I have a whole mess of kids — six, to be exact. It’s crazy but it’s also a lot of fun. There are a lot of fights about nothing — like who gets to wear the Sofia the First costume — and there are so, so many moments of joy. As the hashtag says, #blessed.
But having a ton of kids underscores a flaw of the human condition: You Can’t Be In Multiple Places At Once. Life is basically constant triage: Yes, I can come to your play — unless someone is bleeding.
I try to be present, and I try to be there when my presence is requested. But like any working parent, the truth is that I’ve missed some milestones. Actually, a lot of milestones. Every time it happens, it feels absolutely awful. While I’ve never actually been slapped in the face with someone yelling, “You can’t even do this ONE THING of being there?! What is wrong with you?” at me, I’m guessing that feels a lot like missing a major milestone.
Sometimes, you know a big event is approaching and you won’t be there, which gives you the added bonus of feeling crappy about a missed milestone before it even happens. Like when your daughter’s preschool teacher comes up to you and says, “Your kid is so excited about being Little Miss Muffet in our Fairytale Play and she is SO fabulous at her part and she just can’t wait til she gets up on that stage to show you on May 24!” And, instead of sharing in the teacher’s joy, you have a stomach-sinking realization: “Oh, God, that’s literally the one weekend this year that my husband and I are going to be out of town.”
And sometimes, missing the milestone comes as a complete surprise. Like when you rearrange two separate carpools, “cook” a dinner of frozen chicken nuggets, and hire a sitter just so you can finally make it to one of your son’s baseball games — and then, helpfully, as you are two blocks away, a teen who’s texting while driving rear-ends your car, and you miss the one home run your kid hits the entire season.
The thing is, no matter what the reason is behind it, missing a major milestone tends to dredge up all those other missed milestones, and the waves of guilt feel as fresh as if they’d happened this morning. And I’ve missed some biggies.
I missed my last kid’s first steps. How was I to know that it would happen on the one night all that month that I went out to dinner with my husband? I also missed my oldest son’s elementary school graduation. This was for a good reason — giving birth to my sixth child — but what really gets me is that I was discharged that day, so I could have made it, if only the hospital had processed the paperwork just a smidge faster. (I ended up FaceTiming it from my hospital bed. Good times.)
Each missed milestones made me feel gut-wrenchingly terrible — as if the endless hours spent consoling, educating, feeding, soothing, caring for and loving these kids meant nothing, because I Missed IT, whatever the given “it” was of the moment.
How is it possible that those “marquee moments” trump every other thing we do? Here’s the thing I’ve finally realized: They do not. At all. They just have better marketing.
In the immortal words of Elsa, the psychologically-scarred ice princess, we all — myself included — have got to learn to “let it go.” And when I say let it go, I don’t mean to let go of the importance of those major moments. What I mean is letting go of that scourge of parenting: guilt.
I hate guilt. Look at what you’ve done in your day so far, before reading this piece. I bet there are at least three things you can feel guilty about already, whether it’s having given your kid a protein-less breakfast or letting them watch some garbage on TV or not having paid enough attention to their Minecraft soliloquy.
The point is, there is literally no end of how crappy you can make yourself feel about your inadequacy as a parent. But as a parent and as a person, guilt doesn’t do you any good. Guilt and self-flagellation aren’t virtues. Guilt is a lot like a stone you carry around in your shoe: it gets lodged there somehow, and it is bothersome and it can hurt like hell. But it’s actually easy to take a minute, dump it out, and go on your merry way.
We aren’t “bad parents” if we miss a milestone or two. We don’t need a doctor’s note. We need to take a deep breath, let it go, and remember that, contrary to all the hype, these major moments are not what it’s all about.
The fact is that the real milestones are the things that we often don’t notice, or remark on, or even photograph, at the time that they happen. There’s the milestone of when your child works out a problem with a friend on his own, face to face, without the buffer of a screen as protection. There’s the milestone when you sell your double stroller and the buyer’s car pulls away, and you feel a quick yank at your heart at the sudden realization that your babies are gone, too. There’s the milestone of the ordinary beauty embedded in every single day — seeing your children help each other with homework, or your son unthinkingly reaching for your hand as you walk to the bus stop — and realizing what a privilege it is to have a front row seat, every day.
So don’t kick yourself for all the things you miss. Just be grateful for all the things you don’t.