Why most of our parenting mistakes won’t leave a scar


This is a photo of Neve’s right hand.

I took it to remind myself that the vast majority of mistakes I make as a parent, and regularly beat myself up about, are minor missteps that won’t permanently damage my 2 daughters.

Here’s the backstory: last year, on Mother’s Day (thanks, Painfully Ironic Universe!), I was stealing a few minutes to read a section of the New York Times on our sunny back porch – which we’d just started to use again, thanks to climbing springtime temps – when Neve, then a couple of months shy of turning 2, explored her way into a functionally dead food processor. (We’d temporarily parked it on the porch, so that we’d remember to take it out with the garbage.)

Neve’s hand found, and clutched at, a blade; blood appeared in a small, awful smile across the side of her palm, and she screamed.

Being terrible in a crisis, I freaked out, wrapping my arms around her and crying as Joe fetched a wet, cold washcloth. We held the cloth against her hand, and Joe called his father, who’s a doctor; he recommended applying butterfly bandages, so I ran to the CVS down the block, frantically searching the aisles. When I returned, we did our best to clean and cover the wound, then we discussed our next move.

Or Joe threw out options while I hyperventilated. It’s all kind of cloudy now. You know how it is.

Anyway, because Neve’s blood was darkening the bandage as I held her, and as much as I wanted to believe the cut would close up, I knew this was more than a little nick.

And this realization knocked the wind out of me. For just the day before, during Lily’s soccer practice, Neve had injured her leg while going down the slide with Joe. (This despite the fact that a friend suffered through something similar and has gone to great lengths to inform others about the danger.) Neve cried for a good while, and when we set her down on the ground, she had a limp.

Let me tell you: if you’ve ever seen an almost-2-year-old limp, it’s a soul-crushing little sight.

So we called our pediatrician, made an appointment for an hour later and got Neve checked out. The doctor was pretty convinced that Neve hadn’t broken anything, but she wanted us to have Neve’s foot X-rayed on Monday, just to be sure.

I was still reeling from this – seeing my chubby-cheeked little munchkin limp around our house, holding her arms up to be carried. Oh, the guilt. The guilt, the guilt, the guilt.

But I took solace in the fact that the doctor seemed to think she’d most likely just need time to heal, and she’d be OK.

photo-25Then the cut on her hand happened. On Mother’s Day. And I told Joe, “I’m starting to think we’re not up to the task of parenting.”

But throughout that day, we changed the bandages and cleaned Neve’s cut, placed many calls to Joe’s father, describing how the cut looked, and in the end, we decided that we’d put her to bed and hope it looked better in the morning.

It did – but not enough to satisfy me. So I dropped Lily off at preschool and drove Neve to the nearest ER.

While getting checked in, Neve got frightened and started wailing. Two nurses, seated across a curtained room on rolling stools, asked me questions about what was wrong, and what had happened. I struggled to hear them and had to yell my answers, trying to comfort my scared kiddo all the while.

“When did this happen?” one nurse called out.

“Yesterday afternoon,” I said.

Her expression turned angry. “Why didn’t you bring her in before now?! Now it’s too late for stitches. Now she’ll have a permanent scar!”

At this point, I fell apart.

“I didn’t know that,” I said, suddenly a defendant on trial. “We weren’t sure it needed stitches, so we decided to wait and see.”

“You have to come to us within hours,” the nurse scolded, like this should have been painfully obvious to a layperson. “You’re past the window of time when you can get stitches for her.”

“I didn’t know,” I cried, getting as agitated as Neve, still wailing in my lap. “I would have brought her in if I’d know that. But I didn’t know.”

Clearly, Joe and I were failing as parents. Here was the proof. We don’t know enough. We make poor judgment calls. We screw up.

But I gathered just enough strength and dignity to carry Neve to our assigned bed in the ER, where a doctor would come, apply liquid stitches, and write a prescription to thwart possible infection – all while I battled to compose myself.

For many, many weeks after this, I pictured grown-up Neve’s hand as a malformed appendage, with a permanent, garish rift of skin along the pinky side, low on the edge of her palm.

“Oh, that’s because my parents let me play with a food processor as a toddler,” she’d tell friends, angrily, while pointing to her deformity.

This was an awful, awful time for me.

But I mustered the courage to take Neve to get her foot X-rayed (she got the all-clear); took her back to the pediatrician when I worried about her limp lingering beyond the time when we’d expected her to be healed; we made sure her cut was regularly cleaned, and that she took her medicine; and we hoped it would all be OK.

The limp gradually – much too slowly for my taste – faded, and after a month or two, we saw Neve running and being her happy little self again. Finally.

And the cut that caused me to be dressed down by a nurse, to the point where I worried I might be incapable of properly caring for my own children?

I dare you to find a trace of a scar on Neve’s hand. (And yes, I appreciate that the nurse was looking out for the welfare of my child, but she didn’t have to be cruel about it.)

In fact, before taking the photo featured at the top of this post, I searched the outside edge of both of Neve’s palms, not remembering which hand had been injured; I ultimately decided that it must have been her right hand, because the skin’s texture looked and felt slightly tighter.

But frankly, I’m not even sure now that that’s where the injury was.

Yet for this, I was humiliated and made to feel like a negligent, incompetent mom.

I didn’t do this to myself. The world is hard on parents, particularly moms: quick to blame us, quick to criticize us.

In the face of this scrutiny, we all have to have more faith in ourselves, do what we can to fix what can be fixed, and most of all, forgive ourselves when we inevitably botch something up.

Because we all make errors. But Neve’s unscarred hand now reminds me daily that most of my parenting mistakes won’t cause permanent damage.

Plus, though we tend to obsess about the mistakes themselves, I’ve started to think that what matters far more is how we respond to them.

Which is why you’ll suffer through a public flogging at the ER in order to get your child help. And why you’ll repeatedly clean and change the dressing on your child’s cut, though it kills you to look at a fissure of skin on that perfect little hand you made. And why you’ll haul her back to the pediatrician again, though you’re terrified that something more serious might be wrong with her leg.

You take responsibility, even when it’s hard or frightening.

Thankfully, where most parenting missteps are concerned, that’s enough.

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