You don’t get through raising four boys without sometimes losing the plot. It was Thursday night, the kids were rowdy and out of control; it was past their bedtime but I clearly was the only one who was tired. The boys are normally pretty good kids, but that particular night it seemed that no amount of negotiating, begging or shouting from my part was having any effect on getting them to bed.
So I decided to leave. I’m not sure exactly what I had in mind, but with a level of dramatic flare that can only be explained by my Latin American heritage, I grabbed my coat, keys and wished my sons well raising each other into adulthood. I walked outside and the slap of cold night air immediately sobered my enthusiasm for a life as an aimless vagabond.
I sat on the driveway sniffling and evaluating my own behaviour for about ten minutes before walking back into the house. The boys were gathered in a hushed and worried huddle, no doubt discussing the ethics of eating our dog once the tinned food ran out. I slithered in and sat on the carpet amongst them, and in the most honest way I could, apologised for not being as strong as they needed me to be.
There is something about that kind of vulnerability that triggers a boy’s natural instinct to protect. My eldest put his arm around me kindly and said something that is much too wise for his age:
It’s ok. We already know you’re strong. That’s why you came back and said sorry.
We finished the night with cuddles and reassurance; but I was still left with the uneasy feeling of having failed them somehow. I take so much pride in teaching my children important lessons- what had I showed them tonight? That you walk out when it gets tough? That you quit? The guilt was eating me up.
But as it turned out, it wouldn’t take long for me to see that there had been a valuable lesson even amongst my weakness. The following night two of the boys were arguing over a ball, when one of them called the other a name. I sent the offender to his room. He emerged ten minutes later, and completely out of his own initiative, he had written his brother an apology.
The letter was so touching; and I felt a knot in my throat grow as I realised that he was using much of the same language that I had used the night before, to express my deep contrition.
I remembered something I heard a long time ago- example is not the main thing, it’s the only thing.
How true and how frightening. There’s no possible way to be a perfect parent 100% of the time. We all stuff up, and we all have to somehow learn to forgive ourselves when we do.
But beyond that, the experience this week was an acute reminder that our children aren’t just watching us when we fall, they are also watching how we get back up. How we manage our pride, our guilt. How we reconcile with our failings. How we ask for forgiveness and how hard we work on not making the same mistakes again.
And maybe, in the end, that’s the example that matters most.