What We Have Here Is Failure

What We Have Here Is Failure

By Emily McCarthy

I once knew a guy in college who dove so deep into an intro level philosophy class that he told me he was going to read chapters from Plato’s Republic to his future children. He planned to teach them the Socratic method instead of the ABC’s from books like Go Dog Go or Where The WIld Things Are. As someone who nannied my way through college and beyond, I laughed at the absurdity of his idea then and I’m still laughing about it now. The things we say before we realize that a stage of life is a whole lot harder than it seems from afar.


If The Allegory of the Cave can be interpreted as the realization of how little we know, then parenting can be that coupled with how little we can control.

Allow me to give a personal example: my daughter had a rare opportunity to spend her 6th grade year in Spain with her bio dad and new stepmom. I had countless discussions with her and others, weighing the pros and cons, before a joint decision (including said daughter) was made to have her go on this adventure. She and I talked through the potential pitfalls of being fully immersed in a new language at a new school in a new country. I prepped her for cultural differences both in and out of the home. I packed her up, drove her to say farewell to friends and family, and then escorted her to Madrid to get settled. It was to be a life-changing experience and I was certain that I’d manage through any heartache by staying in touch (“so much easier now than it was back in my study abroad days!”) and remaining busy.

What happened next can best be described by paraphrasing Hemingway’s quote about bankruptcy: How did you fail? Two ways: Gradually, then suddenly. 

There were red flags at dropoff regarding the mental health of the stepparent. Then came the escalating cries for help from my daughter who was thrust into a situation she did not understand how to navigate as a preteen. A perfect storm of miscommunication and mistrust ensued. So, with tensions rising, I traveled to Spain to figure out what to do next. Clarity is not easy to come by when you are: vacillating between rage and despair, not sleeping well, working through the intense shame of failing as a mother, considering everyone’s input with the understanding that burning bridges is a last resort. Whose grand idea was this anyway? Oh yeah, it was mine.

A funny but mostly frustrating part about life is that, more often than not, you have to go through something to have a sliver of understanding and, even then, it is never enough knowledge for the full picture. Heck, scientists can’t even make up their minds about Pluto being a planet or if flossing makes any difference in your oral hygiene. Living often means making decisions based on incomplete or changing information, experiencing failure, and somehow finding the courage and support from others to share those failures in an attempt to get through it. This was my feeble attempt to do, thanks for listening. I may be picking up the pieces of a shattered dream, sorting through the collateral damage for a while to come but the good news is that my girl is coming home early, in time for Christmas, and the bridges, while weakened, are still intact.