Parental Mistakes: Known and Unknown
I’ve been thinking about forgiveness lately. Not the smug, slightly self- sanctifying forgiveness where I am working on forgiving someone for a wrong done to me. No, that’s the easy or at least a more comfortable type of forgiveness. I’m stuck thinking about the shame and regret-filled kind of forgiveness—forgiveness where I’m on the receiving end. For me, it’s far easier to think about being the forgiver rather than the forgiven.
What sparked these thoughts was the recurring popularity of a blog I wrote, which was inspired by the national public radio show This American Life episode titled “Switched at Birth.” You will need to read that previous blog to understand the story, but the Crib Note version is that two baby girls (Marti Miller and Sue McDonald) were switched at a hospital in the mid-1950s. One mother, Mrs. Miller, suspected immediately that she had the wrong baby, but for numerous reasons, she said nothing until 40 years later. Every good story needs a villain, and the show put the black hat squarely on Rev. and Mrs. Miller’s head.
This must be a popular segment for TAL because they’ve rerun it several times since I originally posted that blog. The first time it re-aired, the youngest Miller daughter commented on my blog, giving additional information that had been left out of the radio show. Her version was much kinder to her mother. The last time it was on the radio, one of the switched babies herself—Marti, the one raised by Mrs. Miller– commented. She provided even more missing information, but what struck me most in her comments was her understanding and forgiveness of her mother.
I don’t think anyone ever begins parenting thinking they are going to need to be on the receiving end of their children’s forgiveness one day. I certainly know I didn’t. I started this whole parenting endeavor planning on being as close to perfect as possible. Being a good mother was the most essential thing in my life. It still is; I’m just less sure about how to do it.
In my years of parenting, I’ve made my share of mistakes. Blowing up at a child who provided the spark, but had nothing to do with the build-up of emotional fuel. Trying to do too much and succeeding at doing a poor job of everything. Giving only half my attention, accusing when I should have had faith, putting off their questions until “I had more time.” These are the mistakes I see. What worries me are the mistakes hidden from me, like the “mistake” Mrs. Miller made. She never set out to harm anyone and likely didn’t even realize that it might have been handled better until years later.
I still stand by this Parenting Tip.
A friend once told me about a conversation with her teen son. They were talking about being scared, and she asked him what scared him. He said nothing would ever compare to fear he felt when his sister went missing. He vividly recalled first his and then his mother’s search, the anxious phone calls, the growing worry, and his terror. Ultimately his sister was found safe, but the event left its mark and remained the worst day of his life.
My friend remembered none of it.
My friend is not some inattentive flake or parent too caught up with her work or life to notice her children. Quite the opposite. She was a stay at home mom, totally invested in her kids. She can only guess that she wasn’t all that worried about her daughter’s whereabouts, but missed that her son was. How, she wondered, could she miss something so big? Completely unaware, she left her son to deal with his terror alone.
Last week at dinner, my family was talking about childhood misconceptions. Son #2 said that when he was little, he really believed that summer camps were a place where parents sent their kids to get rid of them — kind of like boarding school for life. He recalled the gut-wrenching fear he felt the week before he went to a five-day church camp the summer he was 11. He said he walked around the house that week saying good-bye to everything and everyone and crying himself to sleep.
I knew nothing.
Oh, I knew he was reticent to go, but this child is hesitant about all things new. His older siblings had loved this camp, and I’m sure I was full of my cheery talk about all the fun things he would get to do. I tucked him into bed each night but somehow missed that he was truly afraid.
I was so sure when I began parenting that I wouldn’t make the same mistakes my parents had made. True enough, I avoided some of their errors but succeeded in creating my own. One night a girlfriend and I were engaged in the time-honored girlfriend tradition of complaining about our mothers when I realized that our children would someday be sitting around a table complaining about us. It was a disconcerting feeling. She and I quickly agreed that it couldn’t possibly happen since they would have nothing to say.
What I know is that each and every one of us screws up with our kids. Some of these mistakes we know about, some we don’t. It is impossible to parent without giving our children cause to forgive us. I apologize for the mistakes I know about, and try my best to model forgiveness because I know someday I will need to be on the receiving end. I can only hope my kids will be as understanding and forgiving of me as Mrs. Miller’s daughters are of her.
Originally published in 2009; Updated in 2020 Image credit: mopics80, Angela de Marco, Hans Fransen Some images have been resized and cropped to fit our format