Guilt and the Parent

I tried posting this last week, but WordPress wasn’t cooperating.

We had kind of a major scale meltdown last week (and a smaller one on the other side), and it has left me feeling terribly guilty.

Here are the reasons I tell myself:

  • ADHD is about 85% heritable, according to the studies, and I am the ADHD parent. I am, therefore, about 85% responsible for our children having ADHD. (Well, one of them is adopted, but I’m responsible for the other one.)
  • Both kids have anxiety issues, and even if one is by chance, two starts looking like faulty parenting.
  • I know from long experience that I am just not as good as I ought to be, at anything. So why shouldn’t it be my fault, just in a way that I’m not bright enough to see right now?

Some of you might know the problem. When I am at my very worst, I figure the family would be better off without me, with all that implies, and I half-heartedly think of ways I could leave so they could be free.

I don’t do it, though. Instead, I concentrate on finding flaws in the reasons I just said, and finding good reasons to stay and stay involved.

Okay, yeah. ADHD is largely heritable. (In fact, I think it’s among the most heritable traits studied, but I could be wrong.) And it’s probably between 5 and 10 per cent of the population. Does it have a selective advantage to the group? I’m not in the group that thinks it has to, but that might be reassuring to some folks to think that. (There are doctors who talk about the advantages of ADHD. Club feet keep reoccurring, and I have trouble finding advantages there, so being a mutation with a known persistence in the population does not guarantee a selective advantage. But I digress:) Do I beat myself up because my daughter is blonde instead of some other colour? Do I beat myself up over skin colour? No.

Ah, you say (or at least I do when I’m doing this arguing-both-sides thing), but ADHD isn’t as benign as hair colour. No, you’re right. But would I beat myself up if, say, my daughter had inherited my club feet? Probably not: I’d be sad once in a while for possibilities that got taken from her, but it would not be the same source of guilt that this is.

Partly that’s because I am still struggling with ADHD myself. It’s a constant shadow, and while it’s nice to be able to point to some things and say, “Hey, ADHD is why I have such problems with consistency,” it doesn’t change the fact that really, for me, some things are always going to be harder than they are for 90% of the population.

(Which is when I point out to myself that I am a white male, playing on (as John Scalzi puts it) the lowest difficulty setting of North American life. But this is about me wallowing in self-pity.)

And yes, maybe my wife and I parented in some way that contributed to anxiety. It wasn’t on purpose, if it was so–it’s not like I’d have chosen to saddle the kids with anxiety issues. Unfortunately, that’s done. It’s in the past. If I ever identify what the specific things were, I’ll point them out so others don’t make the same mistakes. But that’s the past. All I can do at this point is change what I’m doing to try to address the symptoms, and to try to address the underlying cause.

For parenting, that’s all any of us can do. And there will come a time when our children have to make their own lives, just as they have to make their own mistakes now, while it’s still safe.

Sometimes, yes, I fear for my kids, and I go too far in the wrong direction, trying to make sure that they don’t make the same mistakes I did. Instead, I want them to make new mistakes. I want them to make mistakes where I have to scratch my head and say, “I dunno, sweetie: this is what it looks like to me, but you’ll have to make the decision yourself.”

(When I look at the third reason for guilt, it is just me whining. And when I write it down, it looks like exactly that. But I left it in, because you know habits of decades are hard to break and you should see that.)

So, guilty or not, we have to address the symptoms, find a cause, and try and address that. Rinse, wash, repeat. Parenting is too much a culmination of a billion tiny decisions and moments to say that the problem is here or here or there (with a few sad traumatic stories excepted). We might never find the real root cause: it might be ADHD or anxiety or epilepsy or stammering, compounded with low self-esteem from a history of failure, mixed with poor dietary habits and a terrible sleep schedule and a nonexistent exercise regime, and yesterday’s burrito.

But even if it is your fault, or your partner’s fault, feeling guilty about it isn’t going to fix it. If you have done something wrong, yes, you should feel remorse. You have done something wrong. If you’re like every other parent I know, you did it innocently or without thinking, but you’ve done something wrong.

But fix it. Fix what you can. Keep trying.