A few weeks ago, my daughter had a difficult day. Her frustrations descended into what some might call “inappropriate behavior” in public, and when we got home, we sat down to talk about what was bothering her. I won’t replicate the whole conversation here out of respect for my daughter, but what it came down to was this: Some things had happened that made her feel like a failure, like she’s not good enough, like she’s not loved or valued. My daughter sat at the kitchen table, sobs rocking her 9-year-old body, and I was full of compassion even though I wasn’t sure what to do. I assured her that she is valuable, and loved, and special, and that she is not, in any way, a failure.
Two days later I sat on my bed next to my husband and cried. “I feel like I failure,” I choked out. “I keep getting rejections on my writing. No one wants my manuscript. I don’t know how to help Madeleine. What kind of mother am I? And not one of my friends even called me on my birthday!” (Note: I suppose that at that moment, I was ignoring the fact that hundreds of my friends had wished me happy birthday on Facebook.)
Need I say it? Like mother, like daughter.
I hope I have not taught her this. I hope I have not taught her that success means doing everything right, or being popular, or being good at everything.
Yet isn’t that how I’ve always defined success?
I was the girl who made straight As, racked up academic awards, sang solos at church, and always tried to be a leader. I wonder if I built my self-esteem from these bricks – these awards, these recognitions.
Now I am being challenged to tear those bricks away, and to believe that I have worth without all those things.
The world tells us that we need to be beautiful, to be popular, to make a lot of money, to have upward-moving careers, and to be talented to be successful.
Do I have to buy into those expectations? Is it time for me to redefine success – and redefine failure?
* * *
It was my turn to make communion bread for church this week. Yesterday morning I ran to the store at 6:30 am to buy a bag of flour and some yeast. I am always nervous when it’s my turn, because I’m not a good bread-baker. For some reason, my bread doesn’t always rise. I follow directions, I ask for help, and I take advice. But I have failed at making bread as much (or maybe more than) I have succeeded. Yesterday the loaves rose, but not as much as they should have. I felt like they were probably good enough for communion, but not great. So, in the afternoon, I went back to the store for another bag of flour and more yeast packets, and I made the bread one more time.
Those loaves didn’t rise. At all.
Failure. Shame. Embarrassment. Frustration.
Thankfully I’d kept the first batch of loaves and took them to church. No one told me if they were good enough or not. I hope they were, but they might have gotten loaves from the church freezer. You never know.
* * *
I have asked to be taken off the bread list for now. Because I can’t stand to keep failing at this, especially when it’s for church.
But then I wonder: Isn’t church the place where you’re allowed to fail? Where you’re allowed to stumble in, shadowed by weariness and worry, to fall at the feet of Jesus and receive His grace? Where you’re allowed to admit you can’t always get it right, and where you are told, “That’s okay. You are loved.”
My bread was good enough for my son. He was eager to help me knead it, and he desperately wanted to be the one to “put the tattoo on.” That “tattoo” comes from a round wooden seal that imprints symbols onto the bread. You press it into each circular loaf and use a toothpick to poke holes around the circumference of the seal to let the dough “breathe.” (Or something.) When the one batch didn’t rise, he said, “Well, that’s because I didn’t help you with that one. The other bread rose because we both punched it.” He also didn’t care that the second batch was flat; he wanted to keep it. So I put two loaves in Ziploc bags, and he’s been snacking on them. They are dense and doughy – not how most people like bread – but my son loves them.
So then, where is the failure? Can I claim those moments with my son – our hands touching as we folded and pressed the floured dough, his sweet voice telling me his refreshing view of truth – as a failure? Can I claim the bread was ruined when my son is happily eating it? No, I cannot. Those minutes together, sharing the act of creating, were precious and meaningful. Our creation may not have been beautiful or perfect, but I will not call it a failure.
Sometimes what feels like a big failure is actually a little success. I gave my son some moments of joy (and some food he likes), and he gave me a renewed vision of myself. Maybe that’s worth more than a hundred perfectly baked loaves of bread.