I crossed the finish line of my third marathon exhausted, sick, and defeated. I’d run a personal record, but I’d failed to achieve my goal. It had not been a good race. I’d walked much of the last six miles and had grown more and more discouraged as people on the course tried to encourage me not to give up.
Of course I hadn’t given up. I was still on the course, wasn’t I? Still heading toward the finish line? I resented their insinuation that I wasn’t giving it all I had. (Marathons sometimes bring out the less-charitable or clear-thinking side of me.)
But even after I pushed through the pain and discouragement and finished the race, I felt as though I had failed. So what if I’d finished? So what if it was the fastest marathon I’d ever run? I could have done better. I should have done better.
I stewed about it for a day or so, dwelling on all the things that went wrong and generally making myself miserable. Fail, fail, fail.
It wasn’t the first time I was in a situation where even though I’d done as well as I could have done under the circumstances I felt like I was falling short. I was questioning every move I made and felt lost and confused. It felt a lot like being a first-time mom.
For a long time, I felt like there was no way to win at being a mom. Every day I wondered if I was doing things right because it sure didn’t feel like it. My son was so young that I spent a lot of my time tied to the house, waiting for him to get up from a nap so we could go out, or putting him to sleep for the next nap. It was disorienting for me. Shouldn’t I have been busy doing something? Shouldn’t I have been contributing to the world? And I know I wasn’t alone in those feelings. My friends and I would sometimes feel each other out (“So, what do you do all day?”), certain that they had some insight that would help the rest of us figure out what we were doing wrong, why we felt like failures even though we were doing exactly what we’d set out to do.
There were no easy answers, no switches that went on and illuminated the solution to the problem. Instead it was a slow realization that being a full-time mom is just a different kind of work than I’d ever done – much more emotional – and a slow adaptation to finding things to keep my body and mind as busy and active as I was used to them being.
I look back and can see that I wasn’t failing. I was doing the best I knew how to do. But I would have benefited from some additional insights about failure: like, failure is not in the result of the situation but in how we react to it. I may have felt bored and lost as a new mom, but I would only be failing if I allowed those feelings to prevent me from taking care of my son and myself. I could have reached out to friends in the same situation, pursued hobbies, or immersed myself in the quiet time and savored those moments. (But I would have had to know then what I know now: that kids really do grow up, they become more demanding, they multiply, and I’ll never have a quiet moment to myself again.)
I’ve also learned that failure is in the eye of the beholder. While I felt like I was doing something wrong as a new mom, I looked at others in my situation and thought that they had it together, they were doing it right, they were succeeding. And I found that they felt the same about me. We treated each other like we were succeeding. We looked to each other for strength, and that trust gave us back the strength we were looking for.
I did, eventually, become more comfortable in what motherhood is, and more confident that I was doing it right. I was doing the best I knew how to do and there is no shame in that, even on a bad day. Even on bad days, I’m able to see things from a different perspective, be reminded of what my strengths are, and given motivation to make a change, to make things different, better, more successful the next day.
That “failed” race was just one of those bad days. I realized some mistakes I made and I was humbled. And as soon as I could, I made plans to run another race and give myself another chance to do as well as I thought I could.
And I did. And I will. Again and again.