Monday, October 1, 2012

On Confession and Earnest Amends

The most earnest and heartfelt apology I have ever made was to a child younger than two. I guess I was lucky that he was a little ahead of the curve in terms of verbal development and spiritual understanding, enough so that he understood exactly what I was saying to him when I told him that I was wrong, that I was sorry, when I promised that I would never, ever, ever hurt him again.  

In brief: there was a toddler watching Blues Clues, there was a sleeping new baby behind a bedroom door, there was a new catering service with an order for lots of tiny food, a kitchen full of sacks of flour and sharp knives, a baby gate to keep the toddler from the sacks of flour and sharp knives... there was a child who needed attention, more than Steve and Blue were giving him, there was a mother putting him off while she piped potato puree into miniature potato skins, there was a wail of protest from the toddler followed by a wail from the no-longer sleeping baby behind the bedroom door. There was a loss of patience, a voice raised, and a 20 pound toddler being pushed into his room by his much, much larger mother, where he tripped over a truck and fell to the floor with a thud in a heap of desperate sobs.

Stop the reel.  Freeze the frame on that moment and look at the snapshot of that scene. There is a small child who has been pushed to the floor by the person he trusts most in the world. I am not the person who puts Goldfish crackers on his tomato soup, not the person who holds his hand in the parking lot, not the person who patiently follows him while he gathers colorful fall leaves on a walk, not his nurturer, protector or guide. I am the monster from under his bed, filling the door frame with my ugly, snarling face and shoving his tiny, powerless body across the Little Tykes littered floor while he cries. I am the worst mother... the worst person... in the world.  Unfreeze.

More than ten years later, as I write this, my body is flushed, my heart is beating faster, my guts are twisting, and I am overcome with the urge to go to him, as I did then. To sink to the floor beside him and take him in my arms. What have I done what have I done what have I done...?

The fact that he was not hurt makes no difference to me. Love is not a matter of no harm, no foul. The apology I made to him that day where we sat on the floor surrounded by trucks and trains was only the beginning of a lifetime of amends between us. In that moment, I felt the full weight of my humanness, of my imperfection, of my remorse. I remember holding him on my lap with one arm and tracing the fingers of my other hand along the dashed lines that ran down the center of the roads woven into the brightly colored play rug on his floor while we sat a long time in silence after I’d explained to him that it was never okay, never-never-ever okay, for anyone, ever, anywhere, to lay an angry hand on him. I promised that my hands and my words would be gentle.

As much as I would love to bury that moment and never relive it, it is one of the major fossils in the stratigraphic record of my parenthood. Of my personhood. As great as my remorse is when I look at that snapshot, I see that what I chose to do with that remorse has made all the difference in how I parent my kids and who they’re turning out to be.  I am a champion of accountability.  If I can’t be perfect for them, the least I can be is accountable to them.  I fuck up a lot, so I have lots of chances to say sorrys, and make a lot of amends, and tell them exactly how I wish I had handled a situation when I come up short.  

Last year, feeling that he was old enough for me to confess my abuse, I told him the whole story. I watched his face while he listened to me recount that afternoon, details that are still vivid and sharply painful for me. I looked for any sign of recall, any tick or twitch or signal that I have, indeed, scarred his psyche and ruined his chance at a normal life.  His face was kind, but sort of unimpressed.

Then he shrugged and put his hand on my shoulder and said “Mom, that is not the worst thing you’ve ever done. Can I make a sandwich?”  Oh. Whew. Wait... What??

That story is so hard to tell. Sorry, I’m sure it’s almost as hard to read. How about a pick-me-up?

Fast forward to tonight and one of my greatest, most triumphant hours of motherhood. As dinner was winding down, I was informed of a potluck tomorrow at school. Okay, we can make banana muffins. But I promised the 4 year old we’d make strawberry shortcakes earlier today because I’m pregnant and I wanted one. It was not quite 7:00. There was still homework to check and a bath for the little one and dinner dishes to wash and shortcakes and muffins to bake.

Dishes done, baby in the tub, shortcakes went into the oven while the 12 year old mixed the muffin ingredients I’d pre-measured for him. Shortcakes came out, muffins went in, naked but clean baby stood on a chair helping cut berries and make the whipped cream while algebraic equations were solved at the kitchen table. The house smelled lovely. Everyone had a shortcake. Everyone loved the shortcake. “Can I have another?” asked the 10 year old? No. “Another biscuit?” No. “Another berry?” No. I’m glad you loved them, now please find something helpful to do. 

The algebra is getting more complex. “How do I solve for the integer in prime factorization with powers?” And from the bathroom “Mommmmm, I poooooooped.” That’s the naked four year old, who still needs guidance finishing up in there sometimes. I turned around from the sink - where I stood washing the second round of dishes for the evening - to cold bust the 10 year old stealing sugary macerated strawberries from the bowl on the counter.  Oh No You Did NOT just take the berries I said you couldn’t have while my back was turned at the sink washing the very dish from which you ate the lovely dessert I gifted you with tonight.

True to the promise I made her brother over ten years ago, my voice was patient and gentle. “Do you think if I don’t see you, it doesn’t count?  It’s not about the strawberry. It’s about being accountable. I’m very disappointed, young lady. I was going to let you take those in your lunch tomorrow.” Ohhh, mama guilt, right to the gut.

Later, after I tucked them all in, I found this on the kitchen table:

An earnest apology, complete with heart sticker and two homemade barrettes

Forgiven. Of course.

If I could retract all my mistakes, all my transgressions, all my shortcomings, or if I could hide them from my kids and only show them a perfectly unflawed face, how could I ever show them how truly remarkable we can be in the face of imperfection? And how would they learn forgiveness? That's where all the grace happens, all the growth, when your guts are flipping and your cheeks are hot and you've got snot all over you and blotches around your eyes... that's where all the magic happens.

There is no love on Earth more white hot pure than a mama’s love, and even that gets spotty and messy sometimes. It's supposed to. That's how we make our little humans comfortable being human.


  1. This is wonderful, Meg. Thank you! XO

  2. Thanks for sharing your story. I've had a couple times just like this, burned into my memory. I think that the gift of an apology is a great thing. In my own upbringing, I was yelled at more times than I can remember. But, I do very distinctly remember the time in which it ended in an apology. I had hidden myself under the bed. My father gently pulled me out and explained that he was sorry for yelling and scaring me. It's not as though the apology undoes things, but it does make you feel more valued.