Confessions on the Silent Suffering of Every Flawed Parent
My Dear Children,
I know at this point in your life there are times when I seem mentally or emotionally absent. I seem distracted or depressed even.
You’re always telling me to chill out or relax, and I get it.
I guess I just want you to know from where this problem of mine comes.
I want to let you inside my head for a small moment. I say small moment because it’s not always pretty in there.
Being a parent is a hard job, and I have made more than my share of mistakes. And the agony is that I realize you have often been a victim to my shortcomings and failings. From my DNA to my daily struggles, you feel the repercussions of a mother who loves you with all of her heart, who wants desperately to be perfect for you but is, sadly, all too human.
And when you are a parent, being human comes with a lot of guilt, some of which keeps me from being totally present and connected to you in the way that I want.
Okay, where shall I start?
I’ll start with you, my baby, my firstborn.
My darling seventeen-year-old son, I am so sorry.
Why? I’ll tell you.
I see your face when your affluent friends take three-week vacations around the nation over summer break, and you are stuck at home. They tell you all about the Grand Canyon and its wonders, the Twin Tower Memorials, the celebrity homes they saw in L.A. All these great experiences I hear you dream about — they had them and you didn’t. You do the right thing, pretend to be excited for them as you say, “Cool. My summer was pretty chill. I played video games and slept in.” I feel your silent heartbreak, your throbbing, hidden envy, and I feel my own self-loathing grow.
That’s when I curse myself for every selfish purchase I ever made, for every expensive trip I took rather than putting that money away to one day enable you to have that kind of experience. The lip glosses, the trendy shoes, the shopping trips where impulse drove and reason sat in the back seat.
I am angry at myself for not being able to do more, or for not doing more when I could have.
I see your face when your friends rave about the four-year college they will soon be attending. Then, they ask you where you are headed. I feel the shame when you say “I’m going to the community college for a few years first.” You brush it off, act like it’s no big deal, but I see your insides, your quiet torment, your shame and embarrassment. You, like them, are in National Honor Society, the top fifteen percent of your class, and because I failed you once again, your anguish comes from my mistakes.
That’s when I curse myself for not planning ahead when life was easier, for not investing more, for not preparing more, for saying “there’ll be time for that.” I was young like you, and I believed in the future with unbridled optimism. For this reason, I believed minutes were limitless, leaving me totally unprepared for the ugly speed of Time or of Life’s little surprise parties. The unexpected festivities it had planned for me like a lost job or an unexpected bill. Due to my own immaturity and lack of insight, I have taken some of that magical enthusiasm of your adolescence and dissolved it with my foolishness.
I should have known better. Something even worse picks at my conscious. Maybe I did know better, and I made the wrong choice anyhow. Damn it, I did! I did know better. I’m a teacher for God’s sake. Even more reason to stoke the fires of self-disgust.
Then there is you, my precious thirteen-year-old daughter.
I am also so, so sorry.
Why? Let me tell you.
I see your face when you ogle yourself in the mirror with an unhappy look, when you search desperately for hoodies to hide what you call your “fat” arms and when you refuse to wear shorts to school in ninety-degree weather because you think your legs look big. I see you when you try on new clothes for the upcoming year, see your inner voice badgering you with a body critique that makes you say, “Let’s go home, Mom. I just want to go home.”
That’s when I curse myself for every time I rewarded your achievements with a trip to the ice cream store, for not getting you more involved in sports, for every bag of chips I bought, every fast food meal I ordered, for every time I commented on my own thick waist or fat rolls and how they made me feel ugly. I know that you see yourself because of how I see myself.
I feel this self-hatred grow because I know that due to my life-long preoccupation with beauty and vanity, my self-dissatisfaction, your own self-esteem is made fragile.
I see your face when you call my name in that certain way. When you say, “Mom, just talk to me. I feel a panic attack coming on.” Or when you don’t try out for the cheerleading team out of fear. Or when you bring home that high-B on a test and look at the grade as if it is a mark of your own ignorance.
That’s when I curse myself for my own disease of anxiety and over-perfectionism. For every time, you saw me say, “I want to_________but I am too scared.” For every time, I stood over your school projects, trying to help, but reinforcing your own belief that, without me, you were incapable. For every time you brought home a really good grade and I uttered, “That’s great. But you can do even better, you know.”
And these examples, these things in which I “see” my own failures as a parent are so much more numerous than the ones I have listed here. They are anchors tied to my heart, and to every parent’s heart that has tried their best to be perfect for their children.
I know that in reality there is no perfect parent, so maybe you can still love me for trying, for continuing to grow and learn from my mistakes.
And one day you may have children of your own, and this note will remind you that is okay to be a flawed parent, to continue to expect more and more from yourself to make your children’s lives the best that they can be. After all, there is no greater love in the whole wide world than a parent for a child, and if you’re going to suck at being perfect, true love will never keep trying to be just that — regardless of the inevitability of failure.