Releasing Regret

Regret is such a short word, and yet it stretches on forever. Renata Suzuki

As a toddler, Jimmy was a disinterested user of the potty. I tried all the basic tricks – selling the switch to “big boy pants,” offering Cheerios for “target practice” and M&Ms as a reward, reading Alona Frankel’s “Once Upon a Potty” to him night after night to no avail.

Left to his own devices, I have no idea when Jimmy would have come around to the idea, but with parent cooperative preschool beginning a few weeks before his third birthday in September, I was determined to get rid of the day time diapers. Otherwise, I’d have to remain at school, or close by, in case he had an accident on the two days a week I didn’t have to volunteer.

A friend suggested I put the primary-colored potty chair outside and let Jimmy run around without a diaper on. Much to my surprise, that worked. I suspect it was a combination of the novelty of being naked, having the chair convenient to where he was playing and not liking the feel of something wet running down his legs.

By the time preschool started a few weeks later, Jimmy was wearing underwear consistently without incident . What I hadn’t considered was that I had potty trained him without any distractions. A social little soul, Jimmy eagerly made new friends, and I discovered how little he cared about what was in his underwear if he was busy with one of them. He routinely ignored his body’s impulses in order to avoid missing a few minutes with his friends. Fortunately, several of the moms who volunteered on Wednesday and Friday mornings had boys of their own and were willing to coax Jimmy inside and change his clothes before he dashed back to his buddies. I often got the opportunity to return the favor on Monday mornings, as he was not the only preschooler making the same calculation.

By the time Molly was born, a year and four months later, Jimmy’s accidents were a thing of the past. Or so I thought, until one afternoon when she was only a few months old. It was one of those long days when Dan was traveling for work, sleep had been hard to come by for many weeks in a row, and I was trying to do too much.

Jimmy was playing with his Thomas the Tank engine train cars in front of our brick fireplace. Molly was in an infant snuggler on the kitchen counter, solemnly watching me make dinner when I realized that the family room had gone quiet. I called Jimmy’s name. No answer. I picked Molly up and began hunting for him, thinking perhaps that he’d wandered up to his room. No Jimmy. I hurried downstairs, a feeling of panic coming over me. Had he had gone out the front door? Wandered into the garage?

As I took the turn on the landing, I saw a suspicious brown line leading into the dining room, which is where I found him, hiding under our oak table, the light tan carpet looking as though he’d been finger painting with chocolate brown paint. Rather than telling me he’d had an accident, Jimmy had fled for cover, unaware of the trail he’d left behind in his wake.

I lost my temper, the words flying out of my mouth. “How could you do this? You’re four and a half years old .. way too old to be having accidents. What a mess. I can’t believe you did this.” I scolded him for not using the bathroom, for not telling me he’d had an accident, for scattering the “evidence” everywhere instead of coming directly into the kitchen where the cleanup would have been so … much .. easier. I shooed Jimmy up the stairs to his room after cleaning him up, Molly resting on my right hip. I’d never been that angry before. Even after all these years, I can still feel the way rage coursed through my body.

By the time I finally calmed down, Jimmy was asleep. I promised myself I would apologize to him in the morning, but I didn’t. I kept meaning to, but shame and embarrassment kept me silent.

The incident remained on my top five worst mom moments for a long time, staying with me because my anger was so out of proportion with what had occurred.

I don’t remember when I finally told Jimmy and Molly this story, only that it was sometime after his brain cancer diagnosis. I was tired of carrying my shame around and also newly aware that the years with him that I thought were guaranteed might not be.

Jimmy, it turned out, had no memory of the incident at all, but as I described what he’d done, he and Molly thought the whole thing was hysterically funny. He waved off my apology as unnecessary as he and Molly doubled over with laughter at the image of four-year-old Jimmy hiding in his contaminated dining room fort

I could make a long list of my failings as a parent. The times I got impatient, didn’t listen, dismissed one of my kids’ concerns or overlooked their needs. Times I said too much and others when I didn’t say enough.  But buried unseen in that list is also the proof that I was there, showing up. Cranky and flawed. Distracted and overwhelmed. Doing my imperfect best.

Sometimes I wonder what Jimmy remembered of his childhood. The mistakes and missteps I made. There are so many I never apologized for and others he must have carried that I didn’t realize had caused him pain. But I’ll never forget the kids’ laughter over this one. It was a permission slip to let go of the regret I’d been carrying all these years. Sweet proof of how human these kinds of mistakes are, and a gentle reminder that stuffing them down may make them loom large for us as parents in a way that our kids don’t share or perhaps even remember.

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