Shame, Guilt, and The Question of “Normal”

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I scan the playground looking for my son. He spots me first, and runs over with a huge grin on his face. Suddenly ALL his friends start yelling goodbye, all eyes on him. At the last minute, he turns away and I see the embarrassment on his face. His hands are balled into  fists, and he swings his arm at me. The punch lands squarely on his backpack that I’m holding in my hand, and I’ve braced for it, but I pause. His excitement and emotion surging, I try to read his face to determine if he has calmed down with this outburst, or if he’s actually angry. He recovers quickly, laughing and running towards the safety of the building. The moment passes quickly, a simple burst of emotion and he doesn’t know how to process it. A normal reaction in our house, it results in excitement, embarrassment, anger, then he’s on to the next thing.

There are many moments like this that I find myself holding my breath. My mind races while I try to predict my son’s reaction. He walks into the room and his sister is coloring on his artwork, and I hadn’t noticed. I quietly let him know, and his response surprises me. He says, “It’s ok!” and hands her a second drawing to color on. I breathe a sigh of relief. 

There are other moments though – when someone walks downstairs before him, or beats him to the door on the way out. Something as small as this could be met with what we call his “mean face” – fists clenched by his side, jaw tight, teeth barred in anger. On the worst days, it’s followed by a kick or a tiny fist punching my legs or arms, whatever he can reach to get his point across. In those moments I find myself at such a loss. Is this a rarity? Just a normal 5-year-old outburst or something more? Does he have the tools he needs to handle his emotions? And then the real question, do I? Does he need help beyond what I can give? And what if that ends in a diagnosis? What will others think? 

Fear, shame, and guilt hit me hard on these days. It’s a burden that presses on me at any tiny emotion my son shows – a boy that I know and love for being so sensitive. From there I begin to spiral. I spend so much time in this mental space of fear and unknown. Afraid to know the truth, to admit I may have failed. Guilt for being afraid. Did I sit on these concerns and let my fear stop me from helping him? Did I brush these behaviors under the rug when I should have been shouting from a mountain top to advocate for my child and the help he may need? And the strongest of all is my shame. Why am I afraid of getting him help, if there is a diagnosis, or if others did find out? Shame at my inaction, in my staying silent, and not even confiding in those I should. 

So much of motherhood is about new experiences. It has challenged me, humbled me, and brought me to my knees in prayer and tears so many times. The weight of what is ‘normal’ weighs heavy on my heart and mind so often. We have weeks that go by where I don’t think twice or question anything. We have a few time-outs and what I know is the normal 5 year old type of situation. My son is happy, sensitive, and kind. It’s the way his teachers say he is at school. They have no concerns. His doctor has no concerns. But at home, it’s not the same. We eventually hit that week were it all falls apart. There are an abundance of arguments and mean faces, my patience wears thin, and nothing we’ve done seems to help. We’ve read books, talked through situations, talked calmly, (yelled), and tried snacks. We’ve had consequences, sticker charts, and rewards for good behavior. But at the end of the day the “right” tools are missing. Somewhere, something isn’t sticking. 

His embarrassment and anger come on so quickly, there’s no time for deep breaths, counting to 10, or the thought to walk away. Those little fists curl up so quickly,  I can literally see the anger rise through his body as he yells, kicks, and fights his way through it. Something doesn’t seem normal as these days continue. That’s when the fear and worry come rushing back, smacking me in the face for ignoring it again. That’s when I question everything. 

Three years ago we dismissed the possibility of an evaluation for our son after he completed set goals for physical therapy. That evaluation would have also evaluated for other delays. I question that decision every time we hit the “bad” days. Would they have found something? Am I three years late in understanding my son and his needs? Would his physical therapist have recommended something different if we kept working? Should I have said more at well-care doctor visits?

I feel like I have failed my son. Like something I did or didn’t do has led to this. If only I had tried harder, worried even more, or asked more questions, we might not be where we are today. He could have had help sooner. Been more himself sooner. If only we had given him the tools to sort through feelings a little earlier. But I didn’t. I continually questioned it, but never committed. I didn’t know. I wrestled with it. I constantly struggled with the balance of what is “normal” at his age. I never know what he may grow out of or what he may not be able to handle. My internal struggle resulted in inaction, possible passivity on days that went by feeling “normal.”

The spiral begins again and I’m consumed, teetering on the edge of falling apart in fear, riddled with guilt, and ashamed of my indecision.

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