When my daughter Rebecca was 19 months old, her baby brother died.
He was only a month old.
We learned when I was about 5 months pregnant about his heart condition, and that things would be very touch and go. We spent the last four months of the pregnancy petrified of what was going to happen, and so scared of losing him.
For the next few months I was in a grieving haze too. We tried to keep Rebecca’s life as normal as possible, keeping her routine as much as possible. Keith took a few weeks off of work and we went to the zoo and some big parks and tried to make some memories with her. But we were a mess.
I became pregnant with Katie just two months after he passed away. I was so scared all through her pregnancy that I would lose her too. And I knew the dangers to her of me trying to make her take her brother’s place. I tried so hard to love her for her (and I think I more or less succeeded). But there was absolutely no way that I did that perfectly.
Rebecca and I have talked about how she missed some developmental milestones between one and two years of age.
Maybe she’ll talk about it on a podcast coming up, because she understands developmental milestones better than I do, but the stuff that you’re supposed to have down pat before a year of age she learned with flying colours, and the stuff that you solidify after age two she learned with flying colours, but the stuff between one and two she’s often had issues with, likely because that year was the most stressful of our lives, and Keith and I just weren’t focused on her. We were focused on her brother and we were focused on ourselves.
And really, it couldn’t have been any other way.
The fact that Rebecca’s development and attachment was affected was not my fault.
But that doesn’t mean that it WASN’T affected. And I think part of being a good parent is helping your kids acknowledge where their well-being and their lives may have been messed up, even by things that aren’t your fault.
We live in an imperfect world, which means that no one is going to escape without some sort of attachment issues from childhood.
Sometimes that can be due to a parent’s selfishness or maliciousness or laziness, but often it’s not. Often parents are doing the best they can do, but other things come into play.
- A sibling’s illness or death
- A grandparent’s illness or death right around key developmental times in a child’s life
- The marriage breaking up and the mom (or dad, if he becomes the primary caregiver) have to deal with the grief of that and the legal fights while also working to support the family
- Money issues mean that primary caregivers work long hours and find themselves exhausted
- Your own illness, anxiety, or depression
- Marriage issues between the parents even if a divorce doesn’t occur–a parent’s affair; discovery of porn use; even abuse
- Moving away from your support system and being exhausted and lonely yourself
- Going through outside trauma, like accidents, betrayal, or sexual abuse from those other than the main caregivers
And I could go on. And on. And on.
Because sometimes life is really, really difficult and it isn’t your fault. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect your kids.
We need to get to a place where we can acknowledge that our kids may have been affected by things we went through
A woman commented on social media last week that my series on attachment, where I went over the four different attachment styles, can shame moms with post-partum depression. That was never, ever my intention, and I certainly don’t want anyone to feel like I am saying that it’s your fault if your child suffered in those days.
What I hope we can do is separate the conversations of attachment styles and attachment injuries from fault.
I mean, think of the trauma that the children from Ukraine are currently going through. That is going to affect them, and that is also not their parents’ fault.
Just because your child has issues that the need to deal with does not mean that we should feel guilty or that we are to blame. Sometimes life just happens.
I think the reason that we feel it’s our fault is this idea that we’re supposed to protect our kids from everything.
If something negatively affects them, then, it must be our fault.
Since that’s too horrible to believe, then it’s easier to say, “any discussion of how my stress/job insecurity/divorce/mental illness etc. affected my kids is off limits.”
But part of being a good parent is allowing your child to talk about the things that affected them.
I believe that I have raised my girls to be able to do this openly, and not just about Christopher. Keith and I had issues with yelling; we did it far more that I’m proud of. I wasn’t always as organized as I wanted to be, and that certainly affected our daily lives. So many things I can point to where I didn’t do an awesome job.
But you know what? I did good. I wasn’t perfect, but considering our circumstances, I did pretty well indeed.
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Can we celebrate being a good enough parent rather than a perfect parent?
One of the big things that differentiates families of emotionally healthy kids with families where they’re not emotionally healthy is the ability to talk about the parents’ mistakes or the children’s pain. Sometimes the children’s pain isn’t even caused by the parents, but think about how many kids who have been the victims of abuse have been pressured to get over it, simply because the parents can’t handle thinking about it anymore and want to put it out of their minds.
Or we’re so focused on our own recovery from substance abuse or mental illness or even a destructive marriage that we can’t talk about what that recovery period may have done to our kids.
Sometimes you’re dealt a really difficult hand. Maybe you yourself had very anxious or avoidant attachment, as we looked at last week. Combine that with marrying someone who is also distant, add serious money issues into the mix, and maybe a grandparent dying, and it’s really a miracle you got through anything at all!
I hope we can simultaneously show grace for ourselves while also noting where our kids may need some repair work, or even just the right to talk about how things affected them.
Think about how often in the Bible a person’s faults are mentioned and talked about, while simultaneously they’re praised for loving God. We don’t need to gloss over the more difficult parts of our lives. The whole point of our walk with Jesus is grace!
My daughter Rebecca is a better mom than I was.
And I’m so proud of that! She did so much research on sleep, and if I had done what she has done with her two kids, I would have had so much more energy to be a present parent, especially with Katie. She and Connor have researched teaching emotional regulation, and I can see the difference in the way Alex (who is 2 1/2) processes his emotions. Rebecca had such temper tantrums, and all I knew to do was time outs. They never worked. What she is doing with Alex is so much better! I love watching it.
I hope one day Alex and Vivian will be even better parents than their mom and dad were. And if something happens that throws the family through a loop, I hope they can talk about it openly.
And we need to let go of the fact that our parents had to be perfect too!
Sometimes one of the biggest roadblocks to our own growth is that we can’t grow unless we admit that something our parents did, even unintentionally, may have hurt us. The idea of admitting they weren’t perfect or made some mistakes is so terrifying and shameful that we instead blame ourselves for our issues, feeling like we are bad, dirty, or shameful. That seems safer than acknowledging our parents may have been wrong.
But admitting that your parents may have done the best they could–or even that they were sometimes selfish or malicious–does not mean that you can’t also be grateful for the things that they did right or that you can’t also love them.
Often it’s hard to talk about attachment styles because it seems like we’re criticizing your parenting, or your parents’ parenting.
What I’m hoping we can do this month as we look at attachment is let go of this dichotomy. It can be both/and. Your parents may have made mistakes, and they may still be good parents. You may have made mistakes, and still be good parents.
It isn’t about blame. It’s about understanding.
Because when we understand why we act like we do, then we can start to address some of the unhelpful coping patterns in our lives that are holding us back. We can address some of the attachment injuries that are still affecting us today and stopping us from enjoying awesome relationships.
That all starts with the ability to name what happened.
I hope we can get there; and I hope we can see that my intention in doing this series is not to shame anyone. It’s actually to help free us!
How can we get to the point where we don’t expect ourselves to be perfect parents? How can we talk about our mistakes? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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