Last weekend I finished reading Brene Brown’s book on shame: I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t). My takeaway from the book was this: unprocessed shame leads to isolation which leads to addiction; processed shame, and living a productive life, requires connection.
So, with that message in mind, I have decided to come clean about my epic parenting fail. I have decided to come clean because this blog has always been about using my life experience to shine light on subjects people often want to keep hidden: ugly divorces, custody battles, challenging children.
Because of my recent epic parenting fail, I haven’t blogged much in the past few weeks. My shame morphed into a big shadowy thing that seemed to block the space between me and my computer keyboard. So after some thought I decided that the only way to keep my personal and blogging integrity was to disclose the stupendously awful blunder I inflicted on my kids, and what I’m doing to try to fix it.
Living a Lie
When Atticus and I decided to split up, we disagreed about how and when to tell the kids. For his own reasons, Atticus wanted to wait for awhile to tell Kevin we were actually getting divorced. I disagreed with Atticus’s choice, but he was insistent, and since we planned to get Kevin together with Franny and Luca on some weekends, all of the kids had to hear the same story.
So we told a partial truth. We told them we were renting the house out because it was too expensive to live in, and we would be living in separate apartments for the next year, and then figure out what to do. In other words: this was a temporary separation for pragmatic reasons.
This was not the story I wanted to tell my kids, because in my mind it was a lie. But Atticus assured me it would just be for a couple months until Kevin was ready to hear the truth.
I started getting squirellier and squirellier. Franny thought she’d be moving back to the house she loved in a year, and Luca asked astute questions: was Atticus ever going to spend the night? Wouldn’t it be cheaper if we all lived in one apartment? Questions like that, that made me want to loofah after I heard myself give him answers that made no sense.
A few weeks ago, Atticus told me that he was going to wait till the end of the school year to tell Kevin about the divorce. He said that Kevin was struggling enough with the separation, and other things, that he felt he needed more time before learning we would never be living in the same house again. I told Atticus I couldn’t wait three more months, and he understood that I needed to tell my kids the whole truth now.
And This Is Where The Epic Parenting Fail Comes In
Because the marriage had been brief, and neither kid had been particularly attached to Atticus, and Luca at one point had hated him, both Atticus and I assumed that my kids would be non-plussed, or even relieved, to hear the marriage was over and we could return to the days when it was just the three of us.
So I picked up my kids from school on a Friday and sat them down in the living room for a family meeting. And with a sigh of relief, I told them the truth I had kept from the for the past couple of months: that Atticus and I were not just separated, but were actually getting divorced, and we were most likely selling the house we were now renting next year.
After dropping this bomb on them, I announced I was going out of town for a weekend getaway, and leaving them with a sitter. And then I told them a truth that shouldn’t have been told.
Not only was I going out of town, I informed them, but I was going out of town with someone I was dating.
The news did not go the way that I, in my obliviousness, had expected. Luca’s eyes rimmed red with tears. “You’re getting a second divorce?”; “Did you ever love Atticus?”; “Did you leave him for this guy?” “Are you going to get married again?”
Franny’s lips started to quiver, the way they do when she’s trying not to cry. “You mean we’re not going to move back to the old house? We’re going to stay here?“
Luca stormed up the stairs, and Franny stormed after him in solidarity. The babysitter arrived, and I whisked myself out the door and headed for my good time, telling myself it was justly deserved and long overdue.
When I returned, Franny looked at me hopefully: “Did you break up with that guy?” I cringed. Luca stared daggers at me for a couple hours and I cringed even more.
Then he came in my room and announced he was ready to talk. His anger dissolved into anxiety and fear.
He told me he was starting to like Atticus. That wherever he is, things start to fall apart. He wanted to know why we were getting divorced, and if it was his fault. He said he didn’t feel comfortable at either house, that his dad expects him to be perfect and makes him nervous, and that there are too many changes with me. He said he worries about everything all the time, that he can’t sleep at his dad’s house or at mine. Maybe there wasn’t a place for him at my house. Maybe it would be better if it were just me and Franny.
And here was the kicker: “You went away on a weekend I was here so you could be with some guy. I was just starting to trust you again.”
Then I knew this was no ordinary parenting fail. This one was epic. With one wrong choice, one stupid, selfish wrong choice, I had undone the years of painstakingly arduous work I had spent rebuilding my relationship with my son.
Since that night, Luca has refused my invitations for visits. When I saw him at Franny’s school performance last week, he returned my smile with averted eyes, and a chilly “see you around.”
And since that night, I have been neck-deep in shame. In the years since Prince and I split up, every choice I made was in the best of interest of the kids. That didn’t mean I didn’t make mistakes, or lose my cool, or get too tired to spend quality time with my children. But I can honestly say I never lost sight of my priorities.
Until that weekend. I could give all kinds of reasons for why I did what I did, but they don’t matter. What matters is that I put my own needs over my kids’. I needed to gloss over the end of a second marriage to sidestep the embarrassment of marrying another wrong person, so I needed my kids to gloss over it too.
I was so hungry for a fun-filled weekend, that I couldn’t defer that fun for another weekend when the kids would be at their dad’s. I gave them information that there was no reason for them to hear at this point, that I was dating.
When I should have stayed home to help my kids process this latest, unexpected destabilization in their lives, and make them feel safe, I left them alone (albeit with a sitter) with news that was too big for them to bear.
This epic fail, and its subsequent unraveling of my rebuilt, but fragile relationship with my son, has sent me back to therapy — after years of telling myself I didn’t need therapy because I knew everything.
Luca is supposed to stay with me next weekend. He texted me that he wasn’t sure if he was going to come. But if he does, I will sit him down with Franny and make an amends. I will promise Luca that I will never again go away on a weekend that he’s with me. I will promise him that, should I acquire a significant other, there will not be another man living under my roof until after he leaves for college.
I will try, after being a lousy role model that weekend, to be a good role model going forward. I will take accountability for my mistake, by demonstrating that everyone, even parents, screw up, and by holding fast to my word.
What Luca chooses to do with this information, is beyond my control. And if he chooses to remain entrenched in anger and betrayal, there is nothing I can do but continue reaching out.
In her book, Brene Brown gives examples of women who have what she calls “shame resilience”: the ability to reach out to support networks and admit flaws that, when hidden, further isolate us and keep us mired in shame.
She also talks about the importance of sharing our vulnerabilities, because these are the things that bind us, not the illusion of perfection.
So that’s why I’ve decided to cop to my parenting shame — one of the worst kinds of shame there is. I realize that this admission may freak out readers, that some people may be appalled by my colossal screw-up and may decide they will no longer read my blog. And I respect that.
I have spent so much of my life caring way too much about what other people think, and letting other people’s judgments define me. And I don’t want to keep doing that. It’s unhealthy, it keeps me swimming in shame, and it keeps me from what I really want to be — authentic and comfortable in my own skin.
I started this blog because I didn’t want to be done in by the divorce from Prince, and the custody battle, and the severing of my relationship with my son. And along the way, in my efforts to write honestly about things that are raw, and scary, and hard to talk about, I learned that my experience touched other people and made them feel less alone.
When I thought about all those things last night I decided to do the only thing that has ever truly grounded me. To sit down and write and be as honest as I can.
And if sharing my massive screw-up helps just one person feel that he or she is not the only one who’s made a massive screw-up, if it helps just one other person feel grounded and less alone, then my mistake will have more significance than for me alone.