I suppose all stories are different. Yours is not the same as mine, and mine is not the same as hers. I grew up in a home where guilt trips were the family vacation of choice. This continued well into my adulthood as my mother pounded the guilt she must have felt into me, making it mine to carry. Nothing was ever good enough. I did not clean my house good enough. I did not visit her often enough. I did not put my life on hold enough. I did not close the door to my father, because she decided she didn’t love him anymore. I will not even get into the guilt she made me feel for being born with heart problems, or the ensuing five open heart surgeries I would have and the care she would give as she took time off from her job to tend to me. I repeated I am sorry so many times, it became the basis of our conversations.
Was this a reflection of her mirror? Was she casting her own guilt on us for the times she left us home alone while she went out on dates, to parties, dabbled with her drug of choice, off to play soft-ball or to bowl? And yes, she was entitled to those things, entitled to a life outside of her children. What she was not entitled to was the physical and mental abuse she dished out to my brother and me. What she was not entitled to was to make us live our lives with an overwhelming amount of guilt which she dumped on our shoulders for her own misgivings.
I try very hard with my daughters not to take them along on these guilt trips, though I realize at times I fail. Because she lived with her for eight years, my eldest daughter is very much like my mother, in the fact that she is both mentally abusive and loves to pack a big ole sack of guilt and pull me along for yet another trip. And admittedly so, I join her for the ride and I retaliate throwing it back her way and then – and then I feel more guilty than I did before because I have allowed her my power, given in to the trip and carried the guilt of others actions which have caused our relationship so much damage. And then I say the mandatory, “I am sorry” so we can move beyond the latest scuffle.
A few days ago I read an article on a news blog in which the author was stating she wished there were a way for all Momma’s to unite, without the judging of how we raise our children, without the criticism when we do not see eye to eye. In the end she decided this was impossible because of the “Mean Mommies” in the mix. The ones who turn their nose up at other parents, the ones who mock another’s parenting style, the ones who are obviously so much better at parenting than we are. In reading this article I was reminded of a day in the park with my Little Man a few weeks ago. I was reminded of the Momma who decided I was not raising my son right, because I had yet to teach him to say he was sorry. I was reminded of the fact that she returned to the park bench where her friend sat waiting, pointed at my son and went on to talk about how he must have learning disabilities because he could not say, “I am sorry”. I commented on this article with a reflection of this particular incident in the park. Before I tell you about the assault on my character which followed, you will probably want to know what transpired at the park that day.
There is a little park in our town behind a museum which is normally empty when Riley and I visit there for a play date. I like it this way; I am a long time sufferer of agoraphobia and though I have been able to overcome the most difficult symptoms of this mental affliction, I still prefer less crowded places. On the day in question there were two women along with their four kids and a couple with their three children already playing at the park. Though this did make me a bit uneasy, Riley had already seen the slide and was running straight for it. He was obviously younger than everyone there and because he is more accustomed to singular play I stayed right on top of him. (Well, that and I have an unnatural fear of people and their intentions.)
There is a three-year old at the top of the slide who continues to sit there as Riley Jabe climbs the stairs, of which I am standing next to. I am telling Riley to be careful while he waits three-quarters of the way up on the ladder. He moves up two more steps and he touches the boy on the shoulder. I remind him he needs to wait his turn, just as the other kid starts to scream and cry. I move my Little Man down a few steps, the other mother comes to the bottom of the slide, encourages her son down and begins to check him for any signs of injury. There are none, Riley really only touched the little boys shoulder. He did not push him, he did not hit him and he did not grab him. Of course I realize he may have done any one of these things, had I not been standing there to remind him to wait his turn and to physically move him down a few steps – he is two years old and though close to it, he is not perfect. As the other mother consoles her son she says to him, “It’s okay, ask for an apology. I am sure the little boy didn’t mean to hurt you”, or something along those lines. I am thinking to myself, I am not sure if Riley has ever said I am sorry before, when the other mother looks up at me and says, “We will expect an apology” in a most indignant tone.
All I could think to say was, “I am sure he is sorry he touched your son, but I highly doubt he will say he is sorry”. I was turning towards Riley with the intention of asking him to say he was sorry, when she asks me why he wasn’t going to apologize. I sort of chuckled when I replied, “Well he’s never said those words before”. Before I could get another word out of my mouth, to her or to Riley, she looks up the slide at him and asks me with condemnation dripping off of her tongue, “Why hasn’t he said those words before? How old is he anyway?” I answered her honestly, “Well he’s two, but he has never been asked to say he was sorry”. Before I was able to finish my thoughts she was walking away, back to the park bench next to her friend, literally pointing at my Little Sugar Man and loudly stating he must have a learning disability since he is two years old and cannot say he is sorry. And of course the underlying insinuation being, what kind of mother am I anyway, that I have yet to teach my son to apologize?
Had she waited for the rest of my answer, she may have learned the following. He is a late talker and we are lucky when we can understand one thought he is trying to convey. Yes he has words; yes he says please and thank you – they apply to his life and being from the south, I am a stickler for manners. However he has never done anything to warrant, “I am sorry” and is too young to understand the difference between “I am sorry I hurt you” and “I am sorry you feel that way”. Of course it may not have mattered if she would have let me finish because I was able to convey these things on the news blog repeatedly as my character and parenting skills were attacked, insulted and criticized for three days by yet another stranger. Apparently because I have not enforced, made, taught my son how to say I am sorry I am raising a child lacking in empathy and as a result he will grow up to have an antisocial personality disorder.
I am so glad to know this. I am so glad this stranger has so much insight into my life, in how I interact with my son, the depth of respect I have already instilled into my two older children, to know I am doing it all wrong. She must be able to see into the future, to know my Little Man will grow up to be antisocial. (And you know he just may. I mean, I am – but it has more to do with my fear of people and their intentions, than it does with my inability to empathize with someone’s emotions.) I wonder if she even realizes she has proven the authors point that we cannot band together in unity as women, as mother’s, simply because we are too busy judging and criticizing how others raise their children?
Now I realize you may think I am crazy because I do not think Riley has done anything which warrants an apology, as all children do things which are wrong. He is no exception, but he is not a mean child; he is sweet and gentle by nature. Saying you’re sorry implies you have done something intentionally and/or with malice, it implies you know what you have done is against the rules; it implies GUILT. Given the fact I am not sure how much Riley actually understands given his limited vocabulary, it is unrealistic for me to expect him to carry guilt or feel regret when he makes a mistake, not to mention I do not want him to. At this point in his life anything he does wrong is an innocent mistake, it is not intentional. He is still learning; he is learning what his words mean, he is learning that for every action there is a reaction. He does not purposefully head butt me, but when he does he gets a sad look on his face and hugs me. He shows empathy for my pain and his little pats on my back as he sweetly hugs me, convey what the words, “I am sorry” never could. And my guess is, when the time is right and when I am certain he understands everything he needs to in order to feel a healthy amount of regret, I will instill in him the importance of a genuine apology. There are plenty of mistakes for him to make and feel guilt over in the future and you can bet, I will be the first one to put him in his place and remind him of how important it is to respect and be respected.
But for today, he will not carry guilt.
February 17, 2012
Twenty years ago I was twenty-three years old and had just had my fifth open heart surgery. I was sore and exhausted and having a toddler running around made for an interesting journey. Oddly enough, it seemed she just knew my chest was no longer her playground and I do not recall a time when she dug her knees into my breastbone in an effort to climb on my head. She was loving and gentle and kind.
Fast forward and I am forty-three and, it has been almost seven years since my sixth open heart surgery. Our Little Man climbs on and digs his knees into my chest as often as possible. The discomfort is psychological really, given the fact I have no feeling left in my chest. He exhausts me daily, to the point I can be quoted as saying “I do not recall mothering a toddler being so exhausting twenty years ago”. Of course I am twenty years older, so it could simply be a combination of my failing memory and truly, my age. Or is it simply because he is a boy?
Twenty years ago I was chasing a twenty-two month old around; she was the sweetest and smartest baby I had ever had the pleasure of knowing. She was my first and as it turns out, the only child I would ever give birth to. This is the story of opposites, of how babies are different, yet not and how things change and stay the same no matter how much time goes by.
It is hard looking back and getting facts straight as so many years have passed since my eldest child was a baby. She will be twenty-one in March and I am still left wondering where all the time went? Would it seem to have gone by so quickly had she always lived with me, had I not missed so many beautiful moments in time? We will never know – but what I do know is the first eleven years of her life were amazing – she was amazing.
Fast forward and I am now chasing around a twenty-seven month old boy; he is the sweetest boy I have ever had the pleasure to know. He is identical to my daughter in many ways and in many ways, he is so different. I can only hope to share in all of his life adventures, to not miss years of his life and to teach him the lessons I believe are important….but for now, I will take each day of watching him laugh, run, jump, sing and play I can get.
My daughter started speaking at six months old. Her first words were Batman, Panther (our dog), and butterfly. By the time she was a year she was speaking in full sentences, by sixteen months she knew the alphabet by sight and by the time she was two years old, she would have conversations to rival any I have had with another adult. And she loved books. She could sit (and I am not exaggerating) for hours listening to me read to her. God how I love those memories.
Fast forward and my little man is a late talker; we are lucky when we can understand half of one of his sentences. Though he does know his alphabet and numbers by sight, he is not bringing me a stack of books to read him while we sit together on the couch, or snuggled up in my bed. Unlike my daughter, he loves to jump and climb, he is a pro on the balance beam and loves to hang from the uneven bars with the best of them. He is the true definition of a “monkey man” and he is oh so much more coordinated than I or my daughter will ever be.
There could be several explanations for their differences, though only one for their similarities. Genetics explains why our Little Man looks identical to my daughter, minus the differing body parts of course. Had we never cut Riley Jabe’s hair and I put their pictures next to one another with them dressed in the same clothing, we would have a difficult time telling them apart.
Could their differences also be explained away by genetics? Biologically speaking, they have different fathers and different mothers. My husband and I have had custody of our grandson since he was seven months old though he has lived with us since birth. He calls us Momma and Poppa; he is as much our son as she is my daughter. He is only a quarter of me, where she is half. We have no idea who his other biological parent is, so there is nothing to compare him to in our search for answers.
Or is it something other than genetics which explain away their differences? When I was pregnant with my daughter, I read children’s books aloud daily as I was babysitting a toddler during those months. I read to her every day from the time she was born. I held her for hours on end talking to her, looking into her eyes, telling her how very loved she was. She was the center of my universe from the moment I found out I was pregnant and more than anything, I was proud to be her mother. I had a rule for myself, I would never tell her no I would not read to her. I was a mother, a house-wife, she was my one and only priority – she was my job. Trust me when I say she took full advantage of this rule from the beginning, which was fine with me because this meant I got to hold her, to watch her smile and hear her laughter.
Fast forward to when we found out she was with child. She was eight-teen years old when she moved home to live with me; she was six and a half months pregnant with a baby she swears she did not know was inside of her and she was clear when she stated she did not want to keep him. This means she had not been taking care of herself, or the baby. She had not been reading to her unborn child, or talking to him. She did not want to be a mother; thank God it was too late for her to make other arrangements to keep him from being born into our world. My husband and I told her we would adopt the baby to keep him in the family should she change her mind. I had so hoped she would do just that once he was born – after she held him and looked into his eyes. I had Prayed for her and for Riley Jabe, so wanting her to feel the bond of motherly love which comes from giving birth. Sadly for them both, this never happened.
During the first four months of his life I bathed, fed and changed him. I woke with him in the mornings and in the middle of the night. I pushed her to breast feed for the first two months, but it was so unbearable for her the stress was evident in our Little Man. Though I tended to all of his needs, I purposefully did not hold him for hours on end as I had with her. I purposefully waited for her to pick him up to read to him, sing to him, to simply hold him. It soon became evident not only was the natural bond not taking effect, she had no desire for it to develop. She begged us to adopt him, she begged us for her freedom and she pulled further and further away from him – and from me.
When he was five months old I realized in my desire for her to bond with him, in my desire for her to be his mother, I too was neglecting the baby I told her I would adopt in order to keep him in the family. This being said I had to change my way of thinking. I had to realize she was not going to magically decide she wanted to be Riley’s mother and she was not going to seek help to work through her emotions. She had/has no desire to be his mother and the only way he was going to get the love, attention and maternal nurturing he needed was for me to give it to him.
I don’t want you to misunderstand me – there was never a time I did not love him, never a time when I did not hold him when he cried and never a time when he wasn’t cared for; I simply did not give him the same amount of attention as I had given my daughter when she was born, or the same amount of attention he would have gotten had I given birth to him. Once I was able to look in from the outside, once I came to terms with the fact she was serious – she did not want him and no matter the amount of encouragement we gave her, she was not going to change her mind, I was able to release the maternal instincts within and open my heart up to being his Momma.
I can never make up for the lost time, for those five months I hoped she would suddenly wake to his cries and look into his eyes feeling the love for him I feel. I can only hope in my desire for her to do so, I did not cause irreparable damage. I can only hope my choice not to read to him for hours on end, did not stymie his intellectual growth. I can only Pray the differences in his vocabulary compared to my daughters at this age are nothing more than the fact, all babies are different and girls learn at a greater rate than boys.
Twenty years ago I could not afford such luxuries as gym lessons for my daughter, or play time with Mommy and Me. We did plenty of fun things, like going to the zoo and playing at the beach or the park, or simply taking a stroll. Fast forward twenty years and I am financially able to supply Riley Jabe with the extras which help to build coordination, social skills, and pride from each new thing he has learned. I know this is what has made a difference in his climbing, his jumping, his balance – because Lord knows genetically speaking, he did not get those skills from either my daughter or me.
Twenty years ago I loved my daughter more than life itself; fast forward twenty years and I still love her just the same. The difference is, now I love him too.
Twenty years ago I was chasing around a toddler; fast forward and I am once again chasing a toddler. I do not recall it being so exhausting, though I do recall the many rewards.
©Kesia L. Miller