When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I decided I would put everything I had into raising my children. I would be someone they respected even after they were grown. I reached those goals. But what I didn’t know was that I was going to make mistakes anyway. How did I fail? It’s hard to sit down and rattle off the ways. I’m not even sure what all my mistakes are, so I’m limiting them to five. And because writing is a form of discovery, you’re about to find out with me.
1. Not Letting My Children Struggle
I mediated every snag or wrinkle in their lives, from disagreements they had in elementary school to delivering a project they forgot at home, because I had a single mother who didn’t even do all the basics for me. They didn’t have to solve their own problems. I took that up as my job, and I was good at it because I’d been solving problems my whole life. Big mistake. My children grew to adulthood without picking up survival skills.
I micro-managed my eldest going off to college. He had the guts to say “Mom, stop doing so much for me. Let me do it myself.” I tried to back down with my other two sons, a junior and a senior in high school. I gave my youngest, my daughter, the most room to look out for herself. She became financially aware, got her first credit card as a college freshman, and later refused to let me pay her tuition. At 23, she got a mortgage on her own. She has survival skills. At least I didn’t fail her.
2. Comparing My Children to Myself
When my youngest started kindergarten, I went back to college and finished my last three years on academic scholarships and then went to law school. “I had a hard life, quit school in 9th grade, got a GED, had three kids by age 22, and look at me! Straight A’s, and now I’m a lawyer! You can do at least as well!” Wrong thing to say, apparently, though I thought of it as cheerleading.
Other encouragement I gave, such as “You could do better on that paper you’re writing if you let me proofread it” or “Your eyes would really show up if you wore makeup” didn’t help, either. They took it as “You aren’t good enough.” This is something two of them worked on with their therapists as adults. Now I praise them for their accomplishments and mention their strengths with no attached expectations. If only I’d done that sooner.
3. Not Ensuring My Children Pursued and Continued Their Interests
This is no excuse and I take full responsibility, but we didn’t have extra money in our budget—as far as I knew, because I was kept in the dark by my husband. We had one income and four children and we didn’t follow through for them. At eight, my eldest son picked up his sister’s Fisher-Price xylophone and played Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” by ear. We bought a cheap, used piano and got him lessons for a couple of semesters. His teacher said he was an exceptional student. His recitals proved it. Then we “couldn’t afford it” anymore. My middle son got into Tae Kwon Do and excelled, growing stronger physically and mentally. The same thing came up. We “couldn’t afford it” anymore. My youngest son played soccer as a short, skinny little kid. A skillful goaltender, he thrilled his coach. We stopped after a year because we “couldn’t afford it.” The consequences of not letting my sons continue their activities are most clear with my youngest. He grew up to be athletic and agile with lungs too large for an x-ray (an athlete’s lungs, x-ray techs say), and he’s 6’4”. The taller the goalie, the longer the arms, the more effective he or she is. If only…
My daughter didn’t suffer the way her brothers did. She started piano and voice at thirteen, when I began practicing law and could pay for it myself. As capable a pianist as her brother, she is a perfect-pitch soprano who sang with our city’s chorale, one of the only two high-schoolers invited to do so. She took guitar class as a high school senior, quickly gaining competence. At the graduation awards ceremony she was named “Guitar Student of the Year.” It’s obvious that doing this one thing right, as I finally did for my daughter, matters.
4. Staying Married Too Long
As a child of a broken home, I tried hard to make a stable home for my children, the house with the picket fence. I chose the wrong mate, but I couldn’t let myself give up until I felt like I was dying inside. By then, we had daily arguments in front of our children. Oh. So. Damaging. I couldn’t accept breaking up our home before that. I’d stayed married twenty years. After we signed our mediation agreement, I used an entire box of Kleenex in twenty minutes. I hurt, I mourned, I was burdened with immense grief. But it wasn’t for my ex-husband. I was liberated by having him out of my life. I mourned the wasted years and effort, trying to provide my children and myself with the thing we all needed, and facing the truth that I failed to give it to them.
I didn’t know how those last, contentious years would affect my children. I didn’t know that my youngest son started smoking or that he was hanging out with the wrong crowd. He quit high school as a senior. My eldest son failed out of college after a year. My middle son, like his older brother, quit college, and like his younger brother, hung out with the wrong crowd. All of my sons quit jobs. My daughter started to dislike men, except for her brothers and sometimes even them. She witnessed the one instance of her father physically abusing me—he had to leave our house that night, and he had to stay out– and she hasn’t been able to relate well to men since. Two of my children don’t talk to their father and two of them hardly talk to him. I wonder if they’d be more receptive to him if they hadn’t seen the way he demeaned me. I thought that by staying, I was doing right by them. But I wasn’t.
5. Leaving the Nest Too Soon
I’m not talking about my children, I’m talking about myself. A year and a half after the divorce, I moved in with my fiancé, leaving my sons in our house. I took my daughter with me, because she was only 15. My sons were 18, 19, and 20, and happy to have mom out of the house—they were independent. I told myself what I was doing was okay. I was only ten minutes away. I stopped by. I brought them groceries, paid all the bills, did everything but be there, providing the parenting they still needed. Today, they say it was great, they were fine, but I carry the heaviest guilt of my life for leaving them there so I could pursue my own happiness. How could I have done that? I can admit to myself now that I did not put them first. I never imagined I’d be a selfish parent.
Friends praise my unabashed willingness to write about difficult subjects, and I think That’s normal for me. How could I not go out there, guns blazing? But admitting this sin hurts and shames me. I almost deleted it after I wrote it and substituted a lesser failure– of which there are plenty. Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living,” and examining what I did with an honest and critical eye was painful. But because it is my monumental mistake, I felt it would be disingenuous not to share it here, no matter how hard it is for me. I’m weeping as I write.
This was meant to be a lighthearted, easy read, but the writers’ adage is true: “You don’t know what you know until you start writing,” and this progressed into something I didn’t expect it to be.
Though my children are now stable, productive, educated adults with meaningful lives who love and respect me and who believe I was a good mother and who have forgiven me for anything they deemed might require it, I wonder if can I forgive myself for my failures—or at least come to peace with them?
Perhaps if I accept this, I might: A friend said, “Who do we think we are that we should be parents without fault? Our parents were imperfect parents, and our children will be imperfect parents. We all have to recover from the mistakes our parents make. We made our mistakes out of love, with the best intentions. Guilt is not ours. Grace covers it.”
Yes, she is right, mistakes made out of love with the best intentions are covered by grace. I can’t claim that for my last mistake. I still have work to do before I can be at peace.