I am now accepting anonymous parenting questions for this blog; here’s the first one:

I really messed up. I started parenting my son before I knew about being conscious, respectful, and kind. He’s 12 now. Is there hope of repairing our relationship? I fear he’ll be angry with me forever.

Oh, dear reader. I wish I was sitting next to you right now, instead of on the other side of the internet. I’d get you a nice hot cup of tea and maybe a cookie or two, and I’d let you talk and talk and I’d listen and ask a few questions. Eventually, and when the time was right for me to share a few thoughts, I might say something like this:

Yes, of course there is hope. Of this I am absolutely certain. Children are resilient and driven for connection. Your son wants to be close to you just as much as you want it, even if it doesn’t seem that way. Relationships can be healed. It won’t happen overnight, and you’re starting down this path just as your son is entering those tricky teen years, so it’s going to be a bumpy ride, but hang in there. It will be worth it.

Even though your question only asked if there is hope, I suspect you have many more questions. I suspect you’re wondering what to do, how to start the process of reconnecting with your son again. There is so much I don’t know about the two of you and what has happened between you, so it’s hard to say exactly where to start, but I do know one thing for certain.

You must find a way to forgive yourself.

Your question betrayed such pain and sadness about whatever has happened, and the longer you stay in that mud of shame and regret, the harder it will be to dig your way out of it. Now, perhaps things are actually as bad as you think they are, or perhaps they’re not; we mothers seem to have a talent for imagining the worst and hanging on to it for dear life, regardless of whether or not it’s true, and even when it’s breaking our hearts and making us crazy. Either way, and no matter what you have done or neglected to do in the course of raising your son thus far, you have to find some compassion for yourself. There will be no movement or change or space for connection until this happens.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a fairly concrete thinker. I didn’t understand the importance of forgiveness and kindness until a friend of mine started talking to me about oranges. Yes, oranges. Bear with me.

My friend is a kindred spirit, a fellow mother who also had some regrets about her early parenting. We were talking about the confusion, shame, rage, and regret that we have both felt at various times, and how those big feelings impact our relationships with our kids. At some point, she offered up a question that totally cleared up my thinking. What, she asked me, do you get when you squeeze an orange?

Uhhh, orange juice?

Yes, of course, orange juice. When we are squeezed, whatever is inside of us is what comes out. If you are living with a 12 year old boy, especially one who is angry at you, then I’m guessing you’re getting squeezed a lot. Perhaps your juice is coming out as irritability, frustration, anxiety, or despair, but whatever it is, it’s probably a lot more bitter tasting than the conscious, respectful, kind parenting you wish you had been offering your son all along.

Unfortunately for all of us flawed humans wandering the face of the earth, forgiveness isn’t just a switch we can flip. It’s something we have to practice and stumble through and trip over and lose sight of and come back to over and over again until we finally find enough solid ground to be able to put one foot in front of the other with some degree of confidence and compassion.

Fortunately, you don’t have to travel this journey alone. First, you need a map. You need to know where to turn when you get lost in the weeds of shame and regret yet again. Self-compassion is your map; when you can notice that you’re in the bad place again, you can choose to respond to yourself with a little kindness, to remind yourself that parenting is incredibly hard, and that you’re not alone in this particular wilderness, and you’re sure as hell not the first one to stray so far from the path you’d like to be on that it’s hard to imagine how you could get ever back on track.

Having a little kindness for yourself will be a powerful shift in your perspective, and the newness of it may actually feel harder than the pain you have been living in for so long. You may wonder if it’s ok to let yourself off the hook, if you shouldn’t suffer a bit longer to atone for your parenting sins, whatever they may be. The idea that if we can just layer enough suffering on top of our already existing pain, and eventually the whole pile of crap will somehow dissipate and we will be freed is just not true.

There is no redemption at the bottom of your well of shame. It just gets darker and more cramped and harder to breathe. I know it can be hard to remember to look up, though, so it’s often helpful to have someone by your side, someone who’s willing to get down in that hole with you, and help you climb your way out.

This is where a friend, therapist, pastor, rabbi, or parent coach can be immensely helpful. You need someone who is willing to hear your whole story, hold it without judgment, and let you know, through their presence and acceptance, that you are not the monster you fear you might be. That you have not destroyed any hope you have for your relationship with your son, and that you can begin to reconnect with him.

As you share your story with people who can hold the hope that is just a little too slippery for you right now, you will eventually find some forgiveness and compassion for yourself, and from there, you will see the opportunities for connecting with your son–the moments each day when you can be present for him, listen to him, and share bits of your day. Because the truth is that he wants to connect with you as much as you want it, even if he can’t find the way to let you know.

Hang in there, try to take care of yourself, and remember, you’re not in this alone, and there is always, always, hope.

You can submit an anonymous parenting question for the blog here.

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