I learned how to say “I’m sorry” from my dad. I didn’t always love him when I was a kid. I was afraid of his contempt, and he wasn’t often patient or easygoing. But he taught me how to say “I’m sorry,” because he always said he was sorry. And he proved he was sorry by changing. He became a better man, a better father. He recognized that he was sometimes not a good father, and he had the desire and will to change.
This taught me a lot about the good man who is my father, and that saying you’re sorry is important and best of all: that proving you truly are sorry by becoming something different, — that that is not only important, it is possible.
All that to say that I believe in saying “I’m sorry.” The words are important, because words are important. Whether it’s saying seven positive things to counteract one criticism or being grown-up enough to say I’m sorry when I am, I want the people who eat in my kitchen and model their behavior after mine to know that their feelings, and the words they hear — the words that circle in their heads like my parents’ voices circle in mine — that they matter to me.
I want them to know I value them enough to say “I’m sorry,” even though I’m the mom and they’re the kids, and even if they’re probably still young enough to not remember if I yell irrationally about the crumbs in the car.
There are lots of opportunities to practice “I’m sorry” online. Lots.
Last week I was a little bit appalled by a self-flagellating “I’m sorry” essay on the Motherlode blog. A blogger on momlogic had written about her three-year old son asking (upon being introduced to her coworker): “Mommy, why is her face brown?” Readers attacked her for not answering the question herself. Instead, she had turned to her colleague to see how she would like that kind of question addressed.
Maybe this particular firestorm was more an indication of how fraught race relations are rather than how we teach our kids and respond to their questions. Because allowing kids to interact with other adults without parental intervention is actually a good thing, an invaluable part of learning to converse. If a parent always jumps in to interpret, kids miss out.
So the first question is whether racial inquiries are in a category apart. Is it unconscionable to not immediately set little kids straight on the appropriate modes of racial discourse? How do you answer a question like that? Do you talk about skin pigmentation and the sun? DNA, genetics, the slave trade, family group migrations from continent to continent? Do you say that God created several different shades of skin because a rainbow wouldn’t be anywhere near as interesting or beautiful if there was only one color instead of seven? Do you say skin color doesn’t matter, what’s inside matters?
(Perhaps a parent should always answer this type of question, because she knows her child and which type of answer (scientific, moral, metaphoric) would best satisfy her child.)
This mother, put on the spot by a fearless, unprejudiced three-year old, didn’t have a pat answer ready. Instead she turned to her colleague, who responded playfully and memorably.
So far, so good, right? Of course then the mother (made the mistake of blogging about it and) got attacked for doing it (parenting) all wrong.
Which is not surprising. The internet, especially strangers on big sites, can be cruel. I have seen too many good people torn apart by unthinking, uncaring strangers for the crime of being reflective and uncertain and honest to think that writers should accept such attacks as the whisperings of their own conscience.
But that was exactly what this mother did. There was too much sorry in her response to her critics. Too much mea culpa and cringing and “feeling ashamed at the cowardly way I handled my own son wanting his mommy to help him work through something in his head.” She said she “dropped the ball entirely” and worries that it wasn’t her son who hurt her colleague’s feelings, it was her. Of course by all accounts the colleague, who humorously and child-friend-ily compared her skin’s color to peanut butter, didn’t seem all that hurt. But the mother continued on about how she “blew her chance” and missed a teaching moment — a moment when it was she who needed to be taught. She concluded that she is flawed.
I don’t want to criticize this woman because she already seems too self-recriminatory (and also it sounds like she is a great, conscientious mother), but it made me think of other instances in which I have heard people — especially women — apologizing too profoundly for things that either a) aren’t that big a deal or b) aren’t really sins or crimes or character flaws, but rather mistakes or things that happen in the course of everyday life.
I see my sister over-functioning in her relationships, eager to overlook infelicities and mold herself into someone agreeable (loveable). I hear friends apologizing profusely for missing a husband’s phone call or a mother at the park apologizing to her child for the kid’s falling down when the mother wasn’t being hyper-vigilant every second of the day.
Women apologize for being sad about secondary infertility when they know that some women have borne no children or for not being ecstatic about a surprise pregnancy because some would be overjoyed. I apologize for finding being a stay-at-home mom occasionally frustrating because I know some women would love to stay home.
My oldest daughter has learned to apologize when she spills the milk, and last night she tried to gulp back her tears when she banged her arm badly on the wooden leg of a chair, after a particularly spectacular gymnastic feat. I was reading a book, and she is aware and old enough to know how much I dislike interruptions. But her arm was pretty bruised up and I was happy to get her an ice pack and coo soothingly over her pain.
I felt bad that she thought she had to restrain her expression of hurt because it might inconvenience me, that she feared my impatience. I am here to comfort her and make things right in her world (even if my book was getting good right then). She doesn’t have to say “I’m sorry” for needing me; she doesn’t have to apologize in order to get my attention and affection.
And neither does my dad.