I’ve been trying to practice guilt-free parenting, but it’s hard; while I’m getting better at letting go of the little things, that still leaves a lot to feel bad about. Always.
A few weeks back, we had one of those nights where both kids had something big going on. Henry had a concert; Charlie had a baseball game. They were in two different places at the exact same time.
It was going to be tight. “If we take two cars,” I told Wade, “then I can take Henry home after the concert and come meet you at the game. And not miss anything!”
Of course, that’s not at all how it happened. After the concert, Henry was in one of those happy, communicative moods that are hard to come by in teens — and even more so in Aspie teens. He wanted to tell me all about the songs they sang (country music, loosely defined, including Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and Mumford and Sons “I Will Wait”) and about the crazy things that had happened in rehearsals that week and about everything that was going on at school. He rarely opens up like that, so of course it happened on a night when I had planned to be somewhere else.
I drove him home and fist bumped him and told him to text me when he was done with his homework, and left him happily eating cookies and doing his math, all alone at the kitchen table.
I stopped to put gas in my car on the way to the ball field, and that’s when I started to feel guilty. I go to a million baseball games, but I have so few really great moments with Henry, especially lately — what if I just skipped this one game?
When I walked back in the house, Henry said skeptically, “You didn’t come back just to hang out with me, did you?” No no, I said, it’s too cold to sit in the bleachers. And there are a million baseball games. “Oh, ok,” he said. “Want to watch ‘Phineas and Ferb’ with me?”
Yes. Yes I do. And also, guilt averted! Go me.
A little while later, Wade texted me: “Charlie smacked a HUGE hit, right over the center fielder’s head. Double.” Charlie has struggled with his hitting this year; he’s been working with a coach and has really been improving. More than we realized, apparently. This was a very big deal for Charlie.
And I missed it. But while I was sad that I wasn’t there, I didn’t feel particularly guilty.
Parenting can easily be all about the guilt. There is always something to feel bad about, some way in which we’re falling short and failing our kids. If we’re lucky, it’s just little things, like the nights we’re too tired to cook and so we announce that we’re having breakfast for dinner! and give everyone an Eggo waffle and some chocolate milk. Often it’s the medium sized things, like missing a game or a field trip, those things that repeat and repeat every year. We’ll come to the next one, of course, but not this one, honey, I’m sorry. And we keep our word and come next time, but we still feel bad.
I can live with that guilt. In fact, I’m over feeling bad about those small and mid-sized things. I was disappointed that I didn’t see what Wade and Charlie still refer to as The Hit, but there will be lots of other hits. That one night with Henry was a rare moment, one that I may never have again, because of the way my boy functions, No guilt about my choices that night.
What I have come to learn in the past year or so is that I don’t have the bandwidth to feel guilty about the little things; I’m too busy feeling guilty about the big ones. Specifically, all of Henry’s issues, which I am sure, at some level, are entirely my fault.
In some ways, my whole parenting life has been defined by guilt. It took us two and a half years to get pregnant with Henry; no one could tell us why. He was premature and had health issues. No one could tell us why. He has Aspergers and SID and ADHD. And no one can tell us why.
So it must be my fault.
When Henry was a baby, I assuaged the guilt by being there, all the time, for him. He wasn’t able to nurse, so I pumped breast milk for four and a half months, until there wasn’t any more milk to pump. He didn’t sleep well, so I would lay on the sofa at night with him cuddled on my chest, listening to him breathe. If I could just be there for him, he would be all right.
But I still felt guilty.
Henry is 13 now and I can’t be with him all the time. And honestly, I don’t want to. Sometimes, if we’re being really honest, I don’t want to be with him at all. Of course, the moments when I want to be around him the least — when he is anxious and argumentative and struggling to be in the moment — are the times he needs me the most. And I feel guilty both because I need to step away from him and also because I’m sure it’s my fault that he’s having such a hard time.
And then I feel guilty because clearly it is my terrible parenting that got us here in the first place. And that leaves very little time or energy to feel bad about serving everyone pancakes for dinner once in a while.
I’m trying to stop feeling like everything is my fault, but it’s hard. And then, every so often, there’s a little light in the darkness. This week, Henry had a couple of really horrific days, to the point where I was emailing his teachers to ask for help and grace because he just couldn’t get through his schoolwork. We finally got to the point where I had to say, give him a zero if you need to. I don’t know what else we can do.
After my second apologetic email, Henry’s Spanish teacher sent me a reply that made me weep: “Henry has always been a very responsible student with his work and homework. There are times in life when circumstances cause for exceptions to the rule. I have no problem accepting his assignment tomorrow with no penalty. Blessings to you and to your family. You are wonderful parents!”
I needed to hear that this week. For just a little moment, it made me feel less guilty.