I’m worried that by making excuses for my daughter’s behavior I’m telling her that her feelings and fundamental personality traits are wrong, and that her feelings aren’t as important as how likable she is to others.
Last week, in my undergraduate creative writing class, the students and I discussed Aimee Bender’s short story “Off.” The story comes from Bender’s collection, Willful Creatures, and follows a self-possessed female narrator determined to kiss three different men at a cocktail party. Unlike the other partygoers dressed casually in pants and mostly coupled up, the narrator wears a revealing silver dress (“I feel like an on faucet in it,” she says), and sets determinedly, unabashedly about her mission.
The students hated her.
About halfway through the story, there’s a scene where the narrator has just finished kissing her second conquest in the host’s bathroom. They were interrupted by another woman who wants to use the facilities, and who waits patiently outside the door. When the narrator finally exits the bathroom, she steps on the other woman’s foot—it’s not clear if this is an accident or on purpose—and the other woman apologizes. The narrator is instantly upset: “‘Oops, sorry,’ like all women do and I am mad at that because it was my fault so why is she apologizing?”
The scene marked a turning point in our discussion. Taken together with the narrator’s financial independence and sexual assertiveness, my class began to wonder if the challenge of “likability” (an issue that largely hamstrings female authors writing about women’s experiences) had less to do with the narrator’s actions, and more to do with her co-opting of traditionally masculine traits. The story later reveals the narrator’s buried vulnerabilities, but this moment—her anger over an apology she didn’t want from another woman—deepened our inquiry into character. Willful creature indeed, and posing the important and timely question of what the hell we’re all so sorry for.
Lately, women are being implored to stop apologizing for things that are not their fault—in fact, for simply existing at all—and I, too, have become conscious of when and how the word “sorry” passes my lips. The other day, I apologized on the voicemail I left my university’s registrar over a classroom mix-up on their end, which cost my students 10 minutes of instruction time.
But having a child—and a girl, no less—has upped my apology game. These days, I hear myself apologizing for two.
It started with my daughter’s separation anxiety. When Benna turned four months old, she stopped allowing anyone except her dad and me to hold her. Even friends who’d known her since birth couldn’t cast a glance in her general direction without making her cling to our shirts with some kind of super-baby strength, her sharp fingers barnacled to our collars.
My mother tells stories of leaving me as an infant overnight with my grandparents with nary a tear, and my father, a bar owner, schooled me relentlessly in social etiquette—I could order a meal at a restaurant and banter with middle-aged patrons by age 2. So, when Benna screamed at admirers in the supermarket, or slighted her grandmothers when they came to visit (I left my best friend’s wedding rehearsal dinner because my poor mother-in-law had endured enough howling back at the hotel), or, worst of all, broke into ragged, breathless sobs when I returned to work last year and had no choice but to leave her with a babysitter, the embarrassed apologies began to pour out of my mouth.
I’m sorry—she’s just shy.
I’m sorry. She was up all night teething.
I’m sorry. She’s not in daycare, so she just doesn’t have much experience playing with other kids. (But daycare’s great! It’s so awesome your kids go to daycare!)
Notice the other word nearly ubiquitous in my apologies: just. My daughter’s response to people she doesn’t know, or situations that make her uncomfortable, is just something—at best, explainable, and at worst, dismissible. Lately, I’ve become concerned that my apologizing could help perpetuate in another generation of women the expectation that they be sorry they said something, wore something, walked somewhere at some time of day, held this or that opinion, or made this or that choice.
But I’m even more worried that Benna’s growing language acquisition means she will soon internalize a self-narrative built on her mother’s gaslighting. I’m worried that by making excuses for her behavior to people who, let’s face it, don’t really matter in our day-to-day lives—the playground parents, the senior citizens at the store, even extended family members—I’m essentially telling her that her feelings and fundamental personality traits are wrong, and that her feelings aren’t as important as how likable she is to others.
The thing is, Benna’s separation anxiety has largely subsided—I can leave her happily with her regular sitter now, and she looks forward to her grandmothers’ visits—but she’s still reserved with strangers, still clingy in new settings, still afraid of crowds and loud noises (it’s not uncommon for her to run to her stroller when there are too many children at the playground we visit every single day). Her sensitivity doesn’t seem to be just some passing phase; it’s quite likely part of who she is, and if so, it’s a part she probably inherited from me. My own sensitivity, coupled with gendered politeness, is the reason I compulsively mediate my daughter’s interactions with others.
Anecdotal evidence suggests fathers don’t do this sort of mediation. In a recent thread in my mothers’ group, my friend Rebecca noticed that, on an outing to the zoo with their kids, her husband and his male best friend didn’t apologize for or qualify their children’s behavior.
“I feel like I do this whole weird Mighty Aphrodite Greek chorus thing, and every time my kids misbehave, I face the audience of adults and sing-song a myriad of excuses—totally unnecessary and totally unexpected or requested,” Rebecca wrote. “And even though I say my kids are their own people, I don’t act it—seeing my husband in action, where he was so separate from the girls’ behavior—not disconnected and not irresponsible, just not invested or part owner—opened my eyes to what allowing them independence really looks like.”
Our friend Meaghan concurred. Her husband doesn’t apologize for their son’s behavior, either: “I always envy how connected he seems to C during intense parenting moments in public, whereas I feel 50% with C, and 50% hyperaware of how I come off and I hate it,” she wrote.
How liberating mothers might find the perspective that that their kids’ every meltdown and idiosyncrasy need not be a reflection on their parenting. But how difficult would it be to enact? It’s interesting to think that, in the arena of public parenting, men may respond to and discipline their kids better than women because the cultural conditioning of women to be subservient to others’ needs impedes their ability to parent mindfully. If so, then patriarchal structures have, in fact, freed men to be better fathers when it comes to helping their children navigate the public world. Mothers, on the other hand, are policing their own parenting.
My friend Amy says she finds herself particularly self-conscious at church when her toddler acts like, well, a toddler. Even though the other members of the congregation have never expressed annoyance when her daughter gets loud or irritable, Amy worries about coming off a pushover. “I think that I do try and make excuses for Julia’s behavior because I don’t want anyone to think I am lax with her,” she says.
“I think a lot of us don’t helicopter parent our kids, but in exchange, I helicopter my own parenting,” Rebecca says. She believes her commitment to less apologizing is not only good for her kids, but others mothers, as well. “I do moms everywhere a favor,” she says of reminding herself not to justify, qualify, or take possession of her kids’ every movement, meltdown, or even talent. “I don’t always need to say anything, and that if I want my girls to own their behavior and be proud of themselves, then I need to put space between me and them,” she writes.
In the Washington Post’s Expat blog, Lisa Ferland, an American mother living in Sweden, notices a stark difference at the playground when she visits Hoboken, New Jersey, and argues that the lack of the options for American parents, which form the basis of the Mommy Wars, are also to blame for parents’ anticipatory apologies. “With so many factors for familial decision-making in the U.S., there is a sensitivity and stress around not offending a fellow mom. Mothers will think, ‘Well, what works for me may not work for her, and I don’t know her situation,’” Ferland writes. In Sweden, where policies free parents to be with their children without sacrificing career goals, these tensions simply don’t exist. And this allows kids to act like, well, kids.
Last week, a dear friend visited to give a reading on my campus, and during one of her breaks, my husband brought Benna to meet her. Later, over a sushi dinner, my friend said nonchalantly, “I noticed Benna is sensitive.”
She didn’t say it as a judgment, merely an observation, and I was surprised at how touched I was that someone had paid my daughter such thoughtful attention. I thought back on their interaction at the office, and how my friend had allowed Benna physical space, taking only what Benna offered her—tentatively, and then, once comfortable, exuberantly, Benna’s stuffed bear and skunk. I thought what a kindness it was that my friend respected my daughter’s sensitivity. Sensitivity, like willfulness (synonyms: stubborn, recalcitrant, intransigent), is often characterized as a flaw, but Benna’s sensitivity has given her surprising empathy for a toddler, a natural proclivity to share, and deep affection for those she trusts.
Also, let’s consider the antonyms of willful: obedient, tractable, yielding. There are times when obedience may be a virtue, but I wouldn’t want any woman’s life—any person’s life—circumscribed by it. And what about willful sensitivity? What could that look like? What difference could a stubborn insistence on empathetic living make?
I hope my daughter will teach me.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.