The Performance-Driven Mama

One afternoon, after a very bumpy morning that ended with me yelling at my kids (again), I dejectedly clicked on a link that promised to reveal my maternal “grumpiness trigger.” I answered a few questions and received an email telling me I had a Growth Trigger. In short, if my kids aren’t displaying character growth or intellectual growth, if it seems we are regressing in any way, it frustrates me. It depresses me. And apparently, it’s a good way to really tick me off.

True, I thought. Then I shuffled the results into the mental file where I keep my Myers-Briggs letters and the results of that spiritual gift test every Baptist kid took in high school.


Since that quiz, I have actually been tracking when I get the angriest at my kids (5, 4, and 2 years old, all girls, all very strong personalities). Lo and behold, it’s usually due to a lack of growth. It’s because I’ve had to repeat the same instruction fifty dang times with no discernible results, or we have a good week where I feel really proud only to have one terrible day ruin my delusion of progress, or we deal with a behavior that makes me think, “Shouldn’t she have stopped doing this by now?!”

I’m an achiever. In school, I worked hard, and I was used to getting what I worked for. It wasn’t that I was super smart. I truly believe work ethic was the key: I figured out what worked, and I did that. I was willing to sacrifice leisure, sleep, peace of mind, social life, and even health to succeed.

That’s where parenting has completely baffled me. I sacrifice leisure, sleep, peace of mind, social life, and even health for the sake of these kids (what mom hasn’t?)–yet “success” eludes me. I am constantly, and I mean constantly, reading books on how to parent better. Yet no book, even if I were to apply it perfectly (and I don’t), can change my sin nature or my kids’ sin nature. Things still get ugly around here, no matter how glowing I was when I finished my chapter of Sally Clarkson this morning. No schedule, no mindset, no verbiage has proved to be “what worked.” And if I am doing something right (or wrong), I won’t even necessarily know it until they’re way older! Quick results do not go hand-in-hand with parenting.

That’s why I told my husband once, after a particularly hard day, “I have never been so bad at something I wanted so much to be good at.”


It was in one of the aforementioned parenting books that I found the key to my struggles. Strangely, though, the key wasn’t a new technique or life verse. The key was a look at what was wrong with me.

Tedd Tripp was talking about idols to watch out for in our children’s hearts. But with widening eyes, I recognized my own heart in his description:

Perhaps your child is only happy if he can excel—run faster, jump higher, or spell better than others. The ticket price for center stage is never too high. They will sacrifice, they will deny themselves, they will practice; they will do whatever it takes. For these children, to have the highest test score, to win the race, to develop virtuosity, is to be whole. When they fail to obtain these distinctions, they are disconsolate. . . . Parents and teachers often miss these idols because a driven child is not a management problem. (95)

He goes on to argue that we can even “polish” this idol because this idol looks like good things: drive, diligence, willingness to sacrifice, scholarships.

Wait a second. All my life… my work ethic… my perceived ability to achieve whatever I undertook… it was twisted into this? I saw it all so clearly. Success, excellence, virtuosity–performance–is an idol to me.

No wonder I have a Growth Trigger.


Before reading this half a page of Tedd Tripp, I had felt increasingly burdened in my parenting. Every new argument, every new blatant disrespect, had me wondering, “What have I done wrong?” (I.e., “How is my performance lacking here, because surely excellent parenting would produce excellent results, not a temper tantrum because I asked you to wash your hands after using the toilet?”)

I’ve been addicted to arranging trophies in my mental trophy case since the day I won the award for writing the best “book” in Kindergarten. Throughout my youth, my college degrees, and my teaching career, I’ve been collecting praise from others as proof I’m doing well.

Then these three kids come along, and I expected that I would find the system, discover what works–just as I always have–and these three girls would be my crowning achievements. They will prove that I am an awesome mom. They will add to my trophy collection. They will rise up and call me blessed, or so help me…

But they refuse to get in the trophy case.

I say, “I’ve done what [insert most recent parenting book] said. This should work! Now GET IN THERE!”

But they won’t! They scream and run around and—working together for once—overturn the trophy case! All my past trophies, all my achievements up until now, don’t matter to them! Glass has shattered everywhere!

It hurts. But it’s good. I was serving that trophy case. It did nothing to serve me.

Now I see my kids’ strong wills, their slowness to receive instruction, as gifts.

This idol of performance has had its roots deep in my life for my whole life, and each new, more challenging hurdle has been one I’ve felt able to pull off by sacrificing that much more, working that much harder.

But parenting is the one thing I can do “by the book” and still ugliness prevails, in my heart and theirs. Finally, performance has failed me. Finally, I see it for the terrible taskmaster it has always been. Finally, I have to stop relying on my performance!

Since realizing this, I sometimes still feel like I’ve just run off a cliff and am grasping at air. If I don’t have my performance to depend on, if even my own best efforts fail me in the end, what else do I have?

The answer is, of course, Someone Else’s performance. My performance would have been the death of me and the destruction of my kids, but His performance means there’s a way into life for us all.

At the end of my life, my performance will be worth exactly nothing–only Jesus matters. Thank God that He sent me my kids so I could learn this before the end of my life. My kids are terrible trophies–but they are amazing gifts.

Work Cited:

Tripp, Tedd and Margy. Instructing a Child’s Heart. Shepherd P, 2008.

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