as a mother. I’m not even trying. And this is not a blog post about how I should be doing better or working harder.
I’ve always struggled with not giving up when I feel I have no chance of succeeding. When I was in sixth grade, I desperately wanted to be popular, but I didn’t think I could be. So when all the cool kids wore their overall shorts with one strap unbuckled, I intentionally wore both mine firmly in place so that I could always tell myself that I hadn’t tried. If I ever really tried, I insisted to myself, I could be popular. It was easier to not try and fail than try and realize I wasn’t capable of succeeding.
Now that I’m older and always wear one overall strap down (whenever I wear overalls, which incidentally is never), I realize that being popular is not the worthiest of goals. But I still give up over and over when I’m unsure that I will succeed. I’ve clung to the label “discouraged perfectionist” because it’s so much prettier than “quitter” or “lazy.” When I let the laundry get out of control, my inclination is not to panic and start folding. No, my unhelpful tendency is to pretend the mountain doesn’t exist and occupy myself elsewhere. If I’ve made a big meal (and I am a messy cook), I like to pretend the dishes have washed themselves while I relax after dinner.
The negative ramifications of such an attitude are obvious. Instead of relying on the Spirit, I give up. But there’s a deeper, more insidious sin that eats at my soul (and perpetuates the giving up): self-guilt. (I use the term to distinguish it from guilt that is true conviction from God.) See, there’s a tipping point where overwhelming becomes unbearable, so I eventually climb the Mt. Everest of clothes and dig out my family. The dishes do get washed (though often by my husband). But even after I’ve taken care of the tangible tasks, the self-guilt remains. I didn’t take care of the laundry soon enough, and oh look! more piled up in the meantime. I am a bad mother. A bad wife. I’ll never get it right. And the most aggravating accusation I level against myself? You didn’t even try your best. You could’ve stayed up later to accomplish more. You shouldn’t have taken that time for yourself while the kids were napping – how selfish.
And some of those accusations are true; I don’t ever want to excuse my sin. But nor do I want to dwell on it dejectedly; guilt can be a nasty emotion when it’s self-imposed. When I feel true guilt (conviction), it is accompanied by a calm, not a frenzy. There is a clear path of repentance, and I can rest in the accomplishment of Jesus on my behalf. Conviction leads to repentance which leads to peace and a fresh start. But the guilt I’m talking about doesn’t lead anywhere. The accusations are too general (“I will never be a good wife, I will never be successful with the laundry”) and overwhelming to be dealt with through repentance because the focus is all wrong. The focus is on me, me, me. I read somewhere that C.S. Lewis quipped that humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. This self-guilt takes all the focus off of others and how I can be serving them and makes me feel insecure and emotionally fragile.
So what’s the solution? In discipleship, I read a book (I believe it was by Linda Dillow) that mentioned in passing that doing our best should not be our goal. And though it flies in the face of everything we’ve ever been taught, it makes sense on closer examination. How can I possibly do my best? On what day, or even in what hour, did I actually do everything to the fullest of my abilities? No breaks, no selfish thoughts that would detract from my stellar performance? Not much time passes in a day before I can already look back with some level of regret. I’m measuring myself with my own warped yardstick that sometimes has me too tall and sometimes too short, but never with any instructions for measuring the correct height.
The replacement I read about for “do your best” is simple: Be faithful. This simple substitution has changed me, caused me to exhale instead of inhaling panic and self-degradation. At the end of the day, I ask myself if I was faithful. Was I faithful to what God called me to today? A faithful wife? A faithful mother? Often the answer is that in some ways I was not, but now I’m looking at the correct issue. Somehow phrasing the question this way leads to repentance and peace. I don’t split hairs over whether or not each moment was lived to the best of my abilities, whatever that even means. “My best” is very self-focused, and an inflated view of my abilities constantly keeps me from measuring up. Attempting my best keeps me focused on me and my standards and my behavior. But “faithful” focuses on the Standard and my heart. It reveals how I fell short (graciously reminding me of my need for my Savior), and also encourages me with how God helped me to keep the Standard better in some areas than I have in the past.
So I’m done with trying my hardest and doing my best. I want to be faithful to my God and my callings, and when I keep my eyes on Him instead of my behavior, I can produce spiritual fruit – and maybe even get some laundry done.