I met up with an old friend in my childhood town, many miles away from the life I have now. The evening was one of apologies.
“Sorry. Excuse me,” I told her at dinner. To the left, my toddler shrieked about a clump of macaroni stuck to the phone screen, obscuring his view of Katerina Kittycat in a tutu. Across the table, my 6-year-old son furrowed his brow and tried—too hard, I feared—to impress my friend’s little girl. He shared his toys by thrusting them an inch from her nose. He scribbled math equations onto his menu with a blue crayon, then shouted the answers to his new pal a little—no, a lot—too loudly. His complicated brain struggled to understand personal space.
“Shhh. Inside voice,” I told him as I wiped smears of cheese off my phone with a crumpled napkin and handed it back to my subdued toddler.
“Sorry,” I said to my friend, again and again, when I failed to finish a sentence or to hear one of hers for the fourth or fifth or 20th time. I was just too busy watching my kids. And worrying. And apologizing.
By the end of dinner, my older son was in my lap, head burrowed into my shoulder, overwhelmed by the volume of the crowded restaurant and the anxiety of making friends. I worried some more. Why was this so hard for him? Despite, or perhaps in spite of, the symptoms and diagnoses tossed around by doctors and occupational therapists—sensory issues, seizures, tics, and motor delays as well as giftedness—all I could do was worry. And apologize.
At the local park afterward, we watched my friend’s child swing across the monkey bars with the ease of a circus performer. “How’s your family?” I asked my friend, ready to focus on her. But I didn’t hear her answer.
“Sorry,” I said again, as my son cried out behind me.
He had one hand on the first monkey bar, both feet still planted safely on the platform. His eyes were wide. His hands shook. His legs quivered, and he yelled, “Please, Mommy, help me!”
I wrapped my arms around him and held him as he went from bar to bar, then kissed him as he reached the end and slid down my body to the ground.
His eyes shone as he asked for help on the next obstacle. In his mind, this playground—like none that he’d ever seen—was the greatest ninja-warrior course ever. One that he had to do from start to finish, now that he had seen his new friend zip through it with grace. But he couldn’t do it alone. I helped him up, over, and through each obstacle.
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He panicked when I suggested that it might be easier to go in the opposite direction—which went against the vision of the course he had outlined in his head. I tried to soothe him, but his shoulders tensed and his face puckered. A total meltdown was pending.
I imagined him through the eyes of my friend, through the eyes of her daughter, through the eyes of the other kids on the playground, who were all climbing, swinging, laughing, and playing together, while my child stood in the middle of the course, unaware of the fact that his loud protests were causing other parents to stare. Unaware that he was blocking some kids or that others were simply pushing past him. Unaware that his pants were slipping down or that he was rubbing at his nose, a nervous tic.
I bent down, pulled him into my arms, inhaled his warm scent. “Why don’t you tell me exactly how you need to do this,” I whispered, “and we will do it together.”
We did it—but only after I apologized to the next kid in line, who’d waited for what seemed like hours for his turn.
Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. I threw all my apologies out like candy to parade watchers, so absorbed in worry for my son that I didn’t listen for replies or watch to gauge the reactions of the other parents. And then my friend—my loving, patient, understanding childhood friend of 30 years—gathered up her daughter to go home for bedtime and said something that nearly brought me to my knees.
Sorry, I had told her, once again, as my son finally let go of his emotions, sobbing at the idea of leaving before he could complete the obstacle course for a second time, while my toddler stood, concerned, by his brother’s side.
“Would you stop apologizing?” she said. “Your boys are beautiful. Perfect.”
Of course they are.
How had I let this thought—the one that plays over and over in my head at home when I look at my wonderful children and think how lucky I am that they are mine—escape me in that moment?
My son has had plenty of differences from classmates—some emotional, some physical, some sensory. He is growing physically stronger and more confident every day, through occupational therapy and simply getting older. He has made wonderful friends. He is learning new emotional strategies for moving through the world. At the same time, I have been learning that the most important job I have as a mother isn’t to apologize for my children’s differences.
I will always worry about their welfare, of course. We all do, as parents—and we need to be our kids’ biggest advocates. But the most valuable thing I can teach my older son—and his brother—is that there is nothing wrong with him, and everything right with him.
I can remind him of the book he made in kindergarten about the sun—drawn in orange and yellow crayons—that the other kids loved so much they argued over who got to take it home. I can remind him that his baby brother thinks the actual sun rises and sets on his big brother every day, such is the admiration from the toddler for his hero. I can remind him—as my own parents did for me—that he thrills his mommy and daddy constantly with his morsels of wisdom, his sense of humor, and the way he practices ninja-warrior obstacles in the backyard with such determination.
I know this, and I have tried to do this each and every day of his life. Until that fateful day in July when I failed my son on the playground far from home. Until my old friend set me straight—and I realized that my apologies were born of my own insecurities, having once been a child with differences myself.
“Thank you,” I told her, which couldn’t possibly convey the depth of my appreciation. I waved as she and her daughter drove away.
I turned back to my boys. My older son was done with tears, the obstacle course already forgotten.
“Mama, roll down the hill with us!”
I opened my mouth to tell them we had to leave. The sun was dipping below the horizon; it would be dark soon. But instead I kissed their flushed checks and rolled down the hill, letting my laughter tangle with their yells of joy, without a second thought about whether anyone else was watching.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's February 2020 issue as “Farewell, Mom Guilt.”