BY ROSIE WITTLEDER, GRACE ATTENDER
As I begin writing on the subject of parenting, I know how challenging, sensitive and painful this area of life is to look at. We love our kids. We want the best for them and would never want to hurt them. Yet, as parents, we have failed them. And on this side of heaven, we will continue to do so. I wish it were not so.
The best we can offer our children is to be awake and aware of how we relate to them. Then, we can take steps to address what we have become aware of. Some of us may not have much awareness of how we impact our children, and that is okay. We all have to start somewhere--awareness is the first step. There is no shame or judgment.
A while back, my therapist told me that there is no such thing as a perfect parent. But we can be good parents. What makes a good parent? Someone who knows how to stop and turn in another direction. We can do this with our words, but more importantly, we can do this with our actions. For example, failing our children and then apologizing--without much in the way of changed behavior--is not turning directions. That’s just an empty apology.
There are those of us who know we are broken, imperfect parents. We have tried our best to communicate our failures and to offer our sincere apologies. We are often in touch with our guilt and shame, and so apologizing to our children comes a little more naturally.
On the surface, someone might think, “Hey, I’m doing pretty good. At least I can apologize to my kids when I make a mistake.” And yes, I agree with that to some degree. It is a big deal to have a humble parent who is willing to expose their weaknesses. But there are times when simply apologizing, in and of itself, isn’t really that effective. This kind of apologizing can unintentionally put pressure on our kids and injure them further.
Let me give you an example. A few months ago I was really struggling. I was tired, irritable, and I was processing difficult things that had nothing to do with my son Drew. He picked up on my internal world without me saying a word.
Drew took it upon himself to be exceedingly stubborn. Putting on shoes was comparable to trying to find world peace. Getting his jacket on was like pulling teeth. And getting in the van and buckling? Virtually impossible.
I matched his stubbornness and intensity with my own. I got angry--which looked like very direct communication in a higher volume than I prefer. Drew doesn’t respond well to that, believe it or not.
As you can imagine, I felt awful. I questioned myself. Will I always struggle with impatience? How long will it take me to pause before I speak? When will I learn to treat him as a kid, and not expect him to be older than he is? The internal shaming went on and on.
Out of guilt and shame, I immediately apologized to Drew. I felt awful for hurting his feelings, and I didn’t want to feel like a bad mother. So I tried to patch it up as soon as possible with an apology. This put the pressure on Drew. It gave this kind of message: “Forgive Mom right away. She feels bad. Tell her it’s okay and give her a hug. I don’t want her to feel bad. So I won’t take too long telling her how I feel about her behavior. I don’t want to make her feel worse.”
Drew wasn’t conscious of this kind of thinking, but I know it was in his subconscious nonetheless. Like all kids, Drew has a built-in desire for his parents’ happiness. He has to live with me, so of course, he wants me to feel happy and not be upset--preferably sooner than later. My apology puts pressure on Drew. Pressure that doesn’t belong to him and is too heavy to bear. This is the kind of pressure that forces Drew to become someone other than himself--all for my benefit.
What is another way?
Here is an example of when I didn’t blow it. We were trying to leave the house, yet again. Drew was not listening, yet again. I became angry and increased my speaking volume, yet again.
At this point, I tried to take a pause. I tried to be aware of what I’d said and how I’d said it. I simply tried to stop and let my nervous system return to its norm. I really didn’t want to take a lot of action in that state. Specifically, I didn’t apologize just because I didn’t like the way I felt inside.
After a little time had passed, I began to reflect on what had happened. How was I feeling before Drew acted out that caused me to have such limited space for him and his stubbornness?
After I identified that, I thought about what I could do differently next time. I also looked at how my behavior had impacted my son. That was the worst part. It’s hard to put myself in Drew’s shoes and see the impact I’d had on him. But I know I can only begin to make lasting change when I can empathize with the way my kid feels. And it’s my job to handle these emotions, not my son’s job.
Thankfully, I can use several things to help me cope with these challenging realities. I can journal or call a friend. I can go see a counselor or ask someone for help--or pray, read, meditate, exercise, etc. I have lots of options for how to tend to myself.
In this particular case, I chose to journal. Specifically, I wrote about times when harsh tones and raised voices were used with me as a little girl. And I cried as I relived the feelings of 7-year-old Rosie. Feelings that, as a little girl, I had not known how to process. I felt incredibly lighter afterwards.
After I grieved that part of my story, I had the space to write about what had happened between Drew and me. I felt deep sorrow for my behavior and how I had impacted my son. Because I had allowed myself to feel what it felt like for me as a child, I could put myself in Drew's shoes. This empathy brought about a peace and internal freedom that I didn’t have before.
Then, I went back to Drew. I named what I did and created room for him to share how I’d impacted him. Because I’d tended to myself, I actually heard Drew and what he was trying to say without feeling triggered or defensive. After Drew had his chance to share, then I apologized. I told him that my behavior was not his fault, contrary to what he might have thought. The truth is, I lost my temper because I struggle with anger. And I’m a human being who sometimes fails. Yes, Drew’s behavior needed addressing, but that wasn’t an excuse for my poor reaction.
Here is the bottom line: apologies matter. We get to model how to make things right to our kids. We can become good parents by learning to stop and turn in another direction. And we can choose to hold off apologizing until we have dealt with our own issues. Then we can name what happened and give our children real space to share before we apologize.
When my children are adults, here is what I want them to say about me: “My mom wasn’t perfect, but she did know how to turn it around when she made mistakes.” And this work of repenting--which is extremely difficult, messy, and imperfect--will hopefully impact generations after us.