I’ve been thinking about apologies lately. A month ago, a friend linked to this post on Facebook (A Better Way to Say Sorry), and lately it keeps reappearing in my world. And then this week, in a creative writing class that I teach, a student wrote an essay about the art of apologizing. It was a piece that had everyone in the class laughing with self-recognition, because it pointed out the truth about apologies—that they are essentially selfish in that we seek to be relieved of our wrongdoings. At a minimum, we want to be forgiven. And so often we want still more than that. We want the other party to admit that he too was wrong.
Several years ago, in a parenting class, the teacher taught me something incredibly simple that has changed my life. It’s one of those things that should be obvious, but to me it was a revelation: You should apologize to your kids when you’ve wronged them, she said, and a true apology doesn’t include the word “but”.
“I’m sorry I yelled, but you weren’t listening.”
“I’m sorry I grabbed your wrist, but you’re not allowed to run off.”
It was a practical instruction, and when I got home I discovered it was something I could easily do. I couldn’t stop myself from making mistakes, but I could apologize for them. It felt delicious to own my wrongs.
“I’m sorry I yelled.”
“I’m sorry I called you a sugar fiend. You’re right. That wasn’t very nice.”
Sometimes, as it turns out, apologizing frees me from all of the emotions that get tangled in a conflict. Sometimes, once I apologize, my guilt and even my resentment seem to magically evaporate, as if the act allows me not only to forgive myself, but to forgive the other party too.
But then there are the times when I fail to untangle, when the fighting gets messy, when I sense I am wrong but can’t form the words to an apology, when I’m unwilling to look up from whatever deep wound I’m nursing.
This past weekend was hard for Smoke and me.
At five years old, he’s capable of helping, but I struggle to gauge how much I can reasonably ask of him. I do know this: I don’t want him to grow into one of those twenty-something dudes who leaves his dirty socks everywhere and whose toilet seat is covered in dried-up pee drips, with random pubic hairs stuck to everything. And so on Sunday, I asked him to help me with the laundry by folding his own.
He did a beautiful systematic job—it was his own system, but it was a fine one. He laid each shirt on the carpet, turned in the sleeves, and then tidily folded it into thirds. The result was a uniquely folded shirt with a few floor crumbs on it. I was happy with that, and so was he. Stump napped in the next room, out of our way for once, and together we amassed a pile of folded clothes on the sofa. I felt great, imagining my future twenty-something son whose bathroom would gleam and smell like lemons.
Stump woke up just as we were finishing the pile, and I warned Smoke that he better put his clothes away quickly, lest all of his hard work be undone. But Smoke decided he wanted to practice jumping over his pile of folded clothes rather than put them away. And meanwhile Stump, like a good bobcat, systematically thrashed at everything in his path.
It seems like such a little thing right now as I write it. My five-year-old had an interest in folding his clothes, but not enough persistence to put them away. That seems both clear and reasonable to me now. But in the moment it was terrible.
“Honey, stop jumping. Put your clothes away,” I told him, but he continued on as if he hadn’t heard me. More clothes were falling off the couch. It didn’t bother him in the slightest that his work had been undone. He was happy.
“Put your clothes away. Now.” I couldn’t bear his happiness. What would I do? Re-fold the clothes? Put them away myself? Resign myself to raising a son who would make future partners do all the cleaning? “This Is Not Okay.”
Because he was ignoring me, I began to storm around the house, angrily putting away laundry. Smoke pays attention when I storm, but that doesn’t mean he cooperates. He escalates. He launched pillows at me; he shouted and cried. The whole thing ended with him curled in a ball on the couch to avoid me. I grabbed Stump and stood on the front porch, trying to let my breathing calm me, while Stump pulled on my shirt and my face, desperate to walk out into the rain. But my breathing wouldn’t calm me.
It was true that I was deeply, deeply sorry, but I couldn’t extract my sorry-ness from my bitterness. I didn’t apologize. Neither did Smoke. Instead, Kellie came home and I complained to her. “If you find yourself in a power struggle with five-year-old,” I’d tell her later, “you know that you’ve already lost.” The bitterness lasted into the night and as I put Smoke to bed, I felt awful. I had to say sorry; I wasn’t ready to say sorry. Mostly, I was mad at myself for taking what had been a rare moment where chores feel like fun and killing it dead.
The next morning, the awfulness had cleared and I said it over breakfast. “I’m so sorry that I yelled about the laundry yesterday. I wasn’t being nice at all.” Smoke looked up from his toast. “What?” he asked. He couldn’t remember what I was talking about. It didn’t matter. I still felt better after saying it.