Focus on the Family Broadcast

Never Perfect: Finding More Joy, and Less Guilt, As a Mom

Never Perfect: Finding More Joy, and Less Guilt, As a Mom

Leslie and her husband Duncan have raised six kids on two remote islands in Alaska. She shares her journey from perfect mother, to fishing-crew mother, to embattled mother, to happy “good-enough” mother who discovers the power of true love.
Original Air Date: March 7, 2024

Leslie Leyland Fields: Parenting is not a performance, it’s not a test. It’s a privilege to raise our kids and to live out our faith and our love for God among them.

John Fuller: We have some great encouragement for every mom and dad today on Focus on the Family with Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: Well, today’s guest, Leslie Leyland Fields is a remarkable woman who, with her husband, raised six children on a remote island in Alaska while training them in the family business of commercial salmon fishing. And she also is an award-winning author and she has taught writing and literature classes for more than 30 years. Today, Leslie will share how the Lord helped her to become a guilt-free mom. That’s a big one.

John: Mm-hmm.

Jim: Who, uh, can love her children without obsessing over every detail of their lives.

John: Well, let’s go ahead and hear now from Leslie Leyland Fields, speaking to a gathering of our staff on today’s episode of Focus on the Family with Jim Daly.

Leslie: So, I didn’t start out as an Alaskan mother. I actually started out as a perfect mother.

Audience: (Laughing)

Leslie: I did. I had a lot of time to work that out. Because my husband and I were married for 10 years before we had kids. We backpacked around the world. We went to graduate school. We spent winters out in the Alaskan bush building houses. And all that time, I was thinking about kids and about having a family. And boy, my family was so neat and so obedient and so clean. And (laughs), well, pretty perfect, you know, for those 10 years. And after those 10 years, I couldn’t wait for the adventure of loving others and of- of giving myself away to children. And then it happened, real ones came. One-by-one, a daughter, and then a son, and a son, and a son. And life was so crazy, and busy, and fun, and hard.

But then, we were moving forward out of those messy baby and toddler years. You know, when your house is just under constant deconstruction? And now, my youngest was about to enter kindergarten. We were so excited and we gave away all our baby things. And then, you know what’s coming. Surprise (laughs). Ah, at 43, pregnant with another. I was overwhelmed. “Ah, Lord, how do I do this again? Diapers, teething, up all night. I can’t do it.” And God answered that prayer with one more.

Audience: (Laughing)

Leslie: Another son. And he was born on my 45th birthday. And I bet you think that’s sweet, right?

Audience: (Laughing)

Leslie: You know, the best birthday present ever. It wasn’t, not yet. Not yet. I’d been praying, “Lord, how will I do this?”

And then I did the math. I’ll be 64 when he graduates high school. I’ll be the only parent, you know, wheeling her walker down the aisle. Ugh. But, my husband were right all those 10 years. We discovered that every child born into our arms, yeah, brought so much love and adventure, just as we hoped. And there are all these incredible moments. I’m sick in bed and my daughter’s with me, we’re both sick, we have this horrible cold. My son Noah comes in, rough, tough kid. He’s about, um, three or four years old. He sees how sick and miserable we are and he goes and gets his blankie, his Bambi blankie, which nobody is allowed to touch. And he comes and he very carefully spreads it out over us and tucks us in.

So many of these moments. But, this isn’t the whole truth. Along with every child came, y- yes, love. But also a maybe equal load of guilt. I was so far from being a perfect mother. I didn’t even come close. For the first 15 years of my life as a parent, I went to bed every night feeling like a failure. Because we have a video recorder in our heads, don’t we? I’m not sure if dads have them. I know moms have them. And … But here’s the thing about this video recorder, it’s a very selective video recorder in the kinds of movies that it makes. Only makes one kind. Not the birthday parties, and the homemade cakes, and the games on the floor, and working beside them in the skiff, and- and- and being in Christmas programs together. All that good parenting stuff. Oh no, you won’t find that in that movie.

The camera is only running when I bark at my son for being late, when I’m sarcastic to my daughter, when I don’t measure up to other mothers. I didn’t make smiley face pizza burgers for lunch like all the other mothers, right? I was the mom who sent them to school with organic wholewheat sprouted bread and organic peanut butter and whole grain homemade cookies, which meant they had absolutely no trading stock whatsoever, right?

Audience: (Laughing)

Leslie: And my kids didn’t go to summer Bible camp like all the other Christian kids. My kids went to fish camp and they worked like grown men. Were they working too much? They were out in big storms. Was that too dangerous?

Then we hit high school. And now, the tape recorder is getting pretty serious. And suddenly, I know all about drug tests, and clandestine parties, and my husband and I felt like the secret police at times. And every night as soon as my head hit the pillow, the movie’s running, and I lay there filled with self-condemnation. And to be honest, I felt a bit betrayed as well. Because everything I had heard from sermons, and radio shows, from women’s retreats gave me the message that children will complete us. That children will make us happy. The scripture verse I had heard over and over, “Happy is the man whose quiver is full. Happy is the woman whose quiver is full.”

But you know what? When my toddler shook her fist in my face and told me she hated me, I wasn’t feeling very happy. When a son stopped speaking to me for years, not happy. When the police show up at the door one night, not happy. I felt like I was failing by every measure. Where’s the fruit from all this labor? And where is all that happiness and fulfillment? And I knew the fault was mine. I’m just a bad mother. I’m a bad Christian. I- I’m a bad Christian mother. One day, on a particularly hard morning when everything was going wrong trying to get six kids out the door, and my husband travels and is off island a lot for work. The kids are fighting in the car, we’re late.

And I take them, drive them to the Christian school wel- where all our kids went, you know, (laughs), and I’m like kicking them out of the car and hissing through my teeth, “Have a blessed day.”

Audience: (Laughing)

Leslie: You know? (laughs). “And go learn to be a better Christian while you’re at it.” And I remember walking to a spruce forest nearby and just crying out to God, like just all tears and messy face sobs, you know? And I’m saying, “God, where is the happy, peaceful, Christian home that you promised? Where’s all that happiness? I’m trying so hard to do everything right, but it’s not working. And- and where are you in this whole parenting thing anyway? And- and what do you know about parenting?”

Audience: (Laughing)

Leslie: I actually said that. I actually said that (laughs), which I’m embarrassed to admit now. But, somehow saying those words, wait, God’s a parent. Of course, He’s a parent. I mean, I’m his daughter and He’s my father. And how great of a daughter am I? I immediately had sympathy for God as a parent. And then, wait, of course. In that moment, I remembered that God called Israel my firstborn son. He was their father. And I thought about all those stories in the Old Testament and I thought about it as like God is a father. What did His parenting life look like? And I realized, wow, it looked and sounded a lot like mine. There was so much love. We hear His love, we see His constant goodness and mercy toward His children. But He also lets us hear His frustrations, His anger, His judgments.

I realized, oh my goodness, Lord, you know every crack of my heart. You have felt it too. And I realized that all those emotions I was experiencing as a mother weren’t bad or wrong. Emotions are an essential part of being made in God’s image. And I’m feeling all of this in some way, um, as God did and as God does, not because I didn’t love them, but because I do love them. And I realized this is the map of true love, when we care so much, we pour out all we have and it costs us a lot and it hurts.

John: This is Focus on the Family with Jim Daly. And that’s Leslie Leyland Fields. And you’ll find more insight about loving your children in a healthy way in Leslie’s book, Parenting is Your Highest Calling: And 8 Other Myths That Trap Us in Worry and Guilt. We’ll send that book to you when you make a donation of any amount to the ministry of Focus on the Family today. We’ll also include a free audio download of her entire presentation with additional content. So, donate today and request those at or when you call 800, the letter, A, and the word, FAMILY. 800-232-6459. Let’s return now to more from Leslie Leyland Fields.

Leslie: But I also recognized, I was carrying some dead weight. Some beliefs that I was beginning to suspect weren’t biblical, that weren’t true, that weren’t God-honoring. And so, that began a whole year of study through God’s word, from Genesis to Revelation. And enabled me to identify the most dangerous myths of parenting that I believed and so many others believed and taught. And then, to counter those myths with God’s truths, expressed through the whole of the scriptures, not a few isolated verses here and there. There was an immediate shift, an immediate relief. Standing right there in that spruce forest, I felt it.

See, I thought that parenting was my most important calling in life and especially as a mother and especially with a large family. And I heard this again and again from others and I believed it. But God’s word says something different. The first charge God gives to His people, His newly redeemed people in the Old Testament and also in the New Testament, and you know it. Love God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. Wait, God- God first. Yes, of course. Okay, right. I find my happiness and fulfillment and my purpose in loving God.

And out of that overflow, I love my neighbors. And my children, I think, are my first neighbors. And I realize that not only was I carrying this enormous and impossible burden on my shoulders, I realized my kids were too. Because I put that weight on my kids’ shoulders, that they had to fulfill me, that they had to bring me purpose and happiness and fulfillment. And that right ordering, ah, made an immediate difference. But I still couldn’t shake the worry. I worried all the time about how my children would turn out. I was looking at these wild Alaskan kids thinking, “Okay, a kid who won’t change his t-shirt all summer. Where does that lead? Well, he’s clearly not gonna be a pastor. You have to put on a clean shirt Sunday morning, you know? And this son is so oppositional to everything I say, he’s gonna end up in jail or worse, he’s gonna become a talk show host on a cable news network.”

Don’t we do that? But much more than that, I felt so much pressure to make them believers. I read some Christian authors who said things like, “You got a 13 year window to pass your faith onto your kids.” So now, I’ve not only got this job with eternal weight and significance, but there’s a tight expiration date on it as well. So, there we were. And man, we did it. We did it all, Church every week, Sunday school Sunday morning, Sunday night, Bible stories every night. Awana, praying at every meal. And I- I don’t regret one minute of that. Well that … Okay, I do regret a few things. Ah, I do regret the nights that I … When three of my boys were in one bedroom all in bunk beds and I would go in there with my Bible and march in there, “Boys, we’re gonna have devotions.”

And about 10 minutes later, I’d be marching out of there in tears. In tears (laughs). These boys jumping on the bed, they’re throwing the pillows, they’re … Right? I felt like such a failure. See, I thought this was the measure of my success as a parent, and I was all about success. That all my kids accept Christ. So, I was constantly assessing, “Is it working? Am I succeeding?” And I felt a kind of panic about it at times. Until I discovered a particular story in God’s word. And it’s the first few chapters of Ezekiel. God said, “Son of man, I’m sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me. The people to whom I’m sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the sovereign Lord says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen.”

And, you know, God says this three times within a chapter’s length. Every time He tells Ezekiel to go and speak, He says, “And whether they listen or fail to listen.” And one of those times God finishes that phrase, “Say to them, ‘This is what the sovereign Lord says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen, they will know that a prophet has been among them.” Ezekiel is to speak and live and enact God’s message in such a way that no matter their response, they’ll know, “This man loved God.” They will have witnessed loving obedience to God. They will have witnessed a righteous life. They had that chance to hear and to turn back. Ezekiel was responsible to respond and to obey in love to his father. He was not responsible for their response. It was their choice, their free choice to listen and obey or not.

They chose not. Did Ezekiel have to carry that weight, the burden of their choice? He can’t. That’s not for him to carry. And, you know, this isn’t some kind of weird abhorrent story in God’s word. Virtually every prophet, major and minor, experienced the same thing. And isn’t this true for us as parents in some way? God calls us to be faithful parents, to live out God’s love and God’s truths, to enact, to inflesh those truths. He asks us to be faithful. He doesn’t ask us to be successful. And I realized, this is what we do in fishing every day. We put out nets out. Our nets are attached to shore, they’re fixed in place. And- and the fish come to the net. We don’t go after the fish, the fish have to come to us.

And so, when we set our nets, we don’t know if we’re gonna catch one salmon, or 27, or 10,000. And yeah, we want the 10,000. We want a boatload of fish. And sometimes we’ve had that. Sometimes the boat’s so full of salmon that it’s about to sink. But you know, there’s so many days when we catch 11 fish, or even none. And when the day is done and we go back to shore having caught very little, are we failures? No. We did all the work the best we could. We set the nets. We went out to the nets. We pulled the nets up. We cleaned out the kelp. We don’t control the fish. We just need to be faithful in tending our nets.

Ah, another weight fell from my shoulders and I felt a new freedom to just love my kids just as they were. Like, that. Right? To let go of my panic. Parenting is not a performance. It’s not a test. It’s a privilege to raise our kids and to live out our faith and our love for God among them. And God is in charge of the outcome. God is in charge of their hearts, not me. You want to wear the same shirt all summer? Okay. Good luck. You’re gonna travel in Asia for two years? Awesome. Where are you thinking about going to school? Want to talk about it? So, do you think you’ll ever go back to church? You’re asking my thoughts about God’s sovereignty and man’s free will? Cool. Yeah, let’s talk about it.

So, how does this story end? Family stories never end, do they? Thank God. Five months ago, my 45th birthday child graduated from high school and we didn’t need a walker to get down the aisle. Yes. (laughs). We survived. And after 34 years of raising children, we’re empty-nesters. And it has been the grandest, wildest adventure ever.

John: Ah, what insights from author, Leslie Leyland Fields, on today’s episode of Focus on the Family with Jim Daly.

Jim: I so appreciate Leslie’s transparency and wisdom. Uh, what a great reminder of how much God cares about our children. And He does. I hope this message brought a measure of peace for those of you who are stressed out as parents. And Jean and I have been there, so we know. And if you’d like more of Leslie’s insights, I’d highly recommend that you get a copy of her book called Parenting is Your Highest Calling: And 8 Other Myths That Trap Us in Worry and Guilt. The book will help, uh, lift the weight of parenting-related guilt and fear and free you up to love your children as God intended. And please, get the book from us here at Focus on the Family where the proceeds go right back into ministry.

We’re here to help your family thrive in Christ, especially now that the culture seems to be so hostile toward children and our Christian values. Every day, we get calls from couples who want to avoid divorce, but have nowhere to turn. Parents who are concerned about the messages that the culture is pushing onto their children. And expectant mothers who need love and support so that they can choose life for their pre-born babies. We’re equipped to help, but we can’t do it alone. This month we’ve set a goal of finding 1,000 people who care deeply enough about families and will commit to becoming monthly sustainers of Focus on the Family. A monthly gift to Focus on the Family will provide the rocket fuel we need to save America’s families. Can you join us and this faithful group of givers? I hope you’ll pray about doing it. When you make a monthly pledge of any amount, we’ll send you a copy of Leslie’s book as our way of saying thank you for joining the team. And if you can’t make a monthly commitment right now, we understand. We can send the book to you for a one-time gift of any amount.

John: Yeah. Call us today. Our number is 800, the letter, A, and the word, FAMILY. 800-232-6459. Or you can donate online and request Leslie’s book at Next time, Chris Coursey shares the results of his lifelong search for the feeling of joy.


Chris Coursey: It’s the sense that you’re missing out on something. Something is missing-

Jim: Hmm.

Chris: … and I don’t quite know what it is. Uh, I just felt that if I’m … The more carefree and wild and reckless I am, that somehow I would find this thing that’s illusive, this thing that I’m looking for.

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Today's Guests

Parenting Is Your Highest Calling: And Eight Other Myths That Trap Us in Worry and Guilt

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