I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve apologised. And there is probably many more apologies I should have made but didn’t. And there are probably times I apologised when it wasn’t even my fault – I just got use to saying “sorry”. Whenever something goes wrong my automatic thought is, “Was it something I did?” When our unborn son was diagnosed with a condition which meant he was unlikely to survive, my questions to the specialist were, “Did I do something wrong?” “Did I exercise too much?” “Did I eat the wrong foods or not take the correct vitamins?”
As our family grew these feelings of guilt also grew. In fact, one son who is often referred to as “Always Right, Never Wrong” would make me feel guilty even when he was objectively at fault. However, I plead guilty on many counts to losing my temper for one reason or another – probably exhaustion; guilty again on mismanaging certain personalities and disciplining with a blanket approach rather than an individual one.
According to Freud, moral development is largely completed by the age of five. Wow! I had my work cut out for me as with four kids under five and counting I had to get the hard yards in before it was all too late!
Although my husband John, travelled extensively we always had a plan in place for disciplining the children while he was away and what to do if things got out of control. It became customary before each of John’s trips to encourage the children to be obedient, do their jobs and homework well and on time, help their younger siblings and not to fight. The older ones were rostered on night duty which meant they took turns waking up to crying babies and giving them a bottle so I could catch up on some much needed sleep. It was only recently that one of my sons, now well into his thirties with children of his own, confessed and apologised that when he was on the graveyard shift he more often than not put the pacifier in the baby’s mouth rather than the bottle. And in the morning he woke before the rest of the family and emptied the bottle of formula down the sink to destroy any evidence! Even if it takes a long time, an apology is always welcomed.
Our children not only had interesting imaginations and were somewhat conniving at times – they were also strong willed, determined and high achievers in their own right. This may explain why they were so loud and at times confrontational – just ask the neighbours! All the boys – although great and loyal mates – fought relentlessly. Whenever my husband told me he was going on another trip I felt sick to my stomach wondering what disaster was going to unfold and which hospital we’d end up in while he was away. In fact, we enlisted the help of a good friend of John’s who was affectionately referred to as a ‘surrogate dad’. He was given the job of being on call if I needed help with the children – one son in particular. In fact, at this son’s wedding the ‘surrogate dad’ received a special round of applause for picking up John’s pieces when he was away.
Many books on parenting pass by my desk and the other day I thumbed through one entitled, “Being Real – Teens and Relationships”. However, it wasn’t long before I put it down in despair after reading, “The ordinary teenager often finds the Christian teaching about how we should deal with others its most attractive aspect. The notion that every other person is worthy of our respect and even our love seems to strike a chord in a teenager’s experience”. Really? Who writes this stuff? Where do they find these kinds of teenagers? Not in my home that’s for sure. Respect and love for each other seemed a somewhat distant concept, especially when the fights erupted between the boys.
This time the first blow was struck moments after John left in a taxi for the airport. I didn’t think too much about it as it seemed minor compared with some of the other boxing matches I’ve had to referee. I suppose I was somewhat delusional thinking all would be good after John had a deep and meaningful conversation with one of our more sensitive sons. They brainstormed and came up with a few strategies to draw on in case there was an altercation with his brothers while John was away. If he felt angry and unable to control himself one strategy was to go for a walk to cool off, calm down, take some deep breaths and come home when he felt better. He was 14 years old at the time – safe enough to walk around the block by himself. John told him if he can control his thoughts – he can control his feelings and change his actions. So instead of punching someone or throwing something, he was encouraged to choose not to. I felt comforted that there was some good Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) happening here. However, I have learned over the years that whenever I felt things were under control there was something sinister and scary lurking just beneath the surface.
Suddenly, there was retaliation for that first blow delivered soon after John left for the serenity of the South Pacific Islands. As soon as I closed the front door other doors began to slam and chairs were soon flying across the kitchen. Kids began ducking as the fight escalated. I tried to gain control. So much for good ‘ol CBT! What happened to those strategies? What happened to their ventromedial area? I seriously began to think there was some developmental delay in their frontal lobes as they both exhibited minimal emotional responses to their own misdeeds and the suffering of others – especially me. I separated the two, denied them dinner, sent one to his room to study and the other left for work at KFC. So that got rid of him for a few hours.
The rest of the family regrouped and the night proceeded as if nothing had happened. After dinner we said the family Rosary, prepared school lunches and were about to retire for the night when the phone rang. It was about 9pm. I answered thinking it may be John calling from the airport. “Hello” It wasn’t John’s voice but the voice of the son I had sent to his room hours earlier to study. It sounded as if he was in some noisy restaurant somewhere. I was so confused and asked, “Where are you?” He replied in a rather strained voice, “I’m in Carlingford.” Carlingford was a suburb over an hour’s walk from our home. “What???” I was in a state of disbelief. My mind kept picturing him in his room studying but he couldn’t be there because he was on the phone. This was so weird. The conversation continued. “What are you doing in Carlingford?” I asked. “I went for a walk like dad said and I was attacked by dogs”. This was all surreal to me.
He went on to explain that a woman and her husband came to his rescue. Realising I was in a state of shock these ‘good samaritans’ offered to drive him home. When I opened the front door his face told such a sad and sorry story. My eyes searched his body for damage. It wasn’t long before they came to rest on fresh white guaze wrapped around his calves. Blood oozed from his wounds as he staggered passed me through to the kitchen feeling quite faint and sat down at the table. I felt so bad and neglectful. What kind of mother was I? He probably had post traumatic stress after seeing his life nearly taken by three vicious pit bull terriers. I thanked the ‘good samaritans’ for their compassion before closing the door on another adventure in our son’s life. Thankfully, our family doctor saw him immediately, stitched him back together and put him on a course of antibiotics. He even offered the pain up for the brother that caused all this in the first place and for both their exams. How forgiving is that? Boys just don’t hold grudges – thank goodness.
The next day after picking up the antibiotics I asked him to show me where the dogs attacked him. I was amazed at how far he had walked and asked,
Well at least he was honest! He was clearly very upset that I had not done enough to diffuse the situation and listen to both sides of the story.
Holding out the olive branch I asked, “What were you thinking when the dogs were attacking you?” He said he was thinking about the time he was lost with a group of friends in the mountains and after a night of feeling cold and hungry the group leader trying to be positive had said to them, “Shit sometimes happens”. He also recalled a story he heard on the news the week before where an old lady was attacked and killed by dogs and concluded that his time was up. I was amazed that he was still thinking rationally accepting that there are times in life when there are many negatives that just need to be accepted.
Although I felt sorry, guilty and neglectful I explained I couldn’t be Solomon every time an argument or fight broke out between him and his brothers. However, on this occasion I wondered if I could have been more patient and handled it differently. Then I recall some words of wisdom I heard recently that there is no place for perfectionism in motherhood. Oh, what a relief that is!
Another book I have recently found helpful in maintaining and deepening relationships is The Five Languages of Apology by Chapman and Thomas. This book explains how to apologise in another person’s language. Simply saying you’re sorry doesn’t work with everyone. The authors explain that without effective apologies anger may build and forgiveness may be slow to come. I realised that my son needed me to be specific in my apology and show I understood how upset he was. He didn’t need me to make any excuses like I had other children to look after and dinner to cook and so on.
Son, if you are reading this, I apologise for not taking the time to listen to you. I apologise that my behaviour caused you so much pain. I didn’t mean to hurt you and I will try harder in the future to think more rationally and find better solutions. According to the book the key steps in apologising are:
- expressing regret
- accepting responsibility
- making restitution
- genuinely repenting
- requesting forgiveness.
I am now working on trying to improve my apologies. I hope this will have a positive effect on my family and friends.
My son is now married with his own children and I am sure he now realises that parenting is not easy and we constantly make mistakes and hopefully learning from them. I also hope that when he talks with his son, like his father talked with him, he will clarify that going for a walk to cool off means a walk around the block not an hour away and not late at night.