My great grandmother was a strong, tough and opinionated woman with a thick Swedish accent.
And I was completely intimidated by her.
She was a good lady. She was more of a mother to my mom than her actual mother was. But she had a very hard shell, and I never felt like I was able to crack it.
She died when I was young. I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but most of my memories of her are about being afraid that I was going to do something wrong and that she was going to yell at me.
I don’t think she realized this was how I felt. I don’t think this was her intention.
But my most vivid memory of my great-grandmother is not from any of the Christmas Eves we spent at her house. It wasn’t from any of the family get togethers which were filled with relatives and food and laughter.
My mom and dad often helped her out around the house. I remember going to her house while my dad cut the grass, and I remember picking up sticks around her yard and raking leaves.
I remember her giving me pretzels and orange juice for a snack and sitting on her front step eating and drinking while I watched my dad work in the yard.
One time we were up at her house, and my great grandmother was cleaning the floor on her screened in porch. The floor was cement and it was painted gray and she was mopping it with a big bucket of soapy water.
I don’t remember at all how it happened, but for some reason I went out onto the screened in porch and somehow I knocked the bucket over. And all the dirty soapy water spilled out onto the floor. It went everywhere.
And my great grandmother looked at me, and in her super thick Swedish accent she yelled, “LOOK AT WHAT YOU’VE DONE! YOU ARE THE CLUMSIEST GIRL I KNOW! NOW I MUST CLEAN THE WHOLE FLOOR ALL OVER AGAIN!”
And that moment has never left me.
40 years later, when I think of my great grandmother, this is the first thought I have.
It obviously had a pretty big impact on me.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.
I’ve been thinking about it because it was a simple mistake.
I was a shy and sensitive kid. I was a people pleaser and a helper and I always did the right thing and I never caused any trouble.
Your typical first-born child.
I was nothing like Number 4 or Number 7.
So whatever I did to knock over that bucket, it wasn’t because I was being a pain in the ass or because I was out of control or because I was a rambunctious or spirited or energetic child.
I just made a mistake.
And my great grandmother made it abundantly clear that making a mistake was not okay. It wasn’t excusable. It wasn’t understandable. It wasn’t an opportunity for growth or learning or anything positive.
But it was a big opportunity for blame and shame and humiliation.
I don’t think my great grandmother was alone.
I think this is common.
Unless we are complete sociopaths, we all feel pretty bad when we mess up.
But for some reason, those of us on the receiving or observing end of the mess up forget this.
And we feel the need to make the person who has messed up feel even worse.
We are going to make them feel really, really, REALLY bad.
Then we’ll attack. Hit ’em while they’re down. We will make them feel as bad as humanly possible.
That will get them to change!
I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel too motivated to do anything when I’m feeling really shitty about myself.
Because this little snippet in time, this five second incident had such a big impact on me, I am more aware of my reaction when the kids make mistakes.
But there are still many, many times when I’m not very forgiving or understanding.
Where I find myself making the kids feel bad.
Saying things like, “What were you thinking? Were you even thinking at all?”
In the past I’ve said things like:
“What is wrong with you?”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Are you crazy?”
“What is going through your head when you do this stuff? IS ANYTHING GOING THROUGH YOUR HEAD?”
On another note, I’ve been thinking about some of the things that make parenting so hard.
I’ve been thinking about the things that moms, in particular, do to make their jobs even harder.
And this has led me to just thinking about what makes being a human being so hard.
And I think one of the biggest things we have done as a society is to send each other — and especially our children — the message that mistakes are bad.
That making mistakes is something to be ashamed of.
That when you make a mistake you are incompetent. Undeserving. Stupid. Thoughtless. Worthless. Clumsy.
The list could go on forever.
Feeling shame for making mistakes is not good.
Because we all make mistakes.
ALL THE TIME!!!
It’s part of being human.
It’s also part of how we become better/stronger/healthier human beings!
By fucking up and then learning from the fuck ups.
Clearly we don’t want to encourage our children to seek out ways to make a mess or break stuff or say hurtful things to other people.
But when they do, beating them up, belittling them, making sure we make them feel even worse, well… that doesn’t help.
Because that teaches them to grow up into adults who don’t want to acknowledge their fuck ups.
It leads to teaching kids to feel shame and to lie and blame.
It doesn’t teach them to take responsibility for the mistake and learn from it.
It teaches moms to beat themselves up when they make a parenting mistake, and it teaches them to judge and blame themselves and each other.
This is not good!
It’s also one of the reasons I put my fuck ups out there.
Financial problems? Marital problems? Whatever problems? Some of the reasons we got there are beyond our control.
But some of the reasons are also just because of some pretty poor judgment calls.
I could obsess over those.
Or I could focus on how all of these things have also been seriously big learning experiences!
And how I’m a stronger and smarter and much more compassionate woman/mother/wife/human being now because of it.
I have definitely felt shame. There has been plenty of shoulding on myself.
I’m an educated and intelligent woman.
I should have known better.
I should have saved more.
I should have spent less.
I should have predicted the future.
I shouldn’t have said that.
I should have said this.
After reminding myself that I was human, and refusing to continue feeling shame, I started acknowledging situations and then taking responsibility for making changes and finding solutions.
And when I shared my experiences, other people felt more comfortable sharing theirs.
I’m not saying we should all operate with reckless abandon and throw caution to the wind because we are all gonna make mistakes at some point anyway so we may as well just screw up all the time.
But I am saying that we are much more likely to take responsibility for our mistakes and to view them as learning opportunities when we aren’t ashamed of them. And when we accept that they are inevitable.
And when we even get to the point where we invite them.
Let’s go back to my great grandmother.
I know she didn’t mean to do this, but that five second incident on her screened-in porch taught me to feel bad about making mistakes. It taught me to fear my great grandmother. It taught me that I was clumsy (and I wasn’t at all, but I was convinced I was after that). It taught me that no matter how good I was, I still would never be good enough.
She wasn’t the only adult in my life who taught me this.
But she was definitely instrumental.
Now imagine if my great grandmother had approached the whole incident differently.
Imagine if after I had knocked over the bucket of water she had said to me, “Whoops! What was it that you were doing to knock this over? What can we learn from it? And what do we need to do to clean it up?”
I certainly wouldn’t have spent the rest of her time on the planet being afraid of her. I would have been much more likely to take responsibility for whatever it was I did to knock the bucket over. And I would have learned that when you make a mess, you clean it up (and that when you do that proactively, people are much more likely to help you!)
And I would have learned that making a mistake is an opportunity to learn something rather than an opportunity to skewer someone.
I think of this also because not too long ago there was a video circulating around Facebook. It was of Sara Blakely, the creator of Spanx. And she explained how success is not possible without failure.
When you have an extra 90 seconds, watch it.
That video was originally intended for businesses and entrepreneurs. Toward encouraging people to take risks and learn from failures.
But she mentions in it how her father would ask her at the dinner table what she had failed at that day. And how he would congratulate her and celebrate her failures.
Imagine if we all did this every day.
Imagine if we made discussing our mistakes a safe and normal and healthy thing to do!
Imagine if we all asked our kids to share a mistake they made every day. And if we shared a mistake we had made with them.
Imagine if instead of teaching our kids to be ashamed and to feel really bad about fucking up, we taught them to be honest and open and reflective about where they had gone wrong.
Imagine if we let them know this was a part of growing up. (And a part of life even after you have grown up).
I imagine this would help them to feel accepted and loved, even when they had messed up.
I imagine it would show them that making mistakes is a part of being a human being.
I imagine it would lead to a society that didn’t feel the need to constantly pretend to be something they weren’t. A society that didn’t feel the need to deflect, point fingers and blame.
I imagine it would be really awesome.
And it’s something I’d like to start doing at my dinner table.
Of course, when you rarely have a night where your entire family is home to eat dinner at the same time, that poses another challenge.
But that’s a whole other blog post.
So maybe it won’t be at the dinner table. Maybe it will be in the car or on the couch or at the pool or on the baseball field or wherever.
But the next time my kid makes a mistake, I’m gonna remember my great grandmother. I’m going to remember how I felt on her porch. I’m going to remember how I felt about myself after that day. And I’m going to remember how long it has taken me to realize that I’m not clumsy, I’m not a bad person, and that mistakes are okay.
And then I’m going to respond with, “A MISTAKE! This is a big opportunity! WE ARE ALL GOING TO LEARN SOMETHING GREAT FROM THIS!”
And that’s going to feel great for all of us.