What I didn’t know before becoming a parent were the ways in which my children would reflect back not just the best, but also the worst of me and my husband. On the occasions when they push me to the brink, it is usually the maniacal magnification of some self-trait, labeled neatly after 15 years of therapy copays as “pathological persistence” or another pithy summary of good news/bad news.
After the most trying days, I remind myself that although obstinate and strong-willed children are hard to parent, they usually make successful and independent adults. It is my long-term energy investment that will pay me huge dividends one day when they don’t live in my basement.
The worst of these days are somehow magnificently and permanently wiped from memory by full-bellied giggles, unexpected letters about family crumpled deep in backpacks, and art projects professing love in clay hand prints and off-kilter coffee mugs. It’s like a great rolling average that nets survival for parents and maturation for children over the passage of time. (That sentence feels very much like it begs a word problem, but that’s just the elementary math homework talking.)
In my 7-year-old daughter, I already see resilience and persistence. Recently when a construction block building kit came missing more than 40 pieces, I watched her at a developmental crossroad. Desperately wanting her final creation to look just like the storybook image on the box, she could have melted down into a pile of tears, fitfully declaring everything ruined and storming off to sob about how horrible her life is.
Instead, she rolled with it and improvised using her big brother’s bucket of spare parts, and furthermore, wrote a letter to the block maker’s customer service department (to which they responded in writing and compensation). All of this caused me to daydream about her adult life as a corporate executive somewhere, taking out obstacles like the tank in Moon Patrol. Fucking Fantastic. She’s unstoppable. But this flexible, amenable side of her has its drawbacks as well.
As a problem-solver and a pleaser, I already see her frequently putting her needs aside for the needs of others in social situations. She likes to fix things and keep the peace, even if that means she doesn’t get what she wants or needs. And two little words are said 100 times a day in my house that I wish I could undo: “I’m sorry.”
This morning as we made muffins, she filled the tins, and I pointed out a muffin cup that looked a little punier than the others: “I’m sorry, Mom.” As we made the bed, and her fitted corner popped off, “I’m sorry, Mom.” When her brothers make a mess and she sees that I am frustrated, “I’m sorry, Mom.” Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.
Don’t misunderstand: I expect my children to be mannerly and kind. But the constant apologizing for herself or for others for whom she is not responsible, for the space she occupies to be, to breathe, to exist — reflexively like punctuation in a sentence — it is a distinctly female ritual. Her brothers don’t do it. Neither does her father. Unfortunately, she learned it from me.
I first noticed her excessive use of “I’m sorry” at about age 4 or 5. It seemed like the beginning and end of every sentence. I kept correcting her, saying, “Sis, you don’t have to apologize for things you didn’t do, or unless you hurt someone or do something intentional or even unintentional that has consequences for which you are responsible.”
I said all the right things. It struck me as strange that she said it so much and at such a young age. Then one day, like a light bulb going on, I heard it. I heard my own voice saying it — at work, at home. And she heard it too. Just this morning when I asked her to peek in the oven and see if the muffins were done, I saw her set her book aside to follow my request, and I said reflexively: “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were reading.”
I’m sorry for asking anything of you. I’m sorry for being a burden. Sorry for bothering you. I’m sorry I have needs or requests. Sorry for being here. Sorry for not being there. I’m sorry for not making everything right and smooth and perfect all the time. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.
The problem of women being taught to minimize themselves and their contributions is not a new discussion. Sheryl Sandberg gave us a great TED Talk on the topic. I took entire college courses on the subject and have a graduate minor in women’s studies. I know better. We all know better.
Recently, at a women in business conference, I listened to a group of female cardiologists with an average of 10 to 12 years postgraduate education discuss negotiating contracts, or worse, not negotiating contracts due to being shamed as “difficult to work with,” “pushy,” or a “bitch.”
In 2017, women at even the highest levels of education are still actively and passively given the message to be agreeable and quiet and minimize their disruption and not ask for what they want or need. And I have been complicit in passing that message on to my daughter. I’m sorry. For that, I am so truly sorry.
Here is the good news: I am raising a young woman who seeks peace and resolution and is willing to face blame fearlessly, take responsibility, and when necessary, apologize. When or if you are the party who is wrong in a relationship or at work, or wherever, these are great, mature traits to have. Huge caveat here: when you are actually at fault.
My job as her mother is to teach her not to assume fault that isn’t hers, and furthermore, how to avoid accepting blame or shame from those who are threatened by her very presence, her intelligence, her strength, her beauty, or her bright light. Those are not grounds for apology — never, ever. If every day is a chance to correct the course, it starts with me. It starts with making a clear distinction between having real blame and responsibility (I am sorry) and having empathy and response (I care how you feel)and by unlearning not to speak and relearning how to speak effectively and with intention. No more sorry confetti. Sorry…not sorry.