Heavy with fatigue, I plop down in my chair and open my laptop. My jaw clenches as I stare at a blank document, trying to decide what to write (because I need to write—I need to get it out). I think of everything that happened during the previous day and the thoughts prompt waves of stress. I let out a lung-clearing breath, wipe away a few tears, and type: Dear Son, I’m so sorry we failed you.
I’ve always liked documenting bits of life.
I’ve journaled since I was little (first in spiral notebooks, then diaries purchased from Claire’s that had little locks and keys, then online). I made mix CDs in college to hand out to my friends to mark a holiday or seasonal change. I collaged magazine articles and concert tickets and newspaper clippings to capture a particular period of time I thought was significant.
And so many years ago, when I read somewhere about a mother who wrote letters to her children each year on their respective birthdays, I remember thinking: that sounds like something I want to do! So I tucked it away with all of the other little ideas and plans in my “When I Have Children” brain file (even though said children, and the husband before them, were still years and years away).
When my first son was born, I couldn’t wait to start documenting our lives together so I wrote him a letter when he was a few months old. A few months later, I wrote him another one. And then another a few months after that. Now, it’s a quarterly-ish thing that I do whenever I feel inspired to put fingers to keys. And when my second son was born, I started writing to him, too.
In these letters to my children, I write about the milestones they’re reaching, the things they’re doing that bring us immeasurable joy and laughter, and observations of the personalities they’re developing. I sometimes throw in a life lesson—either one I want to convey to them or one they’ve recently taught me. It’s free form and often makes me tear up in gratitude for them. My urge to capture and reflect on these most precious of times is palpable.
Which is why I knew, despite the guilt and difficulty, I had to write this most recent letter to my almost 3-year-old about something I wasn’t proud of.
We lost our cool.
A week before I wrote the letter, he started getting out of bed and coming to our room several times a night (after over a year of solid, nearly 12-hour sleeps). The baby was also teething. Nobody was getting adequate rest.
A few days before I wrote the letter, he and his brother started getting sick. His head hurt and his teeth hurt from inflamed sinuses and he still wasn’t sleeping well, though we had a good mama-and-sons day at home indulging in snuggles and watered-down juice.
One day before I wrote the letter, he refused to take a nap, and it started the most intense, hours-long battle that my husband and I have ever experienced with him.
We honestly didn’t know what to do.
We were shocked at the level of resistance and out-of-control energy being thrown at us. He’s had plenty of meltdowns but this…this was different. It was a tantrum of epic proportions. And we were desperate for him to sleep because we knew how badly his ill little body needed rest and how much the sleep deprivation was part of why he was so worked up.
That desperation, our own sleep deprivation, and having no experience handling that caliber of tantrum meant we had no idea how to contain the situation. So we yelled, and we (emptily) threatened to throw toys away, and we carried him kicking and screaming back into his bed so many times our backs and arms ached. Nothing worked and we all got louder and more irritable and impatient. In a last attempt at calming him, we wrestled him into the car, hoping the soothing movement would calm him. It did for a little while. But when he woke up after too-few minutes of sleep, he said, groggily, “I’m sad.”
When I heard that, I broke down sobbing. Because it wasn’t a “I’m sad I can’t have candy for dinner” type of sad. It was a “my spirit feels broken” kind of sad.
I knew we had failed him. Instead of helping him work through his intense exhaustion-and-sickness-fueled emotions, we lost our cool. And raised our voices. And got increasingly upset. And didn’t provide him with a solid place to land. We didn’t use extraordinary empathy or patience with his extraordinary spirit. Instead, we made him feel sad instead of loved and understood. (Note: I want to make clear we didn’t, and never would, use corporal punishment.)
I don’t mean to sound dramatic at what really amounts to an extended tempter tantrum that’s normal for his age. But I hated that I knew we could do so much better for him while he was in such a vulnerable state.
So my husband and I did the only things we could do after he finally, finally went to sleep: we pulled ourselves together. We recounted our mistakes. We read advice columns and blog posts and bought a book and made a plan for how to do better moving forward (because even though he got well from being sick, he’ll still be a strong-willed toddler for awhile).
And I wrote a letter that started with Dear Son, I’m so sorry we failed you.
It’s okay to mess up.
When I first made a mental note that I wanted to write letters to my children, I didn’t anticipate including confessions of some of our worst parenting moments. But I realized it was important to record that we messed up. And you know what? We’ll probably mess up again when he moves onto the next phase and we need to re-calibrate. And that’s okay.
Right now, though, we’re all doing a lot better.
And I take comfort that in the archives of his life and his brother’s life, there will be a documented commitment from his parents to admit mistakes, learn from them, and do better in the hopes that they may grow to do the same.