In parenting, failure is not an option.
It’s a reality.
“Shitshitshitshitshit” and “oh God, please” were the two thoughts that filled my head while I raced to the car. I don’t run often – certainly not often enough. But when I do, I am still capable of outrunning my kids, something I keep expecting to change as they get older and more and more athletic. One second I’m enjoying a leisurely Saturday afternoon lunch with my wife and 14 yr old daughter, EarthBaby, and the next, the spell is broken when Jessica innocently asks “you think SugarBaby has been sleeping this whole time?” A confused look on my face, and then, world-shattering dread sweeps over me as I realize that I…
Can I admit this here? Can I willfully place myself in front of the firing squad? The same squad where I have myself stood, but behind the rifle of spite that I have used to obliterate countless people with imaginary bullets? These people, these parents, deserved it. They didn’t care. They looked away for a second. They weren’t watching. They were distracted. They forgot. Yeah, right. Who does that? What kind of human being does that? Oh, they’re sorry. Well, of course they’re sorry. Now they have a mess on their hands, don’t they? F*cking idiots. They should never have been allowed to have kids. And so on and so forth. I killed them all in my mind. I stuffed THEM in a car to slowly bake to death. I took their other children away. Irresponsible scum.
I was lucky. The weather was cool and the sky was a mix of clouds and sun. It was only 20 minutes, tops. I knew that SugarBaby wasn’t dead. While I raced to the car, my biggest fear was that my baby had been crying non-stop for 20 minutes, and that someone had noticed. I was afraid that SugarBaby would never trust me again; that the cops would be there, waiting to give me a piece of their mind, or just cuff me and shove me into the back of their car. But I was lucky. I got to the car, and in a moment of dim hope, cupped my hands on the window to see in through the dark tinting, to find that my baby girl was sound asleep and had no idea that, for 20 impossible minutes, she was forgotten, abandoned. No cops. No one to know my failure. No one but my wife, who saw by the look on my face that everything was fine; who simply walked up to me and hugged me; who offered to drive; who so desperately wanted to save me from my shame and bitter anger.
For anyone who thinks that I would never do anything like… – that - well… I wouldn’t. But I did. And I deserve your judgment; your condemnation – no judge, no jury, just a firing squad. Or to be locked in an oven.
I’m one of them. The neglectful parents. I was just lucky. And this has changed me. To all the parents that have lost a child because they looked away, had a quick grocery stop on the way to work, forgot to close the sliding glass doors, left the water running in the tub, and any number of other unnatural moments of inattention, I’m so sorry for your loss. And I’m so sorry I judged you so harshly, like I was any different, like you didn’t care about your child. People can be so horrible. I can be so horrible. But I’m no different. I see that now. I would be devastated if a moment’s distraction cost me my child’s life. My spirit would be crushed. It would take an impossible amount of willpower to get out of bed; to be left alone with my children again. I can’t imagine that on top of dealing with my own grief and feelings of worthlessness, I would have to face the wrath and judgment of every parent who would “never do that.”
I like order and knowing what to expect. I like having a plan. Some people are really good at playing everything by ear. Not me. I’ve gotten better, and I guess I’m pretty good at being flexible now, but when the unexpected hits and I have to alter my plan, I’m disoriented and my sense of the world seems off. That Saturday afternoon, I was supposed to meet Jessica and EarthBaby at the Houston Ballet to give them a ride home after EarthBaby’s audition for a summer intensive somewhere far from home. I was ok leaving our other kids at home in front of the TV for that short time, but preferred to take SugarBaby, not quite 9 months old, with me, because she had been tired and cranky and really needed a nap. The plan had been to drop her off with the other kids at home with a sitter but since she had fallen asleep in the van on the way, I decided to keep her and let her sleep. I was still a little uncomfortable with the situation, but knew I wouldn’t be long. And then I get to our meeting point but find that on the way, Jessica texted me that they ordered lunch and where to find them.
“Ok, new plan, I think to myself, I find them and they eat on the way home.” Jessica meets me on the street and informs me that I should park the car, because they hadn’t gotten their food yet. Now I’m distracted. I need to park. We’re staying. We’re eating here? There’s a spot. I park. I lock the car. I find Jessica and EarthBaby sitting outside, waiting for their food. And then we all enjoy the cool weather with the food they ordered. 20 minutes.
I was lucky. And it occurs to me now that moments of neglect, of distraction, are very common, and completely normal. As a parent, it’s not that you never fail. It can’t be. THAT is a recipe for failure. Because failure is a reality. Maybe it’s time we all cut ourselves and each other a little slack. This isn’t permission to be a neglectful, inattentive parent. Not so. It’s simply recognizing that perfect isn’t real. Imperfect is. That instead of rushing to judgment and self-flagellation, we recognize the need for compassion, forgiveness, and second chances, and pray to God that we never, EVER, have to face anything more than simple disappointment for our moments of failure.