Monday, September 29, 2014

Grief, Guilt and Parenting

I can honestly say that there is nothing in this world I love more than being a parent.....most of the time. In fact, next to being a writer, being a parent was the only other thing I ever wanted to be growing up. I always saw myself as a mom, writer or not. However, I learned early on and am still learning to this day......parenting is a lot easier in theory than in acutality.

As a kid growing up and being one of only two children, I was always very envious of the kids that came from big families. I had a lot to be envious of as in my town, five kids in a family was considered small and anything below that....well your parents just weren't trying hard enough. I always imagined and dreamed that I would have a very large family with lots of commotion and chaos. Eventually through marriage and a yours, mine and ours scenario, I got my five kids and all the chaos and commotion I could ever dream of. Back in the day, in our little 3 bedroom, 1 bath, 900 sq. ft. home with the older four kids, I considered my life amazing. We fought for space, bathroom time and of course, the kids just fought to fight, but in the strangest of ways, it was the absolute happiest time in my life. Then it all changed.

In 2001, the happiness turned to grief and my parenting changed forever, Suddenly I was doing it all alone. The oldest was married, the next one was living back in MO with his mother ready to graduate high school and it was just the youngest three and myself. We now had a bigger place with room to spread out and the chaos and commotion were slowed to the more and more often angry outburst of teenage grief and defiance at an unexpected and unthinkable turn in his life. The dad he had loved, relied on and basically begun to emulate was  snatched from his life and all he was left with Harsh? Yes, but at the time......that is how we both felt.

A strong parent would have taken this life change by the horns and established dominance, guidance and security for the kids from the get go. I however, was anything but strong. I was reeling from my own loss and trying to comprehend and process the fact that everything I had known and dreamed of, was gone. My world was inside out and I knew that if I wasn't capable of processing all of this at my age, these kids.....especially the teenager.....had to be spiraling out of control. I learned that he was not alone, for back in MO, a similar situation was also occurring. This loss was more than any of us could take and we were all losing ourselves in the grief.

I was able to pull myself together enough to realize that like it or not, I was the parent, albeit the only parent, and I couldn't emotionally or physically jump ship. I owed it to these kids to give them the best life I was capable of giving them, I just had no idea how that life would look. So I pulled myself up by the bootstraps and muddled my way through unpaid bills and no insurance or means of support, a special needs child with no handbook, a traumatized five year old who had been alone with his dad as he died and after he died for several hours and a teenager who lost a part of himself as he lost his dad. Had we all been characters in a story, I could have made this a learning experience where each character grew because of the tragedy and in the end there would have been a happy ending, but we were not story characters. We were flesh and blood and quite honestly all I could manage to do was get through the days sometimes just hanging on minute by minute.

As a parent, when something bad or damaging to the family happens, it is instinct to want to protect the kids. We parents also take on a lot of guilt over these situations whether the damage is our fault or not. In this particular situation, the fault was not mine, but the guilt over these kids being in pain and me being helpless to fix the cause of their pain was all mine. I wanted to make everything okay for everyone and so I began to bend over backwards being way to permissive and way too giving of all the wrong things. I was trying to fill an emotional hole with all the non-emotional things and the result was long and lasting disaster.

You know, I watch Dr. Phil sometimes and I see the programs where the "good kids go bad" and I watch Dr. Phil just go after the parents for all of their bad parenting choices. Yeah, there are those parents who choose drugs and alcohol over their kids and when he goes after them I find myself cheering him on, but then there are the others. There are those parents who fail their kids not because they are bad people or they don't love their kids, but because life throws curve balls and these kids don't come with hand books or contingency plans for when life gets muddy. We as parents are human and most of us don't wake up every day thinking of ourselves or how we can make our kids life miserable. On the contrary, most of us wake up every day with the idea that we are going to be the best parent we can be. Our parenting decisions may not all be stellar, but every decision made is with love and with us trying to make the best choices possible....even if there is no obvious good choice to make. I think sometimes Dr. Phil forgets that. Parenting is on a learning curve for most of us and not all choices are cut and dry.

My choices and how I raised my kids changed dramatically after July 2, 2001. I was neither the same person nor the same parent after that and my kids were not the same kids. In that one day, the four older kids aged years. It was the aging that only grief and trauma can cause. I had a five year old who lost his innocence of childhood and a 15 year old who completely lost his way. I was raising these kids in my own grief and guilt and trying to figure out where to go from there.

In the years that followed, I lost and gained control so many times. My kids became my world and all I had left and so my heart was soft for them. Add to that, the fact that they were boys and I was mush. It was not good parenting and too much was excused. When I did come down hard, there was rebellion and with no family support to back me up, mutiny was attempted on more than one occasion. I spent a lot of years trying to hold my own against the simmering rage that became the life force of these boys who not only lost their dad, but also their way.

Quite honestly, there were many days that I felt like I as not enough. I was not enough of a person or a parent for these kids and I know there were times when they wished that I was not the parent who had survived. It made me wonder too. If Tim was here and I was not, would things be vastly different? Would these boys be better off? Perhaps the fact that Tim was a man and therefore far more dominant than myself.....maybe that would have made a difference in their lives. Maybe though, the loss and the grief would have still been there for all of them. Maybe the anger and the testosterone would have erupted in negative ways. Who knows and wondering about the "what ifs" is futile.

If I were on Dr. Phil, I am sure I would receive the tongue lashing of all tongue lashings and in the end we would establish on national TV what I already know in the quietest places of my is my fault. I gave in and let guilt guide me instead of standing firm. I said yes, when no was the answer. I yelled when anger and frustration were all that I felt and I taught my kids which buttons to push to manipulate me. My boundaries were vague and my choices though made out of honest effort and hindsight were at times....questionable. If I was given a grade card for parenting, my graduation might be at risk. However......

Through all my failings as a parent, I have never not been there for my kids. I have always looked on my children as a gift and I have fought like a protective mother lioness for each and every one of them. My children have always known that no matter what they did, they could come to me. I have yet to disown any of them and when things are darkest, they do still find their way back to me. I have always listened to my kids. It didn't matter whether it was about their day, things that bothered them or the person they had a crush on. I have fought for these kids and I have also made them take responsibility for their actions. I have done my best to teach them how to clean a house, do laundry and cook. Some excelled more than others on these fronts. I have also tried to teach them how to love, have compassion, empathy and respect.....and some days have been better than others.

So this weekend was a mixed bag of parenting blessings. One kid went off. Anger, frustration and growing pains took the lead for him and my parenting fails were more than evident as I had to wing it, deflect and remember that I have actually had better parenting days. It was hard not to let this child and his emotional storm not define me as a parent or a person. The counter balance to that though, was I got to see my older son succeed. I watched him with his own child and I saw the love, the compassion and his pure joy at being a parent. I wasn't sure if this was because of how I taught him to be as a parent or how I taught him not to be as a parent, but whatever the case, he is a really good parent and for that, I am so proud of him.

The thing though, that tipped the scales this weekend and made it end on a very positive note, was David. Yesterday he celebrated his 14th birthday. The child who was not expected to survive all those years ago, is now a full fledged teen and celebrating his birthday was a joy. I look into his eyes, see his smile and watch him continue to learn, grow and move forward in life and I am thinking that with him, I may just finally be getting the hang of this whole parent thing.

I love my kids....all my kids....the ones I gave birth to and the ones I gained through marriage. There have been times that I was the parent they all deserved and other times, I was simply the parent they got. Bottom line though, I have always given them the best I had to give on any given day. I have always loved them with my whole heart and I have never stopped trying or given up on them as kids or myself as a parent. The circumstances and cards that life has dealt me, were not even on my radar all those years ago when being a parent was my hearts desire. Through it all though, the good, the bad and the unexpected.....the grief, the loss and the pain, I am still here and there are those subtle signs....that I might just have done a few things right!.


MarniJ said...

We as parents continually struggle with the "did we do it right?" question in our heads. At times when our children succeed we are filled with the thought that maybe we did a good job. And then there are those moments, like you had this weekend, that we ponder where we may have gone wrong. I think that in the given moments we just do the very best that we can do. And we also have to take the time to realize that at a certain age.......our children have brains and THEY know right from wrong. They make the choices to act the way that they are and in turn they should realize that there are consequences to those actions that they cant control.
You were the best parent that you could be at the times you were given. I had nothing like that. I had no parents at all that even showed a smidge of the love that you showed to yours and I believe that your children should consider themselves lucky to have you.
You just keep doing the best that you can and they will hopefully come around. Because as parents.....that is all that we can do. Love to you friend.

Mary Johnson said...

Being present, even when not at your best is what is important and what they will remembered. My mom checked out when my dad died and all the years of being strong when out the door, she just gave up. Your kids will see you tried, maybe not now but eventually.