I am standing in the kitchen, red-faced and yelling and no one — not one person in the house — is listening. “I need help!” I call out, waving my hands, which are clad in oven mitts. “Dinner is ready! And someone is knocking at the front door!” But still, no one appears. Six kids in this house, and no one can be bothered to put down their video game or homework or television remote and come and see why the 37-year-old woman is yelling like a madwoman in the kitchen. Oven mitts still on, I storm to the front door and fling it open, only to see the UPS man slinking back to his truck.
“Yeah, you better move!” I consider shouting to him, as a satisfying displacement of the anger that is brewing inside me. “Take your brown clipboard in your brown suit and climb into your brown truck before I… Before I…” There was nowhere productive to go with this, so I gathered up my packages in my mitt-bound hands and returned back into the house.
“Dinner!” I am red-faced now, as the pot on the stove is nearly boiling over and the table is still unset. I start calling names of the children in the house along with a few of the neighbor children’s names for good measure. “All of you, get to the kitchen now!” I hear footsteps on the stairs, both from the basement and the upper floor, and the lone figure ignoring me from the next room emerges, bleary-eyed and oblivious.
It has been a long, thankless day of laundry and shuttling and shopping for groceries. I spent an hour fixing the garbage disposal because someone tried to “dispose” of a plastic spoon down the sink drain. No one looks the least bit disturbed by my obvious frustration, and at that moment — at that exact moment — like the pot on the stove that has bubbled over, I am full up and overflowing with irritation.
“I can’t believe how selfish you all are!” I shout, throwing down my oven mitts to add punctuation to the words.
“Make your own darn dinner!” I stomp out of the kitchen and up the stairs.
Three minutes later, I return to find the table set and six faces staring at me. Silently, I finish the dinner prep and serve them their food.
“I’m sorry,” I tell them. “I was frustrated, and I needed your help. But Mommy shouldn’t have yelled.” They nod their heads in acceptance of this, because as hard as it is to admit, it is something they’ve heard me say before. I’ve made mistakes, sometimes the same mistakes, enough times that they are used to the apology. They treat it with the levity it deserves, the punishment (if necessary) is meted out, and then we move on. This is how we treat all apologies in this house, from the child-sized toy “borrowing” incident to the mother-dinner-stomping variety.
“We should have come to help sooner,” my son says, looking around at his brothers and sisters. They shrug and nod in return, in various shades of apology. It’s not a holistically jubilant response from the group, but it’s something.
It’s always something in this house. We’re all a work-in-apologizing-progress.
Growing up, my mother taught me not to say “I’m sorry if…” and instead to say “I’m sorry that…” She explained the subtle difference between the two — the way the first one implies the possibility that the wrongdoing did not occur or the victim is the only one who interpreted the act as hurtful. The second phrase acknowledges it, takes ownership, and brings it to the open.
I’m sorry if I hurt you. I’m sorry that I hurt you.
I’m sorry if I didn’t listen. I’m sorry that I didn’t listen.
There is power in an apology, but there is a gift in giving one wholly.
A week ago, I had a friend ask me if I thought he should apologize to his son for something bigger than a simple mistake. It was the kind of “I’m sorry” that spanned years of wrongdoing, the kind of apology that a parent gives to their child in a moment of serious conversation after reflection that they should have taken a completely different tact. “Here’s what I’m thinking about telling him,” he told me. And what he wanted to say was beautiful, the words covering all the hurt he felt he must have caused his son. There was pain in his apology for the mistakes he felt he had made.
“It’s perfect,” I told him, because it was perfect.
“But don’t forget to say ‘I’m sorry’ too,” I told him, because sometimes it’s really that simple.
In fact, if you strip away all the other words, all the other explanations and reasons, that’s all a child wants to hear — a well-meant and sincerely felt “I love you, and I respect you enough to admit that I make mistakes too.”
As parents, we occasionally fall short. We do a bad job sometimes. We forget. It’s a rough gig. If we are really lucky, we learn from our mistakes. We say we’re sorry for them and move ahead a little stronger.
It’s okay to let our children see that we — mothers and fathers — are people too. I think that eventually our children are probably going to find out the truth about that anyway. And I’m guessing they will love us in spite of — or because — we let them see that sometimes we have failed. In seeing this and hearing our apology, they will also know how hard we tried and how much we really wanted to truly get it right in the end.