I remember the first time I ever paid for an iPhone app. We were in the hospital not long after hearing the devastating news that Xavier would not be coming home with us. Isaac was demanding attention I could not give. I turned to technology as baby-sitter. I relinquished previous rules, gave him my phone and in a metaphorical sense, I never really asked for it back.
In those dark days after Xavier died I could not give Isaac the parenting he deserved. He heard yes too often to requests for things when I had no fight. He heard no too often to requests for my time and attention when I had none to give. My wonderful sister in particular stepped in and looked after Isaac when I could not. There was a period of time when I was completely absent as a parent. My previous approach to parenting – to be present, to be fun, to be involved, to say “no” but then redirect attention to some brilliant new game or activity – all of it impossible.
Even in it, I knew I was being unfair to Isaac. I felt terrible guilt over it, yet I had no capacity to fix the situation. He was never phsycially neglected, but I feel like I missed the months of his life that followed Xavier’s death. Like everything else, I went through the motions, whilst my mind was elsewhere.
Even as the darkest fog of grief lifted, my parenting had changed. I was more permissive. Isaac’s short term happiness, and even compliance, more important to me than the longer term effects. It has been a hard Pandora’s box to try and close. With the advent of school, some behaviours have crystallised as being of concern. I look back to those days of absent parenting and wonder if I am now reaping what was sown. And then I ask myself whether I am using grief as an excuse?
Most children go through a period of time when their parents’ attention and time for them contracts. Whether it be a new baby or return to work, there comes a time when the best of parenting routines come unstuck. And Isaac is certainly not the only five year old to be a little crazy, prone to the occasional tantrum, unhappy with the word “no” and fond of fighting games.
I can spend time with my guilt over my absent parenting. I can beat myself about it and wish things to be different. Or I can choose to change our present behaviour into something more positive.
So I have decided to do the following:
- Every morning, we will dance to William Pharrell’s “Happy”. You cannot help but start the day on a positive note with that song in your head. And it was the first song Elijah clapped to. So it must be good.
- Every morning, we will talk about our intention for the day. We will spend a moment or two discussing what positive thing we want out of that particular day.
- The Star Wars, the Ninjago, the Chima – they will no longer be a part of our week days.
- Because I am taking away something important from Isaac, I want to give him something. We will work on a project each week. It might be an art or craft project, a building project, or something else. But we will do something creative together.
- We will start each day with some gentle yoga. Every week Elijah and I attend a yoga class. I might go into that class wound up and anxious – worried about various aspects of my life. I come out of that class and I am no longer worried. My problems have not magically been resolved, but my perspective is more realistic after spending time connecting my body to my mind. If Isaac and I spend some time with yoga, I think it will help us both.
At then end of the day, children are enormously resilient. My parenting in absentia will always bother me more than it has Isaac.
For those parenting living children and living in the thick fog of grief – be gentle with yourself. You can only give what you can give. Somedays that may not be very much at all. That’s okay. You are an amazing parent – you have made the choice to still be here with your living family.
For all parents, we can’t be perfect each day. We can do our best each day. Some days are going to be better than others, and even when it all goes wrong, there is always tomorrow to look forward to.