Tammy came to me distraught because her 17-year-old son, Jason—her perfect son, whom she'd raised with perfect love, perfectly following every known rule of perfect motherhood—had been arrested for public intoxication.
"I've failed," Tammy sobbed. "I've failed Jason; I've failed myself!"
"Yup," I said. "You got that right."
Tammy stared at me as though I'd slapped her. Clearly, that was not my line. I shrugged. "You've failed a million times, and you've succeeded a million times. Welcome to parenthood. Do you know any mothers who never fail their kids?"
"Sure," Tammy said, nodding. "A lot of my friends at the country club are perfect mothers." She wept even harder. "And they say horrible things about the bad mothers. Now they'll judge me, because Jason..." She dissolved in sobs.
"Tell me," I said, "do you actually like any of those women?"
The sobbing stopped abruptly. There was a long moment of silence, and then Tammy seemed to transform before my eyes. She sat up straighter.
"You know, I don't," she said. "I don't really like any of them."
"I believe you," I said. "I don't know your friends, but if I had to live with someone like the person you were a minute ago, I'd start drinking too."
"I do live with her," said Tammy wryly. "And I'd love a drink."
"Hear, hear," I said. "So go home and apologize to Jason for imitating mothers you don't even like. Try being real with him—teenagers love that. Every moment you're real with him, you're succeeding as a mother. Every moment you lose yourself by trying to be perfect, you're failing. And the moment you accept that you're failing, you're succeeding again."
Tammy squinted at me. "You're telling me to accept failure as a mother?"
"Whenever you fail," I said. "Got any other options?"
"Well, no...but accept failure? As a mother? I can't."
"Sure you can," I said. "Try this: Think about the fact that you failed to control Jason. Notice how you're all scrunched up, thinking, 'Oh, no!'?"
"Okay, now unscrunch, and instead of saying, 'Oh, no!' say, 'Oh, well...'"
I beamed at Tammy. She waited for me to go on. I didn't.
Tammy laughed. "I can't believe this," she said. "I came here thinking you could tell me how to fix my son, and the best advice you've got is, 'Oh, well'?"
"Damn. You're right," I said. "I've totally failed you." I took a deep breath, and relaxed. "Oh, well..."
Tammy looked at me for another long minute. Then she said, "Just your saying that makes me trust you." This is the magic of accepting that you've done your very best but failed. Own your failure openly, publicly, with genuine regret but absolutely no shame, and you'll reap a harvest of forgiveness, trust, respect, and connection—the things you thought you'd get by succeeding. Ironic, isn't it?