I remember the moment my oldest daughter was born. They placed her in my arms, and as I looked down at her, red and squishy with a full head of dark hair, I panicked. What was I supposed to do with this little person? How on earth could I be entrusted with something so beautiful and so fragile?

Moments into motherhood, I was certain I was failing.

Two more babies and nearly 10 years later, the weight of motherhood has only intensified. The joy and terror come in waves—I live with the constant awareness that I’m in over my head.

“#MomFail” pokes fun at the often unreasonable standards placed on mothers either by society, our children, or ourselves. But while we might laugh at the “mom fails” we choose to share on social media, the reality for many of us is that motherhood is often accompanied by a constant feeling of failure.

Many articles have been written to address this pervasive feeling. They get passed around enthusiastically because we (moms) are desperate for some reassurance that we’re not blowing this whole parenting thing. They usually go something like this:

Dear Mom Who Thinks She’s Failing,
You’re Not. Repeat after me: I can do this.

The problem with these articles, though kind and well-meaning, is that I know what’s actually true: I am failing. And no matter how many times I repeat that mantra, no matter how many times I make lists and plans and resolutions, I can’t do this. I will fail.

You’ll probably be quick to reassure me that’s not true. And I hope by God’s grace that I am growing in loving my children, in serving them joyfully, in faithfully pointing them to Jesus and helping them grow into responsible adults. But I’ll never do any of those things perfectly.

The problem when I try to lower the standard to achieve reassurance is that I can see through my own lies. The law of God is written on my heart (Heb 10:16), and I’ll always know, deep down, that I’m not living up to his standard of complete and perfect obedience.

Beneath the Feelings of Failure

My fear of failure betrays my belief about the source of my worth. It reveals that I’ve bought the lie that my value, approval, acceptance, and satisfaction lie in my performance as a mother—that everything hinges on me.

The solution for this fear isn’t happy self-talk. Neither is it mustering up enough resolve, believing I have what it takes to make up for my failures. In both cases, I’m picking myself up by my bootstraps, determining to be my own savior.

But if, instead, I allow my failures to force me to look outside of myself, I encounter grace.

When we’re faced with our sin and failure, and when we look up and see a holy, perfect, majestic God, we realize our desperate need and can only marvel at his glorious provision in Christ. At the cross, God doesn’t minimize sin or pat us on the back and say, “You can do this.” At the cross, he says, “You can’t do this, but I did it for you.”

Once we encounter God’s grace in our limitedness, we begin to walk by faith, trusting not in our own strength but in the power of his might—the very might that raised Christ from the dead and now lives in and empowers those who have put their faith in Him (Eph 1, 6).

So if I were to write my own article, here’s what I would say:

Dear Mom Who Thinks She’s Failing,

You are.

You will never perfectly love your children.

You can train and discipline and plan crafts and outings, but there will still be the lingering sense that it isn’t enough. You can’t control your children’s future, determine the state of their hearts, or decide who they’re becoming. You’ll wonder if you should’ve done better.

You’ll rarely accomplish everything you want to, and when you do, the feelings of satisfaction will be fleeting. The mundane will return.

You’ll fight anger and bitterness and resentment and irritability. There will be sleeplessness and hormones and unfortunate circumstances; there will be a never-ending list of demands and an ever-growing pile of laundry. There will be children with boundless energy (who seem to never run out of words to say).

You won’t be patient with them all.

You’ll fight the battle between me-time and them-time, your desires and theirs. You’ll make choices and then wrestle with guilt, wondering if you chose poorly.

Yes, mother, you are failing.

But there’s enough grace for you (2 Cor 12:9). Your very failure is God’s grace to you, leading you to ever-deepening dependence on him (2 Cor 1:8-10).

The success of your children, the state of your home, the things you crossed off your list—these things can’t define you or bring the satisfaction you crave.

Your acceptance and your joy don’t hinge upon your success as a mother.

God knew we couldn’t live up to his standard of perfection, so he made a way: his son came to earth as a man; he walked the human path you walk now. And he didn’t fail. For the joy set before him—the joy of rescuing you and me—he endured the cross on our behalf.

He who knew no failure paid the penalty for all of mine, and for all of yours (2 Cor 5:21).

And because of that—not because “I can do this” but because he did—you can lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees; you can make level paths for your feet; you can strive for peace and holiness (Heb 12). You can remember that you are dust and be thankful for the God who remembers, too (Ps 103:14).  

You can be a mother humble enough to fail because she trusts the God who doesn’t.

And as you behold him, he will change you to be more like him (2 Cor 3:18). His grace will strengthen you to love more, to give more, to serve more—not because you’re perfect, but because he is. It’s his work and he’s faithful to complete it (1 Thes 5:24; 2 Thes 1:11-12).  Your failures won’t go away on this earth, but your hope for your children and for yourself was never in your faithfulness anyway—it was in his.

Kendra Dahl is a writer and has served as the Women's Discipleship Director for River City Church in Fargo, North Dakota. She and her husband have three children.