FASlink Fetal Alcohol Disorders Society

by Mercedes Alejandro

Forgiveness is learned early in life when, as children our parents overlook an offense or forgive our breaking an expensive or beloved object. They are the first to teach us how it feels to receive loving forgiveness and unconditional acceptance from those we hold dearest. We learn that we can begin again with a "clean sheet." We also learn from our church, temple, or synagogue that God forgives and nothing brings us closer to Him than acknowledging our sins, faults, and shortcomings.

My first experience in self-forgiveness was at the tender age of 26, walking home from work, deep in contemplation and regret at my failed marriage and seeing, in retrospect, all the signs that this marriage was the wrong choice for me. My thoughts turned to other friends who had also divorced and I evaluated in my mind which of the two was at fault. In my thoughts I realized that both were at fault and that we all make mistakes.

This last thought "we all make mistakes" kept playing over and over in my mind. At last a light bulb went off in my mind as I concluded that, if we can forgive others for their faults, surely we can forgive ourselves! I knew the failure of my marriage was also my fault and decided at that moment to forgive myself and stop beating myself up over it.

Years later when I attended a conference for families of children with disabilities, I sat in a session describing developmental delays in children (where I first met Dr. Clayton). It seemed they were describing my own child item by item. However, the description was of a child born with FAS/FAE. I went over in my mind over and over again my pregnancy and realized that I did drink while I was pregnant. But it had never before occurred to me that I could have caused my child's developmental delay.

Once again I was faced with guilt, regret, anger, and denial over how my child had gotten such a slow start in life. It was certainly not his fault, and it was not a childhood he deserved. Finding out that in all probability I had caused it could have devastated me and paralyzed me emotionally.

As his mother, I had to make a conscious decision to either wallow in guilt and despair or face it head on and deal with it. I had caused in my child a preventable disability! Of course the first step, hard as it was, was to forgive myself, I had made a very serious life-altering mistake.  One my child and I both had to live with. But there was no going back in a time machine to undo the damage and there was no point in punishing myself.

Once I decided to forgive myself (whether others did or not was not important) in order to go on with my life and my son's, I came to the following conclusions:

  1. I am lucky because some parents never find out what caused their child's disability and just knowing he has FAS/FAE gave me a tool for seeking therapy and educational approaches that address his specific strengths and needs;

  2. I became an advocate for my son at  school and in our neighborhood, opening doors for his success in education, employment and in life;

  3. I decided to get used to glances from people who invariably judge and blame me for a mistake I made many years ago. I decided their opinions would be only that, "their opinion" because I had already forgiven myself;

  4. finally, I sought out parent support groups so that I could get the strength, understanding, and acceptance I need. Parents who raise children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Fetal Alcohol Effects, learn to understand and accept our children just as they are and for what they can become.

Forgiving yourself for having caused your child's disability is the first and most important step towards healing your heart and will free you for the task at hand -- raising this wonderful special child.