He was seven, give or take. I came home from work to find that he and the neighbor had just spray painted my parents’ patio with bright red and black spray paint. Words like “cool” and “Pokemon” now littered what was, to be honest, a pretty sad space to begin with. It was spring, I was a teacher, and I lost my shit. I mean, I lost it like a crazy person. Somehow, I reasoned, I had wasted seven years of my life raising a vandal who was destined to deface public property with not-even-artistic skill and probably end up in jail. Never mind that it was probably the neighbor kid’s idea. Never mind that Roman probably didn’t know the difference between sidewalk chalk and spray paint. I was his mother, and I had failed.
I didn’t physically harm him, but I wounded him, for sure. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I remember screaming to a near-blackout level. I remember the shellshocked look on Roman’s face when he realized, too late, that he had done something really, really, really bad. I don’t know how long it took me or how many horrible things I said as I was filling up a bucket with soap and a scrub brush. All I knew is that I was NOT okay with the idea that I was raising the type of person who was going to someday deface works of art or public spaces. So I lost it. I screamed horrible “What-the-hell-were-you-thinking” type admonishments as I doled out “You-will-scrub-this-paint-until-you-bleed” type punishments. I punished him with a summer full of chores to make sure he never forgot that vandalism was unacceptable. I don’t know where my daughter was during any of this – probably hiding in a corner in the attic from her insane mother.
A day or two later, when I finally calmed down, I was overcome with guilt. Roman didn’t know the paint was permanent. He didn’t understand the concept of property – he was just having fun. None of this occurred to me in the moment when I lost my shit. So I apologized. I told him I was angry about what he had done, but my reaction was, in no way appropriate. Him, being seven, forgave me, and we scrubbed concrete together.
We did chores that summer together, too – his out of penance and mine out of guilt. I jokingly told him that someday I would pay for his therapy for all the ways that I , as a parent, had screwed up. And over the years, I brought it up on occasion and apologized again and again. I felt an intense amount of guilt over the emotional damage I felt I had caused. Roman assured me, over and over, that he barely remembered the incident or my reaction. He laughed it off and told me it was okay – that I should forgive myself and let it go. I tried.
Last November, a friend and her three kids were spending Thanksgiving at my house with my family. As my husband and I were at the store picking up a few things, I received a text that her son had accidentally shattered my patio doors with a homemade slingshot and pebble. He was eight years old. My husband was pissed, but I didn’t much care – we had planned on replacing the doors anyway.
When we got home, Roman, who was 23 years old by then, was not there. “He just took off,” my friend said. He said, “I can’t be here when she gets home.”
And he took the dog with him.
Of course I didn’t lose my shit this time. Hunter was terrified. I gave him a quick hug and told him we were going to replace the door anyway, but I’d appreciate if he would, in the future, aim away from the house. This was, I know, the sane reaction I should have had with my own son sixteen years earlier.
When Roman got home a little while later, I wrapped him in a hug and said, “I KNEW I traumatized you!” We laughed a little, and I was overcome with guilt as he told me about his reaction.
“I had PTSD,” he said. ” I just couldn’t be here when you got home.”
Over the years, I have had countless friends and family members confide in me about that one time they went batshit (or, as some call it, apeshit) crazy on their kids for things that, in normal circumstances, would have been no big deal. I hear their guilt and their shame as they grapple with that moment of near-emotional or verbal abuse. But parenting is hard, and we need to understand that we, like our children, are just human. We can’t undo the damage we do to others – we can only own it, apologize, and ask for forgiveness. In the same vein, our own parents can’t take back the times they overreacted or lost it over something they did – they can only apologize. And when they do, and they are truly sorry, we can only decide whether or not to forgive them. As parents, we can only do our best to learn from our mistakes, forgive ourselves, and resolve not to lose our shit the next time.
I am lucky that my son has forgiven me. And with time, I am slowly learning to forgive myself for some of the things I said when I was lost in the insane throes of trying to raise adults in tiny bodies, reminding myself gently of the innumerable times I said something encouraging, uplifting, or loving. After all, I am just a human, and no matter now much I work on me, there will still be times when life is hard, and I go just a little batshit crazy. These days, I just work a little harder to make sure there’s no one in my path when I do.