Learn as You Go

I’ve often pondered the seeming absurdity of the fact that we are forced to embark on the two most important journeys of life with no preparation whatsoever!

I am referring, of course, to marriage and parenthood.

You may take issue with this statement. There are ways to prepare, you may argue. In this age of throwaway marriages and frequently dysfunctional parenthood, there have arisen many educational sources of which one can freely avail oneself. Books, classes and personal coaches abound. And maybe they even help a bit. But only a bit.

Because you can read any number of books on the subject, listen to endless shiurim and discuss it with knowledgeable people all day long. You can think and analyze and plan to your heart’s content. But until you step out from under the chuppah and start to actually live with your spouse, you have no idea what it’s like. Until you find yourself with total and unending responsibility for a new young life, it is impossible to fathom the reality.

You may think your life experience has prepared you for it. “I like kids,” you may reflect with complacency. “I’ve always enjoyed babysitting them.” But babysitting is to motherhood as boiling pasta is to gourmet cuisine. You may think you have the moves down pat, but being a parent is to engage in a dance that is complex and ever-changing. You may easily picture yourself in the role, but the reality goes far beyond what you ever imagined.

Marriage is particularly immune to preparation. How to ready yourself ahead of time for sharing living space with a virtual stranger who comes from a different background and is so very “other” in so many ways? This would be hard enough to do with a mere business partner; the close connection between husband and wife is bound to give rise to many an unexpected emotional twist and turn. An innocuous statement on his part can trigger a totally unexpected reaction on hers. Aspects of her behavior may be incomprehensible to him. Tears may flow over nothing and everything. Demands and expectations may be in conflict with long-held hopes and dreams. The list of unanticipated situations and unheralded responses goes on and on…

Incredibly, many people jump into the married state, and then into parenthood, expecting to get everything correct right off the bat. These are either supremely confident individuals, ones with a limited imagination, or both. Because, however good our intentions, the ways in which we are capable of letting down those nearest and dearest to us (ourselves included) are virtually limitless.

To assume that you’ll ace every challenge is to assume that you’re ready for anything. It assumes that marriage and parenthood will demand from you no stretching at all—a patent absurdity. Stretching is not only necessary, it’s more-or-less a prerequisite for life. To think you can sail through adulthood with the exact same traits and qualities that you brought to it from childhood is ludicrous. The only way we can survive, and eventually thrive, is by changing and growing on an almost continual basis.

So, marriage is not something you can train for. You have to learn as you go. The same goes for parenthood. If that’s the case, how can we ever hope to get it right?

The answer is: we can’t.

Having established that the crucial and life-altering institutions of marriage and parenthood are not subject to prior training, we’ve taken the next logical step and concluded that we’re bound to make mistakes. After all, when a novice undertakes a task that calls for nuance, competence and exquisite sensitivity, she’s almost certainly slated for failure of one kind or another. The failures may be minor or they may be terrifyingly large. But failure, when playing a sport you’ve never practiced, is a pretty much a given.

This may seem like a rather bleak outlook. Celebrate your engagement, dance joyously at your wedding… and brace yourself for failure? Hold that precious newborn in your arms, gaze adoringly into his eyes… and apologize in advance for all the ways you’re going to mess up?

Actually, the scenario is much more positive than it looks. Because the failures are embedded in the growth. In fact, failure is what spurs growth. Every time you mess up, you can seize the opportunity to learn a little something about yourself, about your spouse, about your children. If you do that, you’re way ahead of the game. Not a failure at all.

In fact, quite the opposite.

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Still, mistakes hurt. They hurt the person they’re perpetrated upon, and they hurt us, too, because we yearn to do better. So, what’s a person to do when she makes a mistake in her role as wife or mother? The way I see it, there are two sensible steps to take.

The first is damage control. Take a good, hard look at the damage your mistake caused, and figure out how you can mitigate it. This may take many forms across a wide spectrum, from a heart-to-heart with your spouse to a conciliatory lollipop for a child. The words “I’m sorry” top the list when it comes to repairing the damage, but it often goes much further than that. Ruffled feelings must be soothed. A deeper understanding must be reached. Hope in the relationship must be restored.

Which brings me to step number two. In order to make room for hope for the future, both the maker of the mistake and its victim have to know that things will be different the next time around. That means that it’s up to you, the error’s perpetrator, to take another long look at what you did so that you can see where you went wrong. What was it that pushed you over the edge into screaming hysteria with your kids? What prompted you to overspend the family budget, much to your husband’s dismay? What made you betray a confidence, make a disparaging remark, ignore or dismiss or misunderstand?

Once you’ve figured out not only what your mistake was, but also where it came from, the next vital step is learning from it. This may sound obvious. Of course, we’re committed to learning from our mistakes! Sadly, there’s no “of course” about it. You’d be amazed by how many people go on making the same mistakes over and over again, despite the clear damage those mistakes may wreak. Human beings are stubborn creatures. We are also creatures of habit. Whatever it was that drove us to commit that error in the first place will try to drive us there again.

That’s why we have to consciously commit ourselves to learning from our mistakes. So that, the next time the same situation rears its head, we will be ready for it. Isn’t that the very essence of teshuvah?

Instead of tripping over our feet trying to avoid acknowledging the mistakes we’ve made, let’s learn the steps of a dance that actually works. First, recognize that mistakes will be made. That given the lack of training and preparation for these huge and demanding roles, a certain amount of failure is inevitable.

Later, when the mistakes happen, assess the damage and do what you can to ameliorate it.

And then, when the waters are calm again, try to figure out where you went wrong. So that you can avoid that particular pitfall the next time around.

Perhaps the best marker of maturity is the ability to learn from one’s mistakes. Fortunately, that’s something we all have plenty of opportunity to practice as we go through our lives. And you know what they say: practice makes perfect. Or as close to it as a person can get!