Let’s stop beating ourselves up for not being perfect parents!
The mom who wrote this article in The Week believes that being late to pick up her teen son a single time will make him feel as unloved as she did back when her parents were routinely late:
I waited at the doctor’s office staring at nothing in particular trying not to watch the clock. A vision of my teenage son exiting school looking for me flashed through my mind. I saw his face, sagging with disappointment. Not quite in possession of his driver’s license, he normally biked to school. Today, I was his ride. His classmates would be elbowing past him, leaping into their cars and peeling out of the parking lot. Others would board parents’ vehicles as they pulled through the pickup line.
I read his imaginary text: “Where are you?” and pictured him clear as day standing there alone, waiting, stranded and frustrated. I felt stranded and frustrated, too. The doctor’s lengthy delay would produce a ripple effect, causing me to be late for pickup. I took no joy in having a valid excuse.
When a nurse appeared, I cut the small talk and explained my hurry. To her glib Oh it’ll be okay, honey. Why don’t you text him? I responded: “I told him I’d be there. I made a promise.”
Her head jerked. We locked eyes. She felt the weight of my words. She had kids, too.
Of all the phrases that come out of my kids’ mouths, “You’re late!” makes me wither the most. It’s a loaded accusation. And for me, it brings back memories. I was that kid. My parents were both creatures of late, a pattern so normalized it wouldn’t have struck them as an issue worth examining.
When I was under their roof, I also normalized their serial tardiness. They were late taking us to school and late to pick us up. Even after I got my driver’s license, we carpooled since my dad worked near my high school. I was about my son’s age when, slouched against the wall of the school after volleyball practice, I waited for the family car to pull into the empty parking lot. The school’s cleaning crew had locked the doors. I was stuck outside. In the age before cell phones, I had no way of contacting anyone. I don’t remember the explanations offered for their delay any more than I remember my reaction. The whole scene was both predictable and tiresome.
The mom then flashes back on a moment of imperfection that she can’t stop beating herself up about — the time she was going to pick up her son on his last day of first grade and found she couldn’t get there on time:
Scrambling, I arranged for a parent of one of my kid’s friends to meet him when school released. They would play on the playground until I could get there. He wouldn’t even notice my absence with the heightened stimulation from the last day of school, I reasoned.
When I arrived, the schoolyard teemed with wild, exuberant children, embracing the freedom that summer represented. But my son stuck out: He was the only sad kid there. Even now, I see his little face wracked with disappointment, his sweet puppy dog eyes fighting back tears. I had missed the incomparable hoopla known as the last moment of the last day of school. Armed with cameras, all the other parents had shown up to catch their children flying out the school doors. Congratulations! balloons. You made it! cupcakes. I missed the hugging, the screaming hooray-summer-is-here moment.
He’s 16 now, but he still remembers that day. When my kid hurts, I hurt myself, too. My absence at the end of the school day didn’t match my words at the beginning when I said I’d be waiting for him when school let out and summer began. This experience crystalized for me that punctuality is essentially making good on a promise. I was accountable to my 7-year-old, and it crushed him when another mom instead of his own showed up. My actions had inadvertently communicated that he was less important than my work, when in fact, my noblest work is wrapped up in being his mother.
Here’s where I must point out a few things:
1 – Just because a parent has to prioritize work sometimes does not mean that they love their work more than their kids.
2 – Kids get that.
3 – Kids are resilient. Not that this justifies cruelty — nothing does. Just that kids will inevitably experience some pain and frustration, and they will recover.
4 – Parents have never been perfect, and that’s fine. It’s not a role that demands perfection.
This mom is right that actions speak louder than words. But the action of trying to get there on time speaks of love. Her son understands that she wasn’t trying to abandon him.
And he probably understands that about the first grade pick-up, too. – L.