I’m not a very good parent.
It’s not that I don’t want to be or that I don’t think it’s worth it, or even that I don’t love my kid enough. It’s not that I don’t know how or that it’s something a parenting class could fix. I have the tools. I’m fairly confident I even have the know-how. But mostly, I fall short.
I could say I had no way of knowing back when I decided to have a child, the physical and mental toll that illness would have on my body and mind. But I already had two chronic autoimmune diseases at the time (although one was in remission), and even if it hadn’t been diagnosed at that point, I knew something wasn’t right about my rapidly cycling moods and my body’s reaction to stress.
But I pushed on. And for the first year, I was great at it. I suspect now that the sleeplessness probably induced hypomania, because I was better at it and more committed to anyone or anything than I have ever been in my life. The same person who would over-sleep her alarm or start things and then impulsively quit them suddenly became this wonder-woman who jumped awake at the sound of her baby’s cry and made baby food from scratch. The laundry was always done and folded and my house was spotless. Some of this I-can-do-everything mentality was by necessity, since I had a husband at the time whose response to having a baby was to spend less and less time at home and more and more time out getting drunk at the strip club (but I digress… although word to the wise – if someone has to learn to live without you, they usually will realize they can).
But like any manic phase, I couldn’t keep that up forever. But still I soldiered on. I got divorced; which didn’t make a huge difference (except financially) and actually decreased a lot of stress. But my baby wasn’t a baby anymore – he was a toddler. An autistic toddler. Who required so much micro-management. I didn’t even mind – I was good at micro-management. I was calm under pressure. But I was also tired. I had always suffered from fatigue as a child, but I’d learned as an adult to ride it out because it would often be followed by a period of high energy. Then I’d run around getting things done and catch up. Which was easy enough to accommodate before I became a parent, but not so easy after. Stuff couldn’t wait. Stuff had to get done.
But even still, I managed to achieve some balance, thanks to my mother’s help (she has always been pretty good at sensing when I need a break) and my son entering school.
Back then, when people said “you’re a good mother,” I’d say “I try,” and take it in stride. I didn’t swell with pride – I was simply pragmatic about it. I felt I was doing what I needed to be doing and for the most part I was succeeding.
Dial ahead 10 years through several abusive relationships, 8 moves, a bipolar diagnosis, cancer, 4 autoimmune diseases and various other chronic conditions, and I am spent. I could call it ‘not enough spoons,’ but when it comes down to it, I’m no longer emotionally or physically equipped to be a good parent. And I’m not sure I ever was.* On most days I settle for good enough.
I still try. That’s still true. It just seems like a paltry effort. So much of my day now is consumed by exhaustion and pain. When I’m able, I listen. I talk to him (with mixed results – listening is not a strength of a teenager with Asperger’s). I make sure he doesn’t starve. I sporadically check his homework. I go to all his school performances, but only make it to about 30% of parent-teacher meetings.
Now when someone says “you’re a good parent,” I wince. It feels patronizing now. It tends to come from people who learn about my personal challenges or my son’s personal challenges, and it’s offered in sympathy. I know it is offered as reassurance that I am doing the best that I can. I know it is meant to be kind. But it doesn’t feel kind. It feels like a lie. Like they’re telling me what they think I need to hear to keep going.
In spite of my failures as a parent, I have a good kid. He is a decent human being who I not only love, but really like a lot. There are things about him that are so like me, and things that are so different from me and so uniquely him. Some of him I lay claim to. I think I’ve instilled a lot of important things in his character and I’ve tried desperately to help him, heal him, and guide him emotionally in any of the ways that I am able. All I have ever wanted him to be when he grows up is to be kind and to care about other people.
I made a good kid. That’s what I’ve done.
And that fact makes me so grateful every day. That I made this kid and he’s good in spite of me and my inadequacies is a truth I can accept without flinching. So tell me that. When you see me dragging my ass, overwhelmed and spent, and you want to offer words of reassurance, say to me instead:
“YOU HAVE A GOOD KID.”
* This is a really shitty thing to feel and an even shittier thing to admit, but the reality is that while most of us ask ourselves whether we want a child, we don’t tend to question ourselves as to whether we should. I don’t regret my decision. But there are days it feels like it was a very selfish thing for me to have done. Unfortunately insight tends to be retroactive.