Gazing at my adult children, I sometimes wish I could spirit all of us back into the past and start the process over – just press delete and begin a completely new page. If only I could take my 60-year-old wisdom and maturity and combine it with the fresh vigor of my youthful 20s and 30s. How fortunate my children would have been!
I made so many mistakes and my children admit to feeling scarred and pained from their upbringing. And it hurts; boy, does it hurt. After all, what greater calling is there in life than being a parent? And I goofed.
Sometimes I try self-compassion, gently stroking my guilt-induced wounds. You did the best you could with the knowledge and tools from your arsenal, I assure myself. Had you known better or had you been the person you are today, you would have acted differently. So, stop being so hard on yourself. It’s counterproductive. We can’t erase the past; we can only move forward.
But then the other voice – the prosecutor – chimes in. How could you have been so authoritarian? Meeting out strict consequences for the slightest infractions, demanding compliance all the time. Why, you ran a dictatorship!
Well, yes, I concede. But that isn’t the sum-total of my parenting history. What about all the Sunday trips, handling every appointment, attending their performances and parent-teacher conferences, reading to them, tucking them in, and loving them? Yes, there was an overdose of strictness, but love was certainly a component, too.
What’s your ruling, Rachel? Am I doomed to be eternally guilty for the mistakes I perpetrated?
Signed, The Defendant
What a heavy burden to carry! It sounds intensely difficult, but I applaud your transparency and your earnest desire to remedy the situation.
I think I would advocate a two-step process.
Reach out to each of your children individually. Tell them how you feel. Ask if there is anything they want to bring up or discuss. If they agree and spill out their accusations, don’t justify your past actions, simply validate their thoughts and feelings. Be there to listen and soothe. (If you want to scream or cry, find a supportive person who will listen – far away from your children.)
It is my hope that following these healing conversations, you can move forward. Your children can choose to accept your apology or not, but at this point, what else can you do? As you said, you are incapable of turning back the wheels of time.
The second step involves forgiving yourself. As you said, due to a variety of factors, probably including family circumstances, personality, tools and knowledge, you walked a certain path. Had you known better or been gifted with the tremendous amount of resources available for parents today, you would have acted differently.
If your children cannot forgive you and treat you with love, compassion and respect, then I feel they should address their deep-seated issues with a therapist. If they ask you to join them for family therapy, it can be a searing experience, but it has the potential to generate healing and comfort.
I wish you luck on this difficult journey, my friend. Ultimately, I believe you will come out that much richer for having reached into the hearts of your children and attempting to mend the breaches. No one is perfect. All any of us can do is try our best each and every day. But chuck the excessive guilt! As you said, it is counterproductive and will only weigh you down. Take action, give love, and passionately pursue loving relationships. And a little prayer always helps.
Wishing you comfort and guilt-free healing, Rachel Stein