“I’m sorry,” I mumbled.
My then-seven-year-old daughter didn’t move.
I sat down on the edge of her bed and began saying things I’d never said to another human being—not even myself.
“Natalie, I am mean to myself inside, and I take it out on you,” I whispered, my voice quivering with pain. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know how, but I pray I can change. I am determined to try.”
Natalie did not cry or look afraid. She looked unmistakably hopeful.
The truth was not the end; it was the beginning.
Looking back on that moment now, I realize that’s when my humanness stopped being a scary secret. With relief, I realized: Perfect parenting is not required to raise resilient, compassionate, and capable adults. In fact, the more human we are about our struggles, our stumbles, and our insecurities, the more we allow our kids to be human. Showing up as our most authentic selves creates connection, allowing us to become a trusted guide for kids as they navigate life’s challenges.
But how? How do we even begin to accept our humanness when we have spent years plastering on a smile, powering through pain, and dismissing our deepest needs?
I believe we begin by finding an outlet.
Once I saw the damage my critical voice was inflicting on myself, my daughter, and our relationship, I knew I needed a safe place where I could share my innermost thoughts and deepest vulnerabilities.
Remembering that writing brought me inexplicable peace as a young girl, I bought a spiral-bound notebook.
Each morning before the sun came up, I wrote on its crisp white pages. At night after my kids went to bed, I’d write again.
More often than not, my short journaling sessions led to cathartic tears. At last, I was allowing myself to feel all that was going on inside of me.
I felt sadness for the dreams I’d pushed away.
I felt vulnerable for exposing damaging beliefs I needed to release.
I felt exhaustion for the times I powered through instead of taking time to breathe.
I felt tenderness for the scars that had not healed.
By journaling for a few minutes each day, I was able to recognize and tend to feelings I’d been missing or ignoring. Like a detective looking for clues, I started seeing red flags; places in my life where I’d been used or misled. I identified areas in my life where I needed to create healthy boundaries and allow space for self-care. In time, the words I wrote on the pages began revealing a more fulfilling path than the depleted highway I’d been barreling down for years.
Through the pages, the voice of my inner bully diminished, and my truest voice emerged, transforming the way I treated my first-born daughter.
I began appreciating my child’s inner gifts rather than pushing outer perfection.
I began celebrating who she was rather than what she achieved.
I began reframing mistakes as “brave attempts.”
I stopped commenting on her appearance and physique.
I stopped being quick to dissuade when she talked about ambitious future plans.
I stopped jumping in to do things for her that she could do for herself.
I stepped back so she had breathing room to be who she was meant to be.
Slowly, the light came back to my daughter’s eyes and some concerning behaviors disappeared. She stopped picking her lip until it bled. She stopped second-guessing herself when she made a decision. She stopped berating herself when she made a mistake. As I practiced my determination to embrace my humanness, my daughter was able to embrace her own. Without the walls of expectation, the fear of failure, and the masks of inauthenticity creating obstacles between us, we were able to reach each other in ways we never had before.
Several years after the painful confession that changed my life, I posted a photo of my birthday celebration on social media.
My first-born daughter, with whom I’d worked to repair the damage I’d caused, stood next to me as I leaned over to blow out the candles on my cake.
“Do you see the hands?” one commenter wrote in response to the photo I posted. “I share hands with my mother, too.”
Yes. I saw it. I saw it more clearly than I ever had before.
My daughter Natalie and I share the same hands.
I stopped to think about all the times she’s reached for my hand over the past few years—
the times she told me things she didn’t tell anyone else
the times she’s chosen me to sit with her in her pain
the times she’s invited me to celebrate her triumphs
the times she’s confided her loftiest dreams and highest aspirations
Because I’ve spent the past eight years of Natalie’s life no longer hiding who I am, Natalie knows me, and I know her. But most importantly, she knows life is not about living perfectly; it’s about living love and showing up, bravely, boldly, flawed, and full of hope.
It all started with an honest confession and an outlet for the pain.
The truth is not the end; the truth is the beginning.
My friends, perhaps you have been misled to believe perfect parenting is required to raise capable, compassionate, and resilient adults. What I’ve discovered in my home and classrooms across the country is that love, acceptance, room to breathe, and permission to stumble are the elements that help young people thrive.
Humanness – that’s what our kids need from us.
Set down the expectations.
Take off the mask.
Pick up a pencil or a paintbrush.
Dust off the old guitar, throw on your running shoes.
Roll out some dough … work out your pain in a way that suits you best.
How you love yourself through missteps and mistakes will likely be the way your children love themselves through missteps and mistakes.
How you collect yourself and move forward in courage and love will likely be the way your children move forward in courage and love.
Give yourself an opening and invite your humanness forth.
If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for the ones you love.
You share the same hands.
Use them to live love.
And fill the space in between.
Rachel Macy Stafford is a NYT bestselling author and founder of www.handsfreemama.com. In her newest book, LIVE LOVE NOW, Rachel does what she does best: she lovingly encourages, guides, and challenges us to be better than we’ve been. Through honest storytelling and small steps, Rachel shows us that simple changes yield positive results. LIVE LOVE NOW equips 21st century parents with tools for 21st century parenting that have the power to transform your home and heart into a healthier, happier place. Join Rachel at The Hands Free Revolution for more inspiration and encouragement.