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Parents, Own What's Yours, Release What's Not

"You are weirdly calm. Like, FREAKISHLY calm," the pediatrician observed as I held a screaming baby. I remember at the time, I found it odd to hear. I recognized that my newborn was in distress. Yet, I knew it was from no intentional shortcoming or lack of attention on my part. I absolutely wanted to get him help, and so here I was at the pediatrician. I was pretty sure the pediatrician could help, so I was not worried about my baby dying. I hadn't caused this, and I was doing my best to get him help. So why should I not be calm?

"He seems hungry," the pediatrician observed. "You're kidding!" I said. "He is strapped to my front all day long. He nurses the whole day. How can he be hungry?" "Well... your breasts do look a bit flacid," the pediatrician observed. (And in my mind I thought "I BEG your pardon!") But sure enough, when a bottle of formula was introduced, he drank it ravenously. Turns out my body wasn't producing the amount of milk that my baby needed to be properly nourished. It wasn't my fault, but that didn't matter.

I needed to make some adjustments to my care for him. Fenugreek supplements for increased production; regular (humbling) breaks at work hooked up to a pump, and a LOT of extra formula for the hungry lad. That fixed that problem.

Now I'll admit, I've made many mistakes since that WERE my fault. I've lost my cool. I've not just raised my voice, I have outright shouted. I have shown anger. I have said unfair things. The Covid years, with an extroverted, ADHD, only-child were a downright nightmare- daily emotional outbursts (from all family members, not just the kid), threats of self-harm or running away.... no one in that house was happy. We were, like everyone else at the time, merely surviving, but certainly not thriving. Despite it all, my son and I have a very good relationship these days.

Other than Covid, what changed? Well, I did. I had to recognize the problems WE were facing. I realized that my son struggled with emotional regulation, and I was honest in that I often did as well. I acknowledged that I worried about him relentlessly. Not just the current elementary-aged child, but the future teenager (!), the young adult (!). I decided I would keep my child protected and sheltered from anything bad EVER, with the cunning use of control, and mom-guilt that my mother had so often employed with me. And I certainly turned out all right. Didn't I?

Uh...well, maybe not. Didn't my own mother and I fight like cats and dogs when I was a teenager? Didn't I rebel at every turn? Didn't I still struggle with depression, anxiety and suicidality? Even though my mom tried to give me the best of everything, a better life than she had herself...

My mother wasn't perfect. And neither am I. Neither are you. No parent is. It's important to start there and fully own that. You WILL damage your child. Most likely, it will be entirely unintentional.

I know a lot of struggling parents. I've had to make a number of calls to DCF. And yet, not one of those parents started with a goal of having a child only to heap abuse on them. But the healing starts with us as adults. Our children will "misbehave". It's practically their job as children. But let's face it, we are not the perfect specimen of humanity due to simply having survived to adulthood. Having turned out "all right", may simply not be good enough, even if its better than what we had as kids.

I have known FAR too many parents who cannot back down from the ongoing cycle of abuse because to do so would to be to admit fallibility. There are few things in life more painful than taking a serious look at yourself and saying "Damn. I really f*cked up there." Plus! If we admit to our kids that we made a mistake, or we were wrong, or they had a good point.... they won't respect us, right? Wrong. It's the opposite actually.

Admitting we could have done something better, BUILDS respect and trust with a child, subverting SOME childhood trauma. My kid is growing up with not one, but two therapist parents. I've devoted my entire career to understanding my own mind as well as the minds of people of all ages around me. With all this experience and education, am I the perfect parent? Nope. Just like our kids, we are human. We make mistakes. Own them. Admit what you could have done better.

Apologize for the unintentional mistakes. Then, there are the mistakes we make a parents that we didn't even KNOW about. My son shared with me that one of the scariest times in his life was when we got separated at the grocery store. It was scary for me at the time too, but I had moved on and didn't even remember it. With him, it had stuck with him for years. How do you apologize for something you didn't mean, and don't even remember? I was honest. My heart breaking inside to know how he had been effected, I told him "I don't remember this experience. But I can see how much pain it caused you. And I am so, so sorry that you felt abandoned and scared. I wish I could have changed that."

Empathize, but do NOT own what is NOT yours. Let go of the guilt and shame. Relationships are not black and white. Blame rarely lies ENTIRELY with just one person. Owning that you could have done something better and then asking the fair question, "Do you think there was anything you might have done differently?" opens the conversation up to honest dialogue with no need for defensiveness. If a flat "no" is the response you receive, suggest changes that seem fair and could have made the experience less damaging. (HINT: Now is not the time to say "Well, if you had just listened to me." or "You could have done what I told you to do." It is not productive. It's a blaming tone, and will just get doors slammed in your face.)

If your child is an adult, it's time for you to move on towards your own happiness and healing. I hear so often from adults with hostile relationships (or non-existent ones) with their grown children, that they are trying to make up to them the damage they have done. Well, for better or for worse, it's not entirely your call to make. You can always apologize to another person. You can mean it with every ounce of sincerity. You can change your ways and never do the "bad stuff" again. These are things you can control. You can NOT control whether your efforts are accepted or welcomed by your child.

I'm sorry. I know it hurts.

Like you, they too are an adult now, and they are gifted with the same autonomy that our society grants all legal adults. But like you, they also don't get to blame current bad behavior on what happened to them. Trauma is real. But there will never be anything that excuses passing our pain on to others. You did the best with what you had. So will they. We owe it to ourselves to continue to grow into whole and healthy humans. However, it is not written anywhere that we are mandated to do it together.

Try this metaphor on for size... Like a mother whose body is not producing enough milk, you lacked (or currently lack) what was/ is necessary to give your child the best nourishment. Like that same mother seeking guidance from the pediatrician, there is help, despite our shortcomings. We are not expected to be perfect parents. But we are expected to seek assistance in the areas we struggle with. If you can do this, your kid is gonna do just fine.


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