My seven-year-old daughter received this little note recently. Via text. Just to clarify, it’s meant to say, “I’m sorry,” not “I’m sore!”
Of course there is a story. A playdate with four happy little girls. All old friends. They’ve known each other for at least four years, which is quite a significant chunk of time when you’re only seven. Then someone started telling secrets. Someone else protested. Two girls got mad. Two other girls got madder. Someone screamed “Get Out of My Room!”
And my daughter fled. I found her several minutes later sitting alone in the corner of an empty dining room. She told me she wanted to go home.
The moms tried to get to the bottom of things, but no one was talking. I’ve learned this usually means one of two things with children: they are hurting, or they know they are in trouble. That pretty much covered everyone involved in this situation, so I respected my daughter’s wishes and we left.
A few minutes later we received the apology note. By this time, my daughter wasn’t particularly upset anymore. This was only the second time in her life that a friend screamed at her and hurt her feelings so intensely. My daughter wanted to believe it was all a big misunderstanding. She wanted to move on, forget about it, plan the next playdate, and go eat some french fries at the diner.
I could commiserate. We would all prefer to believe that the people we love aren’t being unkind on purpose. They must be overworked, under pressure, having a bad day, or just caught in a traffic jam, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Even despite the fact that it happens over and over again.
Which, of course, brings me to my soon-to-be-ex. I am still waiting for an official apology from him. I don’t expect one, ever. But still, I wonder. During the last years of my marriage, I did hear a lot of sorries from him. They never satisfied me. He knew the words, he recited them, but there seemed to be no feeling behind them — no empathy or remorse. He was like a bad actor following a script; a narcissist trying to say the right things, but not feeling any emotions at all.
Since I believe that a bad apology is worse than no apology at all, I stopped asking him for them. And that suited him just fine.
At the end, when he finally got caught, he wrote me a long letter. I am an editor, attuned to words and tone, but it took me several months to realize something funny about that letter. It never said: I am sorry. He wrote that he was devastated, that he threw away the only good things in his life, and that I deserved better. Yet he also insinuated that I didn’t love him enough. That I was disappointed by him and wasn’t accepting enough of him. And that I wasn’t enough to save him from his bad decisions. Somehow, in some undefined way, I was to blame.
Two years later, I am finally able to write that I reject the accusation that I am to blame to for his problems. As I’ve written here before, we cannot change or fix someone else, despite our best efforts and intentions. As for his insinuation that I wasn’t enough to save him, I think of Maya Angelou: “You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody.”
I finally believe that.
The last few years were a slippery slope of lies and deceit on his part, and diminished expectations and denial on my part. It happened so slowly and so insidiously that I was not consciously aware of it. I was distracted by two toddlers, sleep deprivation, and the joyfully chaotic life of a new mom. He took advantage of that. I should have realized what was going on, but that’s no excuse for him acting in such a deceitful way. Or for feeling no remorse when caught. Or for blaming me for his problems and poor decisions.
I want better for my children. And I want better for myself. This is why I left my marriage. I want my children — and myself — to feel empowered enough to stand up for ourselves when people don’t treat us well.
And then walk away and find the good people, the people who love us.
I don’t want my children to hide in a corner. I want them to stand up and be heard.
I want them to speak up when someone is unkind to someone else.
And when someone apologizes to my children, I want them to think carefully about whether the lovely words really match up with the person’s behavior.
I want my children to develop courage and compassion, which, according to author and psychologist Brene Brown, are the two paths to living well and making the world a better place. She writes that children learn all these traits at home. From their parents. I can’t imagine them learning these things from their father, so it is all up to me.
Courage and compassion are not ideals; they are daily practices. The TV shows that we allow in our homes, the way we discuss politics and social issues, the way we handle altercations at the grocery story – these are choices with real consequences. . . The answer to the bullying problem starts with this question: Do we have the courage to be the adults that our children need us to be?
So here is Brene Brown’s question:
“Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?”
I don’t think I can answer this in the affirmative. I think I’ve got a handle on the TV shows, the politics, the social issues, the grocery store. But it’s harder than that. Can any parent really answer this question without any self doubt?
All I know for now that I’ve taken the right first step. It didn’t seem right for a long time. But now I know for sure.