Written by Jennifer Sturgis, HOYH Co-Founder + Co-CEO
“Mom, where are you? Are you here?” the voice of my fourteen year old son echoed into my phone. “Am I where?” I wondered, somewhat alarmed. “I’m on my way home from work. Where am I supposed to be?” Then the blood drained from my face – his spring choir concert. It was today! It was supposed to be at 7:00, but due to a conflict with scheduling the building it had to be changed to 4:15. Who schedules a choir concert for 4:15 on a Friday afternoon? I had completely forgotten. I would have had to miss work for the third time this week. But I had planned on going.
I heard him say, “Whatever! I’ll walk home!” then the audible click. It went straight to voicemail when I tried to call back. I could feel his disappointment, along with my own; heavy and hot, sink down to my stomach and settle like a pit. My face flushed. How could I forget? Just completely NOT remember that was today?
It had been a busy week, with counseling sessions, doctor appointments, parent/teacher conferences – all of which had eaten into my work schedule, causing me to leave early or come late three different days. Since the end of the school quarter was approaching, our nights had been taken up by homework and assignments to finish or make up. The single-mom-with-four-kids scenario is a real thing. A constant struggle. But today, as was more and more often the case, I refused to use that as a hall pass.
I have been working on being more forgiving with myself, but I found my mind filling with old negative self-talk. “How did I forget that? I can’t do anything right! My poor kids…all they have is ME and I’m a mess! I can’t do anything right! This is just one more instance where I’m a FAIL as a mother. Why did God give me these four children when so often I just disappoint and let them down? It feels like a week doesn’t go by where I don’t fail in some kind of major way! What is WRONG with me? What kind of mother does this?”
You know. Just the usual, brutal guilt trip that comes along with motherhood. As I often do, I willingly took the ride into familiar waters.
I pictured my son walking home from school in his white dress shirt and black pants, feeling angry, embarrassed, and abandoned. It’s not about the walk – it’s just that his friends were riding home with their parents, who actually attended the concert. And it’s not like choir is his favorite thing, anyway. He is more of an athlete and cares more about sports than singing. It’s just that he thought I was coming. He was counting on me to be there. And I wasn’t there. The heaviness of that last sentence weighed on my shoulders like the story of my single parent life…
His father wasn’t ever there for him. In fact, he was in jail again. Incarceration wasn’t a new thing, just an embarrassing detail that occasionally changed. Somehow, knowing their dad was in jail was more upsetting to the kids than him being homeless, which is what he is when he’s not in jail. And now his mother, the only person he had left to count on, forgot about his concert. So he had to walk home, alone.
During that painfully quiet drive home, I was vaguely aware of how much I was probably over-dramatizing this in my mind, but I also realized that this was how it probably felt to my fourteen year old son. Then, surprisingly, my mind did something different than what it usually often did. It stopped in the middle of my mental and emotional barrage of negativity, and allowed one forgiving thought to bubble up: “Jen, you are doing the best you can. Your son will forgive you. He knows you love him. You’ve shown him that a thousand times in a thousand ways.”
I let that thought linger for a moment. It felt like truth. It didn’t feel like an excuse. It resonated as reality. However, the truth of it didn’t make my mistake go away in an instant. Amends still needed to be made and some steps need to be taken to use technology to better manage my incredibly busy calendar. But it felt like forgiveness was possible, not just by my son, but by me, too. I took a deep breath, and felt some of the heaviness lift from my heart. I couldn’t control my son’s forgiveness, but I did have control over mine. I could continue to beat myself up over this, or I could find a thread of emotional realism and start from there. I smiled slightly as I realized that the progress I thought I’d been making was actually, maybe, real.
When I got home, I walked downstairs to his room, ignoring his short text that said “Just leave me alone.” I knew he was pretty upset. I sat next to him on his bed, where he wouldn’t look at me. I sat quietly for a moment. Then I said to him, “I have no excuse for forgetting about your concert today, honey. I had been looking forward to it all week, actually.” I paused, letting that truth linger in the air. Deep breath again. “I can’t go back in time and change it. I missed it, and I don’t get a re-do! There are two parts of this that I feel terrible about. One, the fact that I didn’t get to see you perform leaves a void for me. I hate missing anything that you do. Two, the fact that I wasn’t there for you, and then you had to walk home – leaves a void for you. I’m so very sorry that I created both of those voids by forgetting today.”
I took a risk and touched his arm, continuing, “You don’t have to forgive me right now, but I hope you know that I am truly sorry and that I will try to find a calendar system that works on my phone with reminders to help me better manage everybody’s stuff. I can’t promise I’ll be perfect but that will help me, a lot. And I also hope you know how much I love you and how important you are to me!”
“I know this doesn’t change things, but why don’t you let me know what you want for dinner. I’ll let you choose whatever you want. You can stay mad, but you might as well get something out of this, right?” I half-joked, hoping to lighten things a little. Still no response.
Then I walked out of his room. I knew he would probably eventually forgive me, but I also knew it wouldn’t be right then. He likes to stay mad for a while. But I did accomplish what I wanted to, which was not make excuses by reading him the very valid reasons from my single-parent-hall-pass. Like, “There’s only one of me and four of you kids and I can’t be everywhere” or ”Look at all the things I do for you”. And I didn’t try to manipulate him out of his feelings by cajoling or blaming anything or anyone else. I validated how it felt to him by respecting his feelings, took accountability for my mistake, and offered my sincere apology. Then I let him decide how to feel about it. Deep breath again.
All I have control over is my willingness to be accountable, to learn from my mistakes, and to teach my children to do the same. Maybe he’ll stay mad at me for years, maybe he’ll be scarred for life, (both of which I doubt) – but something positive can be found here. There is always something to learn and something to teach from every parenting screw up.
About ten minutes later, my phone beeped. His text simply said “Panda.” I smiled. I guess we’re having Panda Express tonight, I thought. That was either the first glimmer of forgiveness, or his hunger was now greater than his anger. Probably the latter. Well, that’s a start.
I’ll take it.