As people and especially as parents we all carry baggage that we dredge up from time to time when we need a good dose of humility. It could be from when we were children or something later in life. Being a parent of a child or children who have a chronic illness only adds another dimension when these situations involve the child. A situation that may go unnoticed under other circumstances takes on a different meaning to us. As much as I’ve tried to remember we all make mistakes one such experience reminds me why I’ll never be nominated as “father of the year”.
It’s still as clear to me as the evening it happened. Matthew was a little older than three. His older sister had not been the standard bearer for all the developmental milestones, yet when Matthew still wasn’t potty trained it bothered me. Most everything had been easy with Rachel. She was sleeping through the night at six weeks and walked and talked very early. Alice and I knew boys developed at a slower pace and figured Matthew needed the time. When he showed what we thought was little interest in his tricycle we again decided it was because he was a boy. But the potty training seemed to be a battle of wills. Rachel was trained over a few days long before she was two and Matthew wasn’t “cooperating” at three. Alice and I had tried many things to get him to use the potty including bribes, humor and threats of punishment. Nothing worked.
I can’t say what going through my head this particular evening, yet I was clearly frustrated and to me Matthew was just being obstinate. I just remember being angry and I was probably tired. Not a good combination when exercising parenting skills. But, that is what led to my next tactic, humiliation. There I was, a thirty-four year old Dad yelling at my three year old son that it was time to learn to stop “going” in his pants and use the potty. What occurred will never go away and became more painful later after Matthew was diagnosed with DMD.
Alice was standing next to me. Matthew had his pants around his ankles sitting on the potty looking up at us. Here we were, two grown adults towering over a little boy. I raised my voice to emphasize my dissatisfaction that he wasn’t using the potty. I told him I had had enough, that he was a “big boy” and he was not going to poop in his pants anymore. Shame was my tool and maybe a bit of fear thrown in for good measure. Matthew looked up at me with his big brown eyes which were welling up with tears and as his voice shook he simply said “Yes Daddy, I will.” I don’t think he even knew what he was saying. He just wanted this horrible episode to end. I knew I had gone beyond reason, yet I was the Dad and had to be in charge and couldn’t admit that I was being too rough. Matthew didn’t say anything else, but I remember the tears streaming down his cheek as I walked out of the bathroom to let Alice help him get his pants back up. Not a proud moment for me.
None of us are perfect parents. I’ve told people many times that my children are not “perfect”, just perfect for us and while I haven’t always done the right thing I love my kids unconditionally. When I need a dose of reality about my flaws as a perfect parent this situation always comes to mind. I’ll bet Matthew doesn’t remember it, but I’ll never forget. What makes this story so egregious to me was when I learned he had DMD and this was a common developmental difficulty for boys with the disorder. I eventually learned to cut myself a bit of slack and realized I’ve done some pretty poor things as a Dad and while it may have been based on what I knew at the time, ignorance or any other reason, I had to forgive myself and learn from my mistakes.
There has been some good that came from my imperfect parenting skills. Before we knew our boys had DMD we encouraged them to always do better. Matthew and his brother Patrick still push themselves in many ways. When they were both walking they kept going long after anyone would have expected. Despite falls and all the effort to walk half a dozen steps they kept pushing. Academically they are both good students. When Matthew was elected to the student council Patrick ran the next year. One gets “A”s and the other will work to bring up his grades too. Everything has a purpose even if we don’t understand it.
Another way this experience has helped me is to come to terms with situations that weren’t perfect between my father and me. I realized he too was parenting in the best manner he knew and was able to forgive and forget many things that happened where he was a bit harsh. Fortunately for me I was able to come to this realization before he passed away.
The grief we deal with regularly as parents of chronically ill children should be enough to deal with. Unfortunately we have so many other negative emotions to contend with. I believe if we spend too much time rehashing many of these negatives we make it more difficult to see the good in ourselves and that can harm our relationships. One day I’d like to forget this particular episode. Until that time I need to be satisfied from learning from this and working to be a better Dad.