I hear the words tumble out of my mouth, yet again, as my 21-month-old whacks a stranger’s child on the back with a wooden mallet. I’m sorry.
I understand that it’s developmentally normal for toddlers to communicate this way, that frustration gets translated as aggression, but that doesn’t stop me from apologizing.
These days, I mostly initiate conversation with parents in one of two ways. I either come across as a state fair barker enthusiastically guessing age – “How old is your daughter, two?” – or I’m a hovering apologist: “I’m so sorry, we’re still working on sharing.” This “we” is especially troubling, as it affirms that any barrier between myself and my child is illusory.
Apologizing has always been second nature to me, but not until I had Miles did my impulse to beg pardon become so apparent, like invisible ink made visible through heat. As he gallops around in public, my face flushes. I start to sweat. I run the gamut of “What ifs.” What if he smacks that baby with his shoe? What if he pelts that cashier with half-chewed apple skin?
My husband Dan and I model acceptable behaviors for Miles, but anyone with a toddler knows that empathy is acquired, that it must be gradually learned, and that it takes years before a child will comprehend the meaning of apology.
To discourage him from pulling down my shirt and groping me in public, we’ve taught Miles how to pause and say, “Please” (peas!), but he only understands this word as an annoying precursor to nursing.
If Miles acts like an animal, then I’m the zookeeper who forgot to lock up. I chase after him, a frazzled shadow, all the while dressing him in outfits that underscore his daring. His emblems are fire trucks and monsters. He charges forth in shirts that says things like “Big Deal” and “Feed Me Or No One Sleeps!” — the language of imperative. He wears superhero capes. One grandparent mailed him a tee that read, “Sorry, I’m not listening.” This is joke mea culpa, cutesy defiance. It serves to make my coffee-fueled apologies look all the more desperate.
I question if my panicked assumption of responsibility is gendered. At the Sciencenter, at the gym, I notice how few dads apologize. An oft-quoted 2010 study published in Psychological Science reveals that women say “I’m sorry” more than men, but not because men are adverse to admitting fault. Women simply have a lower threshold when it comes to what constitutes wrongdoing. In my case, this lower threshold is linked to an empathy that borders on problematic.
I remember my mid-20s, lying in bed with a boyfriend who also had a long-term partner. I was part of his great experiment in polyamory. I listened to him drone on about the logistical difficulty in scheduling dates while Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” played in the background. I took a look at his desk planner and offered up, “I’m sorry, this must be so hard for you.”
I sometimes align with another to the detriment of my own needs.
But motherhood has also undone some of my long-held assumptions about apology and gender. I observe women all the time who don’t helicopter. They never offer an exasperated I’m sorry! when their child co-opts a ball. They idly converse by the touch tank or daydream apart from the trampoline.
For these women, motherhood has granted them the confidence to disengage. They aren’t so much forsaking responsibility as encouraging independent play. They seem to understand that their kids are autonomous beings, that not every behavioral stage needs to be forgiven.
Sorry derives from a Proto-Germanic root word meaning painful, and this etymology reminds me that there are echoes of physical discomfort in I’m sorry, that apology isn’t divorced from the body.
I adjunct at a small liberal arts college in Upstate New York (I apologized to the Dean when trying to negotiate a more permanent, higher paying contract), and recently, one of my female students told me the story of walking into an elevator and getting angry looks from two men. This student is tall. Her fellow riders were short. After a few seconds of hostile silence, she found herself saying sorry. When she relayed this to me, it occurred to me just how often my own apologies are about the body: both my distrust in my own and the wild sureness of my son’s.
I had three miscarriages before Miles. After the third, when they were officially classified as recurrent, Dan and I underwent a battery of tests to determine the underlying cause. It became apparent very quickly that I was to blame — of course, those words were never uttered by Dan or any physician, but when my husband’s tests came back fine, I assumed the burden of guilt.
I disparaged my own body. I submitted to ultrasounds to determine the size and slant of my uterus. I endured countless blood draws in hopes of discovering a genetic abnormality, or a clotting disorder, or a hormone deficiency.
In the end, I was given the same diagnosis as over one half of women with recurrent pregnancy loss: unexplained. I repeated I’m sorry to anyone who would listen. I think about the definition of sore: physically painful or sensitive, like a wound.
Thanks to a cocktail of fertility drugs, I was eventually able to carry a child to term. Now I see myself not reflected in, but refracted by, my son. This has been one of the greatest gifts and stressors of parenthood. The level of attentiveness that Miles requires makes it impossible not to be fully present, to realize my own reactions in real time. I’m alert to the idea that maybe I apologize for my son because he was so hard to come by, that I would do anything to usher him through this harsh world and absorb even the pain of censure, and that yes, he still feels like an extension of my body, my vulnerability.
This is not like the apology I once gave a waiter as I sent back a burger with a twist tie cooked into it, or the effete acquittal I mustered while Billie Holiday crooned, “Skip that lipstick, don’t explain.”
Still: I crave balance. I want to teach my son empathy, the graciousness inherent in sincere apology, without compromising my sense of self. What would those words sound like?