Friday, May 18, 2012

Absence from events does not make you a bad parent

From today's Briefing:

A couple of Fridays ago, I showered and dressed, packed lunches for the kids, served them breakfast, dropped them off at school with kisses and a smile and then cried the entire 17-minute drive to work.

I was lamenting what I was missing: the long-anticipated fifth-grade track meet. Cooper was slated to run the 400-meter dash and the 400-meter relay as part of an annual competition.

The track meet is one of many year-end events that take place during school — and work — hours. For the past seven years, while I worked from home, I could almost always arrange my schedule to attend and often volunteer for these kinds of activities.

My new office job is flexible, but not so flexible that I can skip out for every school or extracurricular event. This year I’ve had to prioritize.

After my new boss approved pockets of time off for May festivities, I explained to Cooper over dinner what I would be able to attend.

Choir competition? Yes. Two field days? Nope, only one. Fifth-grade graduation? Absolutely. Track meet? No.

“I won’t be there for the track meet,” I said, “but it’s not because I don’t love you.”

My son looked around, stretched his skinny arms out wide and replied, “Of course you love me! I’m in this house, eating this food, with you.”

Still, I sniffled my way to work that track-meet morning, sad to miss the event and frustrated with my single-mom reality. I’d catch my breath and try to console my troubled heart with internal pep talks.

“I should be more thankful to have a good job.”

“I’m fortunate I get to attend those other events.”

“Cooper is fine without me.”

“Some parents don’t have any work flexibility and miss everything.”

“It’s really hot outside. At least I’m spending the day inside.”

“Stop being ridiculous.”

Nothing stopped the steady flow of tears. I kept my sunglasses on as I slumped into the office and behind my desk.

Not long after, a steady stream of texts began to hit my cellphone.

My friend Shannon had taken the day off from work to cheer for her fifth-grade son. She also volunteered to hoot and holler for Cooper.

“I’ll cheer for Cooper like he was my own son,” Shannon said.

She did. Plus, she took photos and videos with typical mom voracity and shared every single one. (She also shared some mild complaints about the heat and humidity.)

In between work tasks, I could see Cooper sitting on bleachers, talking to friends, walking to the field. I watched a video of him running and placing third in the 400. And another of him running and placing third in the relay.

I wasn’t there, but I felt connected, and the images gave me plenty of fodder for questions that evening.

Almost as nourishing as all those photos and videos were the words Shannon texted in her effort to console my heartache.

“The kids will become aware that your love is not expressed or demonstrated only by your physical presence at events,” she said.

My mind understands that those words are true. Now I’m working on convincing my heart.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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