“It’s okay Mom, every parent makes mistakes.”
So true, but not every parent’s mistakes are broadcast to a team of professionals who refer to her, year after year, as “Mom.” Being graded like a gymnast in front of a panel of judges is a special treat reserved for those of us with special-needs kids.
Everybody gets to watch, and everybody feels entitled to provide commentary.
This one occurred at Sam’s IEP meeting. Sam was listing the courses she plans to take next year, and I said, “Sam, you are such a wonderful artist. It would make me so sad if you never took another art class.” That was it. The school’s social worker raised her eyebrows at me with a reproving look that meant I had been caught falling off the balance beam. Three point deduction. And when I asked her what I had done wrong, she tried to minimize the damage by reassuring me, “It’s okay Mom, every parent makes mistakes. We all make mistakes.” I’m still not sure what I did wrong, but I assume it had something to do with not respecting Sam’s choices or imposing my needs on hers. Maybe it was something else all together. I don’t know.
I do know that I left the meeting thinking about how weary I am from feeling like my parenting is a subject for public review. Am I coddling her by fixing her lunch in the morning? Endangering her by giving her too much freedom to explore the city? I've been told both. When Sam was much younger, we played together with the occupational therapist. Every time I missed a non-verbal cue that Sam was communicating through her body position, or I failed to extend a moment of reciprocal interaction, the therapist pointed it out. The same goes for the speech therapist who wanted me to structure situations in such a way as to force Sam to interact. I am grateful for both of their patience and encouragement, but I certainly did not enjoy the critiques. Once a psychologist told me, after a brief intake, that she was going to teach me how to enjoy being with my child. Thanks, but no thanks. Only a few weeks later, a parent (whose name I never learned) approached me on the playground to say that she was moving to another state, but she had always wanted to tell me how impressed she was that I actually seemed to enjoy spending time with Sam. I was so inspirational! Again, thank you but no really I do not need your uninformed commentary. Even when I parent in the privacy of my home, my mistakes are not private. Teachers send me emails reporting comments I made ten years ago to Sam that were mysteriously triggered by a topic introduced in class that day. Comments that made her feel inadequate, comments that turned out to be inaccurate, comments that sounded dismissive. Some comments that I truly regret, and some whose veracity I doubt. None that would induce a judge to score my routine above a 6.
Fortunately for me, I am at a point in my life when I can laugh about the reproachful glances of school personnel. I have been parenting for eighteen years, and I’ve learned to accept “good-enough.” Prior to starting this parenting gig, my job was to teach adolescents. One lesson that I learned is that all children could benefit from a bit of therapy to process their parents’ mistakes once they mature. My mistakes are simply the public expression of all parents' private imperfection. My support group now consists of mothers who openly share their parenting errors and embrace each other without judgment. We have watched each other’s children grow for more than a decade, and we make the effort to credit the thoughtful parenting that supports our children’s successes. So go ahead and parse my routine.
I worry, though, about parents of younger children and parents whose support network is not so strong. How demoralized do they become from having their parenting exposed to constant evaluation? The strongest ones absorb the good advice, ignore the useless, critical commentary and treat themselves with compassion. But most of us are not among the strongest. The danger for the rest of us is that we may simply withdraw, avoiding the IEP meetings, avoiding the playground, avoiding the potential feeling of shame at being exposed as inadequate. When that happens, our children and we suffer the consequences. We lose out on the opportunity for support, encouragement and growing confidence in our parenting. Our children lose out on the network of opportunities to help them thrive. Perhaps worse, we lose the joyful, spontaneous connection with our children that only occurs when we let down our guard.
Simone Biles willingly puts herself in front of those judges and risks having the world witness a mis-timed leap. We parents never asked for such public scrutiny, but sometimes it feels like we get it anyway. The best response I've found? Give yourself a private high five for having the strength to stick your neck out, and then share the stories with the people you trust, the people who are on the journey with you.