As a parent, you accept from the start that it is all your fault. Every last inhibition, weakness and thing that goes wrong in your child's life is down to you -- however old they are. If they get bullied, bully, pick the wrong course at university or marry the wrong girl, it is all because you did it wrong. As a parent -- deep-down, you know you suck. You know it is not the kid's fault (however old the kid is) -- you made a hash of it.
You drank a glass of wine when you were pregnant which is why your nine-year-old has ADHD. You had a caesarian which is why he has "trust issues" with women. You threw him out of the house when he was 21, papered over the steam-trains to turn his bedroom into your craft room and he never got over it. You did not throw him out of the house and he is still there at 28 and counting. You smacked him; he grew up to have a problem with authority figures and cannot hold down a job. You did not smack him; he grew up to be a bastard. You let him have a small watered down glass of wine with Sunday dinner and he became an alcoholic at college. You did not let him touch alcohol at home and he became an alcoholic at college.
You said he should have some fun while he was still young and he went travelling in the Congo and got murdered for his wristwatch. You said he should get a job straight after college, he ignored you, grew a beard and is still travelling eight years later. You made him write thank you letters for gifts he did not want, and he is an ungrateful wretch who has never thanked you for ruining your figure and eating up your life. You never made him write thank you letters for anything or to anyone, and now his children do not write thank you letters however much cash you put in with the card. You feel it is your fault whether they are a killer or a victim. If you taught them to avoid strangers or to reach out to strangers who then betray them. As a mother or a father you accept the guilt, responsibility and shame and live with these things.
I have wondered watching Sarah Palin if she blames herself for Bristol's teenage pregnancy. I am willing to bet most hockey moms would. Palin is an amazing role model for a daughter -- whether you agree with her politics or not -- she is a mother to five children and could end up President. Even so, if she didn't have some heartwrenching "What did I do wrong?" conversations with the First Dude over Bristol's predicament, I would eat my moose burger.
Stupidity, misadventure, tragedy can scoop up and swallow down a child in a blink and you know what? It is not necessarily your fault. Nice kids can grow up and do bad or idiotic things however hard their parents tried to bring them up to know the difference between right and wrong. The problem is too many parents blame themselves for every damn fool thing their children do. They say children never forgive their parents. Not true. Parents do not forgive themselves. Being a mother is misery. Years of fear your children get hurt one way or another, years of disappointment their lives aren't exactly the way they thought they would be. Worst of all, that conviction rolling and crashing around inside that if you had done things differently, it did not have to be this way. You know as you clutch your coffee in a worn, chipped mug that boasts you are the "World's Best Mom" or the "Number 1 Dad" that you could have done it so much better. You know that your innocent children are paying the price with their health, sanity or happiness for your own deep and terrible failings as a mother or a father. When bad things happen, it is natural enough to grope around in the darkness for someone or something to blame. The itinerant loner who took advantage? A bad crowd? God? But deep down you are not telling me that a parent does not blame themselves for whatever fate throws at her beloved child and however that child turns out. Suck it up -- it's your fault. You should have done something, been there, stood in front of the speeding bullet and caught it in your hand.
Surely though if parenting is about anything at all, it is about teaching your children to be responsible for their own decisions and actions. You wouldn't claim credit for a book that is not your own or a picture you didn't paint, so why feel the necessity to take on your children's screw-ups or bad luck? Let them own that really big mistake. Don't crowd them out of the spotlight when the jeering starts. There is enough research out there that indicates "helicopter" parents hovering mercilessly over their children from kindergarten and into the jobs market are not doing anyone any favours. In the same way, insisting that every bad thing that happens is "all my fault" is just one more way a parent lays claim to her child's soul. Sometimes you have to step away and leave them to it.
©2008 Judith O’Reilly
Wife in the North is published by PublicAffairs at $14.95. www.wifeinthenorth.com