I hit my child, and for a week I carried around guilt as if its weight would somehow erase history. But self-imposed guilt trips never vaporize the past. No, they only solidify it, weigh one down, and drain the joy out of the future.
I apologized purely and profusely, taking all of the blame.
I still felt guilty.
My sweet child forgave me.
I still felt guilty.
My husband understood me.
I still felt guilty.
I thought about what triggered my anger, and I took steps to ensure it never happened again.
I still felt guilty.
That guilt? It served no purpose. It would not make me a better mother. Nor would it make me a better wife or a better person. But it did teach me an important lesson.
A close friend suggested I write my sweet child an apology. What follows is that letter, designed to be read years from now, when my son has become a father and a husband and is suffering from some guilt of his own.
One Friday morning, when you were nine years old, I asked you and Dad to be quiet for about five minutes while I did a live radio interview over the phone. I dialed the station. Almost as soon as the producer said hello, Dad’s voice boomed from the kitchen, “Where is your backpack?”
As I greeted the producer, I snapped my fingers, hoping you both would remember what I’d just asked.
Soon I was on air, answering the host’s questions about how wives can forgive their husbands. It was not a conversation that a nine-year-old child should overhear, yet, for some inexplicable reason, your father and you walked into the room. You sat at my desk and began playing a game on my phone. Dad sat nearby, doing something on his computer. I turned my back, as if doing so would prevent you from listening. All the while, my attention was split between answering the host’s questions and worrying whether one or both of you would start talking, causing the host and hundreds of thousands of listeners to overhear the chaos of my home life.
Dad got up and went to the basement, leaving you at my desk. I rolled my eyes, thinking, “What is wrong with that man?”
As I was in the middle of a sentence, I heard very loud, crazy, ominous sounding music coming from a game on the phone. I couldn’t tell you to turn it off without the host and radio listeners hearing me.
What I did next, I am not proud of, and I very much wish I could undo.
I smacked you on the back of the head.
You turned, surprised. I glared. Your face became red and your eyes glassy. You got up and walked away.
Before the interview ended, Daddy was standing before me saying, “You’d better…”
Now I was glaring at him and snapping my fingers and waving my arms, the universal sign for “Just shut up.”
Finally, the interview was over. I hung up.
“What is your problem?” I hissed.
“The kid is in his room sobbing. He said you hit him.”
“Yeah, that’s because I asked you both to be quiet and he was playing a video game at full volume. This interview is only five minutes! You both can’t be quiet for five minutes!”
Your dad slowly said, “That sound wasn’t from the kid’s game. It was from my computer. It was my fault. I’m sorry.”
I walked past him and into the bedroom. I wrapped my arms around you, and I said, “I’m so sorry. It’s all my fault. You are wonderful. I love you.”
You soaked my shirt with your tears.
I told you again and again how sorry I was. Your tears choked off your voice. You could not respond.
When you left for school, your eyes were red. I hugged you one last time. “I hope you can forgive me,” I said.
“I do,” you told me.
And you really did. In the days that followed, you never once brought it up and you seemed to love me more than ever. It was as if the entire event had been erased from your memory.
In my mind, however, it was playing over and over again. Smack. Rewind. Smack. Rewind.
As first, I tried to justify my actions.
If you’d both only listened to me and had kept quiet for five minutes… If Dad had only asked you to sit in a different room… If Dad had never turned on his computer… If Dad was just more responsible, a better listener, didn’t talk so loudly…
Blaming it on Dad didn’t erase the guilt.
If I hadn’t been on the radio, I could have told you to be quiet rather than attempt to communicate it with my overly forceful body language.
Blaming it on the radio interview didn’t undo the guilt, either.
I wanted you to have a better mother, someone who didn’t hit ever.
Until that Friday, I had been that mother. I’d never once lashed out with physical force. I’d rarely even raised my voice. Where had that woman gone? Who had replaced her that morning? It was as if some other mother had invaded my body, smacked you, and then run away, leaving me to deal with the guilty, tear-soaked aftermath.
I kept asking the same question: Why?
Why? Why? Why?
My dear son, I may never know why, but I can tell you this. At some point in your life, you will not live up to your own standards. Maybe, like me, you will do or say something hurtful to your own beloved child. Or perhaps you will hurt a friend or your spouse or your pet.
And, like me, you’ll feel dreadful. Carrying around guilt is like hauling a sack of boulders. It weighs you down, tires you out, and achieves nothing.
Person after person will tell you this. They’ll remind you of all of your good qualities. They’ll tell you that anyone would have done what you did. They’ll say, “Look, you are only human.” They’ll remind you of what you already know: your guilt is helping no one, and it’s preventing you from being your best self.
Yet you will drag guilt around as if it’s your most precious possession, and for no other reason than you don’t know how to let go.
To help myself let go of my own guilty bag of boulders, I thought back to my own childhood, and to a time when my sweet, mild mannered father slapped me across the face. I no longer remember what I did to trigger him, and I suppose he no longer remembers either. What I do remember very clearly is looking up, our eyes locking, and us both instantly feeling sorry. I was sorry for angering him. He was sorry for getting angry.
That was more than 35 years ago. Did Dad slapping me across the face change me? I suppose it did, as all experiences do. Yet it was one moment out of an entire childhood. Dad read books to us kids. He tossed baseballs to us in the backyard. He picked up my best friend, turned her upside down, and shook her until all the change fell out of her pockets and we were all laughing so hard our noses got snotty. He played tag with us.
He loved us.
If I learned anything from him, it was this: how to be patient. As soon as I realized that, I dropped that guilty bag of boulders with a thud.
Him hitting me did not ruin me, just as me smacking you has not ruined you. I’m guessing that you now look back on your childhood, and you feel thankful for having such accepting, loving, fun parents.
Z, if I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s this: Life is a series of moments. In many of them, we exceed our own expectations. Every once in a while, we have a below average day. This is true of everyone we love. Most of the time, our loved ones deliver. Sometimes they disappoint.
Holding grudges against others and especially against ourselves doesn’t solve anyone’s problems. It doesn’t bring happiness. Nor does it make the world a better place.
So drop that bag of guilt, Z. Whatever you did, I still love you. I know I am not the only one.
No matter what you did, now is a new moment. It’s one that is ripe with possibility. You have the choice of being whomever you want. You might not have been your best self in the past, but you can live up to your own expectations right now.
So go do it, Z. You are wonderful. Don’t let your inner demons convince you otherwise.
Read more of Alisa’s writing at ProjectHappilyEverAfter.com.