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Why My Daughter Needs to See Me Fail at Managing My ADHD

Recently, my family sold our home and moved. All moves are a special kind of hell, but this one was particularly fraught given that we were doing it at the end of the school year. So when I found myself easily ticking tasks off of my list one Thursday, I was more than a little suspicious. Feeling like you’re forgetting something during an upheaval is normal for anyone — for me, it’s a permanent feeling. It’s a perk that comes with living with ADHD.

Sometimes, you expertly herd all of your cats. More often, you forget one, it escapes, turns feral and multiplies into more cats than you can keep track of. That day, all of my editors got their content, the apartment complex got their credit report and the realtor got her land survey. I was handling it! So why when I pulled up to pick my daughter up after school did she look so pissed?

Then I saw the gigantic, neon banner announcing the last day of the book fair and realized which cat had made a break for it.

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“I’m so sorry!” I said as soon as she got in the car. It wasn’t just that she didn’t get to buy the book on rocks and minerals that she’d been saving up for with chore money. I’d completely forgotten that I had volunteered earlier in the month to run the cash register. I don’t get to volunteer often, and since she isn’t yet mortified by my very presence, my daughter likes it when I do. Her eyes were red and she was doing that jaw-grinding thing she’s been doing lately so she doesn’t cry.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, “You just forgot.”

This kind of exchange used to be depressingly, infuriatingly common in my house. I would promise to do things and then forget them completely or show up late or mishandle important details. It wasn’t cutesy “parenting brain” flakiness. I’d always had problems focusing, and it was causing serious problems. Five years ago after yet another broken promise to my daughter, the look of utter resignation on her face told me she was so used to being let down she couldn’t even muster up some disappointment and something had to change.

I’m not the first woman to be diagnosed as an adult with ADHD that’s been there all along. It was a relief to finally know what was happening so I could work to manage it. But sometimes, when there’s more stressors than usual and a shift in routine, I slip back to forgetting things and fail, like I had that day.

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My daughter knows just what that feels like. Last year, she was also diagnosed with ADHD.

The good thing about your kid inheriting your disability is that you get to be something of an instruction manual for them. You can show them what works for you, and give them an idea of how they tick so they can figure out what works for them. You can brainstorm strategies and swap war stories. You can help them be less alone. You can show them that differentness is not freakishness. You can help them cut themselves a break, and you can show them how to succeed at managing their disability.

Equally important, you can show them how to fail spectacularly at it.

That’s why I pulled the car into the visitor’s parking lot that afternoon and asked my daughter to come into the school building with me. We made our way to the library, where volunteers were busy breaking down the book fair stacks and counting out money. I found the most in-charge looking volunteer and explained who I was.

I apologized to her and the other volunteers. I told them that I knew they’d had to work harder because I dropped the ball, and thanked them for it. Finally, I asked them if I could do anything to help. They happily gave me trash duty.

“I’m lucky they let me help out,” I told my daughter. “Sometimes when you mess up, there’s no fixing it.” I smiled at her, but she wasn’t there yet.

“But sometimes we’re just gonna forget stuff,” she said. “You told me that’s normal.”

“Well, I bet that makes you feel lots better, doesn’t it? Knowing that it’s normal to forget stuff sometimes? That means you’re not allowed to be mad or sad right?” She shook her head.

“Something can be ‘normal’ for me and still suck for you and Daddy, you know?” Her face crumpled, and she wiped at some angry tears then. “I was really mad at you,” she whispered.

I told her I didn’t blame her.

My daughter needs to see me fail at managing my ADHD because she will fail at managing hers. When she does, she will have to make choices. She can choose to hate herself. She can choose to ignore her mistakes if they embarrass her. She can choose to write herself a pass instead of cutting herself a break.

Or she can make acknowledgments that respect the experiences of other people without discounting her own.

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I explained to her that I wasn’t sorry that I forgot something today. In fact, I was proud I got so much done! What I was sorry for was that when I had forgotten something, other people had to deal with stuff they didn’t sign up for.

The other volunteers hadn’t signed up for extra hours. The other kids hadn’t signed up for long waits in long lines during recess. My daughter hadn’t signed up for feeling like the thing she wanted us to do together wasn’t important to me.

Just because I didn’t mean for people to have to do the things they didn’t sign up for that Thursday didn’t change the fact that they’d had had to do them anyway, and it definitely didn’t mean they weren’t entitled to their own feelings about it.

So you acknowledge that. You apologize. You write yourself a color-coded sticky note so you don’t forget to do a little better in the future.

And then you move on.

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