When my son was 4, we took him to the Grand Canyon. The night before, we stayed at a hotel in Flagstaff, and he -- a wiggly preschooler with energy to spare -- was bouncing around the room in excitement, and tripped and fell chin-first onto the coffee table.
Huge gash, blood everywhere.
We rushed him to the ER, where the doc -- in response to my unwillingness to put my son through the trauma of having a sensitive facial area sewed up without pain meds -- gave him a dissociative drug he assured us was safe (that's a whole nother story) and sewed him up. The next morning, we left early for our Grand Canyon road trip, as planned.
He seemed fine physically, but my son was more squirrelly than usual on the trip. He didn't want to sit in his carseat and wouldn't listen to us, and I got very impatient with him. I came down on him pretty hard in response, a kneejerk reaction that I should have forestalled. Later on, it occurred to me: "You dummy. Of COURSE he was acting out -- he had stitches in his chin and was probably in a lot of pain. And he was getting over a drug trip that probably would have freaked out many adults."
My impatience that day still haunts me -- how could I not have immediately understood that he was acting out because he was in pain? Why couldn't I have been more patient? Where was my empathy? He was a sweet 4-year-old, a loving kid who wanted to do the right thing -- why didn't I take that into account? Why didn't I just hug him and ride it out?
Over at The Rumpus, advice columnist Dear Sugar talks about parenting failures. A woman writes in, distraught because her anger is getting the best of her:
I’m a woman with low self-esteem who just gritted her teeth through university, got a pretty good job, married a great guy, have a beautiful family but now I’m scaring myself because of my temper. I’m doing things that I know are not acceptable. Tonight I grabbed my older girl out of her car seat and threw her onto our front yard. She was lying there in shock and started to cry. The prelude to this was a screaming adult tantrum during the drive home. It’s almost like I can’t come down until I’ve had my hit of rage.
I’ve also behaved in ways toward my children that I regret. Find me a mother who hasn’t.
I don’t say this to let you off the hook, but rather—paradoxically—to place responsibility for change squarely on your shoulders. Parenting is serious business. It brings out the best and the worst in us. It demands that we confront our brightest and darkest selves. Your dear daughters have given you the opportunity to see yourself in full: you are the woman who has the ability to love more deeply than she ever thought possible and also the woman who has intermittent “screaming adult tantrums” directed at two people under the age of 5.
That day over 10 years ago taught me a whole lot, and my self-reflection afterward was the beginning of the end of my unthinking impatience, a character flaw that seems to have been with me since birth. I began to think about what types of situations made me impatient, and began the process of curbing myself every time I felt it flaring up, of not indulging a reaction that could cause serious damage to my kids. In that way, I'm grateful for that incident, and I'm glad I caught myself relatively early in my son's life.
But I still think about it with a sickening inner slither of shame -- although I doubt he remembers it at all.
What's the parenting moment you're most ashamed of? That still bothers you even though years have passed? How have you deal with it?