On parenthood, fighting with our kids, and redemption

Claire McCarthy,MD

My son and I were fighting the other morning on the way to the train.

This is nothing new. I love Zack desperately and am really proud of his accomplishments, but we haven’t been getting along since he came home from his freshman year at college.

He, I think he would tell you, feels misunderstood and constrained. He misses his independence. He misses his friends. He misses his girlfriend. He is annoyed at being asked where he is going. He doesn’t like having to do chores or share space with his parents and four siblings. He really doesn’t like working around our schedules.

I don’t like tripping over dirty dishes and dirty clothes. I don’t like the extra food shopping and dry cleaning, especially when it’s expected rather than requested. I don’t like being late because he’s not ready on time. I get annoyed when he ignores me, and the attitude he cops can be tough to take. Given how much money we are paying for his education, I feel remarkably entitled to gratitude and helpfulness.

So there we were, arguing our way from the parking lot to the subway station, where we got separated while I bought my ticket. When I got down to the platform, a train was pulling away and I didn’t see him anywhere.

He had left without me.

I called him. “I didn’t realize the train was going to leave so quickly,” he said. This was almost plausible; our stop is the end of the line, so we get on whatever train is sitting there and wait for it to leave. But it’s a big train, with lots of cars. If you want to ride with someone, you wait for them before you get on—otherwise they would have trouble finding you. He didn’t want to ride with me.

He had never done something like this before. He never would have.

“I am sad,” I said. “I’d hoped we could talk on the train.” I sounded pathetic. Silence from Zack. “See you later,” I said, and hung up.

I got on the train that was sitting at the platform and sat down. I wanted to cry.

Fighting with our kids feels bad. It feels bad because when our kids do something like leave us behind on a train platform, or hit somebody, or talk back, or lie, or whatever it is that upsets us, we can’t help thinking: are they turning out badly? What did I do wrong?

Because, after all, they are ours to mold and teach. That’s our job as parents: we are supposed to turn our children into responsible, kind, successful adults. It’s not as easy as it sounds, for all sorts of simple and complicated reasons. But that doesn’t stop us from feeling that we should be able to get it right.

“I sat there on the train thinking: Zack isn’t the person I thought he was. I should have seen it and done something. I screwed up.”

Fighting with our kids feels bad, too, because often when we do we behave badly—and we know it. Our anger is justified, of course. But usually when we fight with our kids we are tired, or stressed, or frustrated or just sad—for some other reason that is absolutely not our child’s fault or problem. There is nearly always a calmer, more patient, more loving way of dealing with a child’s misbehavior—but because we’re human, we can’t always pull it off.

I sat there on the train thinking: Zack isn’t the person I thought he was. I should have seen it and done something. I screwed up.

And I screwed up, too, by letting my stress get in the way of my relationship with him. Yes, he’s been annoying. But it has upset me mostly because I’ve got so much going on with work and the other kids. I have reacted more angrily than the situation really warranted.

I didn’t want to cry in front of everyone on the train. I’ll write him an email, I thought. I started composing one on my phone, about how I understand how he feels, how I wish he understood how we feel. The train came to the next station. Lots of people got on; it was crowded, with people moving and jostling around as the train moved forward again. I looked up.

Zack was standing in front of me.

“I got off at the next station so I could find you,” he said.

My heart was so full. I wished he were little again so I could gather him up in my lap and just hold him. My boy was the person I thought he was. And he still loved me.

We talked a little, as much as you can talk on a crowded train. I gave him a big hug when we got off. It felt so much better between us.

I’m not going to say that all has been perfect since. But he is trying. And I am too. Really, that’s all we can do as parents and as children: love with all our hearts, and keep trying to do better. And sometimes, when we do that, we get moments of redemption.

10 thoughts on “On parenthood, fighting with our kids, and redemption

  1. Thank you for sharing your story, it’s imperfections make it all the more beautiful.

  2. Very touching. Your doing a great job as a mother and, your son is so unbelievably lucky to have a mom who cares. I didn’t have anybody growing up and
    still don’t throughout my my adult life. I had my first child at 16 and my second at 20 they are now 7 1/2 and. 4 my girls are my world. I live for them…their fathers do not. Its often difficult to handle situations with mine because I have no reference of my childhood to look back on and say, This is what my mother did. Instead I catch myself saying this is what my mother did And do the opposite. So far I have very happy beautiful, kind hearted and loving children. I realize this is the easiest years but the love and trust my lilttle family has developed will bring us through all the hard times to come. Keep up the great work and just love him through it. I’ve learned I need my gnoe and dad more as an adult than
    I ever did as a child. Just be there for him and love him be

  3. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.  The whole article was speaking of myself and my children.  Thank you for clearing some things up!!

  4. It is true as parents we have to make concessions, understand, forgive and keep our love for them. We do not realize (or we don’t remember since it was such a long time ago…) that our children do the same thing in their terms and shaped by their own personality, character and life philosophy. We fell entitled to respect for what we do for them, they feel entitled to respect as individuals, the exact principles we though them too. But in the tumult of life we all get carried by our personal needs, life stress and frustration. The important thing it is to remember that they are what we made them, we love them unconditional and they do return all of this in their own ways. Thank you for talking for all of us.

  5. Great post! It’s not always about what you fight about but how you fight…and make up.  It’s still character building.

    1. True! Though in some instances “what you fight about or for” it is as important how you fight. Just a matter of perspective.

  6. Dr McCarthy, once again you have hit a home run with an article! My son and I often had a variety of things to banter about and he often did “get off at the next station to work things through” so to speak…we had our arguments, but the apologies did come. I had similar feelings of “I did not do the right things, I screwed up, he is not the person I thought he was….I need to do this parenting thing MUCH better,” etc. the same with my daughter. Ours was such a complex situation with all of the complex medical agenda swirling all around us in the family that we could never have balanced everything in a million years of trying, ( but we sure made an effort!). The hardest part in losing my son so quickly was the feeling that we had unsaid words (no argument) but left unsaid. We all have this feeling. Hundreds of people in his life have this feeling in our small community. He left such a void. I was always thankful that he DID usually come back to us with the “I am sorry. mom,” I am sorry Pop” even when we had our parental disagreements. Daughter was a bit of a tougher cookie, but she still does say sorry. I have always tried to tell both kids how sorry I am when I have been so very wrong about things! I am by far SO imperfect! I think this is very important as a parent. Thank you Dr McCarthy for touching on a very important topic! 

  7. This brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing this story. Relationships with our children really do become more complicated as they grow up, don’t they?

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom and insight. So glad you had that  moment with your son on the train, I know that must have meant everything. 🙂

  8. Thank you for sharing.  I really love those moments when kids realize “I was wrong” or some other acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe you’re doing your job right.  Love your articles – they are very honest and heartwarming.

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