My Dad Felt Guilty About This for 30 Years

I call my dad “Papi” or “Pa,” which I swapped out for “Papa” somewhere in my twenties when I decided Papi was significantly less embarrassing to say in public. He is a handsome Colombian man with a thick accent, which my husband can still barely understand, and he appears much younger than his actual age (which I shall not disclose, lest he is horrified). Whoever coined the term “YOLO” was most definitely watching my dad at a tango festival one night working the room, if you know what I mean.

He and my mother (“mama”) divorced when I was 20ish and I think most people breathed a huge sigh of relief for both of them. My childhood was quite charming with pockets of minimal trauma and our family’s sad unraveling in my late teenage years is a long story for another day. 

This weekend, Papi was sitting on my couch and laughing as our Maya, who turns 2 next week, pranced around in her standard uniform of a diaper, no clothes and some pirate tats, working the room for a laugh and some snacks, as the hubs and I rolled our eyes.

“It goes so so fast, you know,” pa said to us for what must only be the 976th time since we became parents.

“I remember you like this, running around in a diaper and then I’m here and it’s as if the time in between never happened. It’s incredible how fast it goes and soon she’ll be 12 years old running out the door.”

This is pretty standard wistful storytelling from papa. But this time he added a story that hurt my heart a little: 

“You just have to try to be so patient and try to enjoy every single second, because if not, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. . . I remember your brother, Thomas, like it was yesterday. He was 1 or 2 years old and we were on a car trip, and he was hysterical, screaming for his milk. I lost my temper, pulled the van over, grabbed the bottle of milk and shoved it in his mouth. I can still see his eyes - he was so shocked. He wanted the milk, but I had just shoved the bottle in his mouth, and so of course then he started to cry. I replay it in my mind almost every time I think about him and I ask myself, ‘Why? Why did I do that? Why did I have to lose my temper like that?’ ”

There were tears in his eyes, and I could see how traumatic this memory was for him. This very classic human moment as a parent driving a minivan of screaming kids and losing it had somehow been burned into his mind for 30 years as an unforgivable mistake. To add a layer of pain to it all, Thomas died 11 years ago.

“Papi, you’ve been carrying that guilt around for a long time. Don’t you think it’s time to forgive yourself?” I asked him gently.

I then reflected to him something I had never quite articulated for myself. I told him that I have a few similar memories of him losing his temper with me, but the memory is a 3-part slideshow. 

Part 1: He turns around in the minivan and is about to yell, but doesn’t even have to because I know he’s super mad.
Part 2: A tide of emotion rises up and I burst into tears because it was pretty hard to make my dad that mad and I feel a combo of little girl shock and shame.
Part 3: Some time passes, and Papa very humbly and sincerely apologizes for his reaction and all is well.

My dad gave me one of the greatest gifts. He taught me that adults sometimes mess up, too. And that the memory doesn’t have to end there. My father’s humble choice to apologize (not for disciplining me, but for a level of discipline that felt inauthentic for him) gave me the example of what authentic parenting would look like for me. I apologize to my girls all the time and release the tide of big girl shame and guilt that rises each time I act out of alignment with my highest self. I forgive myself and heal the episode with love all around. We all feel it every time. (I mean, it just happened again last night at bedtime, for God’s sake.)

Ironically, Papi said he could NEVER remember his mother losing her temper (nor needing to apologize) and for that reason, he felt justified in the guilt. Which as you can imagine, has served ZERO purpose for the past 30 years except to cause him unnecessary pain, even after my brother’s death.

We teared up a little and I shared how I can’t imagine any human (including my daughters) going through life making zero choices they don’t have a tiny bit of regret about, and so I want to teach my girls to move through that instead of stockpile it for years of self-loathing and suffering in a futile attempt to live up to a standard that isn’t real for them. We talked about the power of self-forgiveness and how helpful his example of doing the hard thing and apologizing has been for me as an adult who has to apologize to somebody for something on the damn daily.

To truly heal ourselves, we must feel the things we defensively push down.
To truly forgive ourselves, we must look around and recognize we are ALL deserving of forgiveness.
To move through regrets, there’s usually some form of making amends.

I’m sharing this with you today, because maybe you have something you need to forgive yourself for, too.
Maybe you are stockpiling your guilt to compensate for not living up to someone else’s standards. 

And I want to remind you that in this tribe, we do real. We do messy. We make mistakes and we talk about them and heal them. We’re setting an example for the next generation of a real human, fighting the good fight, working on herself, every day, choice to choice, minivan crisis to minivan meltdown.

In your corner always,

My siblings and I about 25 years ago. Thomas is second from left.

My siblings and I about 25 years ago. Thomas is second from left.

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