On Christmas morning, I ordered breakfast from the local diner.
Unfortunately, I had the order delivered to my house, instead of to my kid’s dad’s house, where we were celebrating. When I realized that I had to walk the four blocks to pick up our pancakes, I explained where I was going by saying, “That wasn’t very smart of Mommy.”
A week later, we were visiting a water park with Grandma when I made my son’s paper admissions wristband a little too big. As it slipped immediately over his hand and off his wrist, I said out loud, “Mommy didn’t do a very good job.”
And I realized in that moment that I say stuff like that all. the. time. For some reason, I’ve made a habit of explaining away my mistakes to my son by saying things like, “Mommy wasn’t thinking very well” or “Mommy made a silly mistake.”
When I see it written down like that, it seems outrageous to talk about yourself that way in front of your child. But in the moment, it’s almost an unconscious tic, something I’ve probably been doing since I was a child.
Maybe that’s because I make a lot of mistakes. As if being a single mom who works full-time doesn’t sometimes feel impossible enough, I also have adult ADHD, which means that the very tasks that moms are expected to excel in (organization, financial planning, time management, scheduling) are ones I struggle to master.
ADHD makes you feel overwhelmed and guilty all on its own, but when it’s combined with parenting, you really start to feel like a special kind of failure.
I am the mom who will lose the school form right before it’s due; who can’t find a spare pair of glasses even though I just had them; the mom who’s missing a vital ingredient for dinner. I am always forgetting the sunscreen or the allergy medication or if I brushed my son’s teeth. My son and I are always running late out the door; always stumbling over last night’s toys on the floor. Sure, these things happen to everyone, but by “always” I mean “all of it, every day.” I find the orange juice in the cabinet.
So I apologize endlessly, for the fact that we’re running late, for losing things, for having to go to work. Re: that last one: Do men with children EVER apologize for having to work? I should be giving a peremptory “you’re welcome” instead, for providing our home and food and clothing all by my damn self every day.
When I apologize to my son for not being a walking calendar, or a supermom with a perfect home, I’m telling him that I’m supposed to be those things. I’m teaching him that my worth as a parent is only in being a chauffeur and a chef and a housekeeper and a family manager. And those things are important, but I have a lot more to offer than just a perfectly organized life. Like wisdom and joy and fierce love, all of which I deliver in spades.
When I give myself a mild verbal whipping every time I make a mistake, I am teaching my son that it’s not OK to make mistakes. And that’s something I’ve already spent a decade in therapy unlearning. I would never want my son to be as hard on himself as I am on myself.
When I talk badly about myself, I teach my son to think negative thoughts and to focus on what he can’t do instead of what he can. I set him up for a lifetime of the same anxiety and depression that’s followed in the wake of my disorder.
And when I don’t cut myself a break for having a neurodevelopmental disorder that makes it difficult for me to regulate my attention and impulses, I am teaching my son that it isn’t necessary to accommodate people who are different, even when they can’t help it.
Life requires flexibility, and this year that’s what I hope to teach my son instead. I want him to see me solving problems, like when I bought a key hook that lives by the door to keep me from constantly losing my keys. But maybe even more importantly, I want him to see me accepting myself when I fail.
It’s up to me to develop and model a positive self-image. I want him to see me adjusting to circumstances, acknowledging where I have trouble, and getting back up to keep moving with grace and self-love.
Yes, “Mommy made a mistake.” But in the end, so what?