The Imperfect Mother

Last week I accidently double-dosed my son.  Instead of getting one of each of his prescription drugs, he got two.  Two brown pills, two white ones, two green and two gray, plus a double dose of vitamins.  A handful of pills twice as large as it should have been, twice as potent and with twice the side effects. 

Some of you may argue that if we weren’t giving our boy drugs in the first place then he couldn’t have taken too much.  You’re right.  But without them there’s a good chance he wouldn’t still be alive, either.  When he was younger, we had the choice of either putting him on drugs or eventually losing him.  It was that simple.  No medicine comes without risk, and the potential side effects of his prescriptions are scary, but they are less scary than the situations we found ourselves in without the drugs.  If you and your family have not had to make similar choices, I’m delighted for you; but my husband and I did.

We have a method in place to prevent medication errors.  My son has a medicine box with compartments for every day of the week, morning and night.  At the beginning of each week I fill them, double checking to make sure I’ve made no mistakes.  Using the box means he can learn to take his meds himself and I can check to make sure he’s done it correctly, reminding him if he needs it. Up until now the system has worked.

But one night last week it didn’t.  He’d gone to bed and was asleep by the time I checked the medicine box.  Thursday’s pills were still in the box – he’d forgotten to take them.  So I picked them out of the box, woke him up, gave him the drugs and sent him back to sleep.  Then I realized that it wasn’t Thursday.  It was Wednesday.  I was a day off.  He’d taken Wednesday’s medicine and then I’d given him Thursday’s on top of it.  I’d double-dosed him.

Horrified, I went to the phone, dialed information and was connected to California’s Poison Control Center.  A calm voice answered and sent me to our medicine cabinet, to list the drugs and dosages given.  There was a pause, then the nurse came back with a verdict.  While the amounts of the medicine my son had taken were not recommended, they were below dangerous levels.  My son would be fine.  We were lucky. 

I hung up the phone and buried my face in my hands.  What if things hadn’t turned out okay?  My son’s drugs are big, scary ones.  I didn’t know the possible outcomes for overdose on these drugs, but I could guess.  Dozens of scenarios went through my mind, none of them pleasant.  What if my mistake had injured my child?  What if my next mistake did or the one after that?  As a human I was going to err, there was no getting around it.  Was it just a matter of time before I really blew it and he got hurt?

I sat there with tears running down my face, overwhelmed by guilt, and I remembered other times I’ve failed my children.  Medical decisions I should have made sooner or differently, discipline that had been too harsh or too lenient, therapies we could have tried that might have helped (if we could have afforded them) – the list was long.  The memory of each incident added to the guilt I was already feeling.  What had ever made me think I was smart enough or capable enough to be a parent?  I couldn’t do this.  I was inept and my children suffered for it.

I sat like that for ten minutes, overwhelmed by my guilt and self-pity.  But after ten minutes I dried my tears.  Years ago, I’d learned something from Dr. Laura, the ever-opinionated, often controversial radio talk show host.  She’d said guilt is only useful until it causes us to change our behavior; after that it just gets in the way of us doing what we need to do.  She’s right.  If we let guilt paralyze us, then we don’t act.  If we let guilt rule us, we make bad decisions that ultimately hurt our children.  As a parent, my child can’t afford for me to wallow in my guilt.  He needs a mother who can recover from set-backs and do what she can to help and protect him now, instead of beating herself up for her failures in the past.

It’s not that after ten minutes my guilt went away.  As the parent of a special needs child, my guilt never goes away.  Depending on our circumstances, I feel it less or more, but it never, ever fully goes away.  No matter how well things are going, there’s still a small voice in my head that says if only I had done things better, my son wouldn’t have difficulties.  He would be functional despite his autism; he wouldn’t need an aide at school; I’d know he could live independently after I’m gone.  The voice points out each of my imperfections and magnifies them, prophesying how they will hurt my child and blaming me for all of his challenges. 

I know the voice is a liar.  I am imperfect and I can’t change that.  I’ve made mistakes and poor choices, and in the future I’ll make them again.  I’ll never be happy about my failings – I will always feel guilt.  But I can’t let it win.  I can’t let the guilt paralyze me.  I need to be able to get out of bed each morning and do the best I can and accept it as enough.  Once my guilt has quit being useful I need to push it aside and move forward, otherwise my child will suffer. 

I also needed to be realistic.  Yes, sometimes my failings had hurt my child, but for the most part the damage done had been minor, and sometimes there were even silver linings.  When I’d lost my temper he learned how to deal with an angry person.  When I was unable to help him he had learned independence.  The times I couldn’t play with him, he learned to entertain himself, and when I hadn’t intervened quickly enough in sibling squabbles, he learned to deal with conflict.  Are those the ways I wanted to teach him those skills?  No, but he’d learned them nonetheless.  While some of my mistakes have harmed him, a few of them had taught him to deal with an imperfect world.

I have many faults and as a mother, guilt will always be my companion.  I can either let it rule me or I can function in spite of it.  One day, despite all my best intentions, a mistake of mine may hurt my child.  But failing to act or make decisions because I’m overwhelmed by my guilt and fear would be a big mistake, too, one with big consequences.

I know I’m not the best mother in the world, but I am the only mother my child has.  He needs me, as imperfect as I am. 



109 thoughts on “The Imperfect Mother

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