Imperfect as we are, parents today deserve all the credit in the world for raising children in challenging times. Many of us fret over how we’re doing as parents. Examining our part in our children’s pain can be the most painful thing we do in life. Seeing our kids suffer today due to our own failings is often more than most of us can bear. We can hardly stand to think about such topics. It’s especially hurtful when our children are aloof from or conflicted with us today due to the wrongs we have done them in years past. Often we don’t know how to make it up to our kids or if it is even possible or advisable. Sometimes we don’t even know how we have hurt our kids. We blame ourselves unfairly for wrongs we have supposedly done to them. We just don’t know how to make things better and have a more loving relationship with our kids today. Perhaps we’ve tried everything, run out of answers and just want the whole matter to go away. Many parents, if not all of us, are plagued by guilt and can’t forgive ourselves.
Yet talking about our limitations is something we ought to do for ourselves when we are ready. Nothing plagues adults more than having a legacy of unresolved parental shame and guilt and not knowing that it plagues us today. So face your doubts as a parent and see them for what they are. If there is anything you can take from this article it is this: No matter what you’ve done or not done to your children, forgiveness is always possible.
Margaret didn’t think so. She said, “I don’t think my kids will ever forgive me for leaving their dad, especially when I was the one who had the affair. It’s like I had the Scarlet Letter A burned into my forehead and they never let me forget it. So I get, ‘Mom can you pay for our college?’ or ‘Mom can you loan us money for new house?’ or ‘Can you watch our kids for a month while we take our Caribbean trip?’ Of course I always say yes even though I don’t want to do it for the whole time. And of course it never makes a difference. They never come over to just spend time with me. How odd it is to watch their kids for a month when they think I was such a bad mother. But saying no to them will just be the end of our relationship.”
Many of us are not even aware of our parental guilt. We just get into an unconscious pattern of buying our children’s love, appeasing them or interfering with their lives today. At some level of awareness we just can’t forgive ourselves and have more honest relations with our children today or a more honest look at ourselves.
Differences between healthy and destructive guilt
Feeling bad about how we’ve harmed our children in the past is actually quite healthy and takes some courage to admit. Some of us have abandoned our children, some of us have taken out our resentments on our children and some of us have been rejecting to the very people we love. We are all capable of behaving badly and most of us do it at least once in our lives. When we flat out acknowledge to our adult kids that our specific shortcomings have harmed them then we’ve taken a major step in healing ourselves and our ties to our children. Most of the time adult children will make excuses for us or tell us how we behaved is no big deal as they want to spare us from this guilt. But actually feeling the guilt and acknowledging our mistakes have a lot of value in and of itself and can lead to other discussions and greater closeness with our kids. It may take the wind out of our sails to admit our wrongs but it is most often the right thing to do. It can free us from guilt.
There is clearly another kind of guilt that operates in us and often has great hidden power over us. Some of us feel unrelenting guilt towards our children for wrongs we did not do. Some of us feel responsible for our children’s inner life as part of a pattern of codependency. We feel it is our job to solve our children’s problems for them. We may become manipulative or controlling with our kids when we see them faltering even when they themselves are actually responsible for their behaviors. Our kids may play on our guilt for self-serving reasons. We may be unwilling to allow our children to be responsible for their own lives. We may pity our kids rather than see the necessary turmoil they need to grow into fuller human beings.
Jodie is my sweet child. Well actually Jodie is 30 years old and lives at home with me. She is hardly a child. But I just can’t motivate her to live on her own. She’s not into school, works only part time and is a real homebody. I worry that despite being smart and attractive she may never have friends, marry or develop a life of her own. If I go out to visit my own friends Jodie feel lonely and insecure and I have to rush home. Sometimes I lose my own social life for her sake and I resent it later. I must have done something really wrong with this kid since all her sibs are married and off on their own. Perhaps i didn’t push her as much as my other kids. it’s real hard to have a special child.
Some of us parents have the darndest time forgiving ourselves especially when we don’t know what we’ve done wrong. We just look at the poor outcome of our child and say, “Well I am her parent. So I must have done something bad.” We fail to see that our children make their own choices apart from us to set the course of their lives. This guilt mongering is especially bad for mothers who are socially blamed for how their kids turn out. When other mothers are bragging about their kids’ accomplishments our guilt-prone moms will only shrink in silence in social gatherings with other moms. Some of us parents cannot let go of solving our children’s problems and we don’t know how to detach ourselves in a healthy way from our own children’s challenges. Too often we do not see how what we are trying to fix in our kids is really something we need to fix in ourselves. We are only making things worse for our kids by over parenting them. Such guilt is unrealistic and destructive.
Signals of parental self-blame
It’s often hard to see and difficult to accept how we parents are dominated by unconscious guilt. The following patterns may help you identify if you have difficulties with self-forgiveness as a parent:
* you may avoid social gatherings where parents are apt to brag about their kids
* you almost never talk with anybody, even close friends, about how poorly your children have turned out and how disappointed you are in them
* you either avoid or go overboard in family holiday gatherings
* you keep secrets from your children on how you have hurt them and dislike talking about the past
* you are constantly spending more on your adult kids and grand kids to win their favor
* you are constantly after your adult kids to get their acts together
* you avoid your children today altogether due to their shortcomings
* you put rose colored glasses on today in seeing everything your kids do as perfect
Letting bygones be bygones: lessening our guilt
Dealing with parental guilt can often feel like an impossible challenge. Parental guilt is very complex and wrapped up with many of our past relationships. Most of us don’t want to touch it with a ten foot pole. Frequently we hide parental self-blame from ourselves. Yet, inevitably it comes back to haunt us.
Consider facing the challenge of forgiving yourself as a parent. Too many of us have experienced traumatic loss that we don’t even recognize today. Some losses are sad but simple and pass with time. Other losses keep getting reexperienced as if they are happening today. Something quite harsh and persistent comes over us when our adult children remind us of our failings. The grief does not pass and we are just aware of ourselves as loathsome and unlovable. Usually something traumatic has actually occurred in our life and we don’t connect our own past hardships to how we’ve parented. We may be blind to huge impediments involving other caretakers of our children that have undermined us as parents. We may unfairly see ourselves as solely responsible for how our kids turned out. Still today we feel we should have been ideal parents even when others have failed our kids and our kids have failed themselves. For example, if you were once beaten by your husband you may not even remember how that horror undermined you as a parent and instead today put the blinders on in blaming yourself for how your kids turned out. We cannot forgive what we cannot see. It’s best to deal with our traumatic losses and see the whole picture so that we can have a more realistic view for what we are truly responsible for. Many of us may need the assistance of a professional helper to get over such traumatic loss. Indeed over focus on our kids today is a way we may be crying out for help for ourselves.
If you parental guilt is haunting but less agitating and sad it may be a form of repressed grief. You may ask yourself if there are specific ways you can recall once hurting your children and decide to make amends to them. Ask peers what they recall of how you treated your kids and let your kids know what happened to them if they are ready to hear you. Don’t ask your kids for forgiveness, let your amends be a forgiveness in itself. Your kids will appreciate your honesty even if they don’t seem to need it. They may have forgiven you many years ago before you’ve even been aware of it or were able to do that for yourself. Actually you gave your children more good stuff than you’ve ever imagined. It’s never too late to lessen your burden as a parent. Embrace the past and be done with it.
Finally resist doing penance for your past failings as a parent. Never pity your adult children. Allow your children to solve their own problems while being empathetic with them. Your past failings are actually a gift to them. Read Brere´ Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection (Hazelden Press, 2013). After all if everything went well for your kids throughout life life how would they ever develop their own good character and see what they are truly capable of. Your failings are part of the gift of imperfection. Give this gift to yourself as well.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651- 699-4573.