The Art of Failure

In the sermon about failure she delivered to our church this weekend, the Reverend Meg Soens assured the congregation that everyone fails and that everyone feels shame and fear when they fail.

My life as a mother has basically been a series of daily failures; I have felt a lot of fear and shame in the past eight years.

It started with my first pregnancy when my water broke and I failed to go into labor. Then I failed to give birth at home and failed to advocate for myself in the hospital the way I’d always imagined I would. (They told me I couldn’t have my underwear back. I said, “Okay.” They told me I couldn’t take a shower. I said, “Okay.” My planned response to both was two words and the first word started with an “F”. I was shocked when I heard myself say, “Okay.”)

I failed to breastfeed without help, failed to get my daughter to sleep on her own, failed at using the sling I’d practiced using for months before I gave birth.

Almost every day I fail to speak as gently or as patiently to my children as I would like, and this is due largely to the fact that I routinely fail to get enough sleep or adequately provide for my own needs. I fail at reading Berenstain Bears books aloud over and over and over again without complaining.

I fail at seeing my failures as learning opportunities rather than as signs that I am fundamentally and intractably flawed.

Reverend Soens outlined three connections we must make when we fail at something that is very important to us: we must connect with ourselves (what I translated as self-compassion), we must connect with another person who will listen to our failures and our fears without judgment, and we must connect with the lessons our failures offer us.

Although I failed to birth my daughter at home, I succeeded at avoiding an unnecessary surgical delivery. Hours into labor when the obstetrician told me to pick the time for “my” C-section, I said, “Let’s wait until there’s a compelling medical reason for abdominal surgery.” My wonderful nurse heard me and helped me get my baby into a more favorable position and finally got labor to progress. I birthed my healthy daughter vaginally a few hours later, which not only allowed me to avoid a surgical birth but also paved the way for my son’s gentle, empowering home birth four years later.

Day 5 postpartum when my nipples were cracked and bleeding and my breasts were hot, engorged rocks, and my husband told me it was okay to just give our daughter a bottle, I said, “I’m going to visit the lactation consultant first.” It took six weeks to get into a reliable nursing groove, but our daughter ended up nursing until just before I got pregnant with her brother more than three years later. My initial failures with breastfeeding helped me to feel compassion and empathy for other women dealing with similar setbacks and led me to help empower new mothers through my work with La Leche League.

Even though I fail at least once a day by yelling at my children or throwing Mommy-tantrums, I also respond to them with love and compassion innumerable times on the very same days. When I blow my top, it helps bring awareness to what’s most important and to ways we can pare down our schedules to better reflect those values. It gives me an opportunity to talk with my children, hug them, apologize to them, and show them what it looks like to fail with self-compassion. With any luck, observing this process will help my children to learn how to weather their inevitable failures with compassion, connection, and the ability to accept the lessons that those failures afford.

I’ve failed every day of my motherhood so far, and I expect to fail every day of my motherhood in the future. But I also have succeeded and grown stronger every day, and, with effort and awareness, I will continue to do so.

How do you deal with failure? Do you see failure as a punishment and proof that you shouldn’t have tried, or do you see it as an opportunity to learn and grow?

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2 Replies to “The Art of Failure”

  1. I loved this post!!!!
    I see them as both. My nature tends toward the negative and I try to program myself to learn and grow.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Kylie! I oscillate between the two as well, although I’m trying hard to just notice how I’m feeling without attaching judgment. It’s a hard habit to break.


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