Last week I forgot all about Bobbie’s Ballet recital that she’d been practicing for for the last several months. While the other Mums woke early, ironed costumes, pulled hair into tight buns, I yawned and snuggled down with a hot cup of tea and my book. While other little girl’s hearts fluttered with excitement as they peeked out at the crowd from behind the big red curtains, Bobbie was play fighting on the carpet with her brothers in front of the saturday morning cartoons. And while other parents will have that wonderful first ballet recital recorded on video forever, we will have to make do with this:
How could I forget such an important thing? I would like to say it’s the most impressive display of neglectful parenting I’ve ever had the honesty to admit to, but I fear there are bound to be worse examples to come. Just that same day I went to pick up Cormac from his friend’s place but drove off before he could even get in the car. I’d said to the other Mum “send him down now [from their apartment on the 6th floor], I’m outside”. Which I was at that precise moment. But no sooner had I hung up the phone than I put the car into gear and drove off. Without him. I only realized when I got up to the traffic lights and turned around to ask Cormac how his weekend was only to find he wasn’t in the car. That classic, cartoon-esque double-take. Brillliant, Nadine.
But mindless parenting aside, there’s something else I wanted to throw the light on. And that is – apologies. When I realised that Bobbie had missed her recital – some 3 hours after the concert had concluded – I couldn’t have felt worse if I’d just been made to eat my own vomit. I felt sick, quite literally. I replayed the lazy morning in my head and didn’t so much as kick myself but head-butt myself. How could I forget this, how?? But in all of this, how was Bobbie affected? What did she do? As it happened, we found out we’d missed the performance together at exactly the same moment (the wonders of speakerphone), and such is the great power of empathy, that the disappointment that crossed her face was so fleeting it was like it hadn’t even been there at all. “Don’t worry Mummy!!” she said brightly, forcing a fake smile. As my eyes stung with the tears of my own uselessness, she put her hands on my cheeks and said, with a warmth and tenderness that belied her 5 years “it’s fiiiine, Mum, it’s ok, don’t be sad about it”. This was before I’d even had time to apologize.
And it got me to thinking about a blog-post I’d written (but never posted) more than a year ago titled Apologies. It was all about one of those ill-fated road trips where the kids drive you so mad you actually consider throwing open the door and hurtling yourself onto the pavement. Here’s a quote from that post, which sets the background.
“We were driving to Dubai in dense traffic, lost, hot, and stressed, while Cormac jiggled around hysterically in the back, feigning effort to contain his bladder. The hilarity did not go unnoticed by his siblings, who roared with encouragement every time clutched his privates in a display of agony. But let me paint this picture more vividly. Dubai is a city famous for its spaghetti motorways; complex interchanges that fold back on themselves in loops and tunnels before leading off into the desert (if you’re lucky) or otherwise, an unfinished bridge 60 meters up in the air. The GPS couldn’t help us, because IT can’t hope to keep up with the speed at which new highways are built in this country. Add to that the fact that we were 20 minutes late to a function H.E. the Ambassador was meant to be playing a key role in, and you have a picture of the atmosphere in the car that day. At precisely the point at which we missed the same turn off for the second time, adding another 20 mins to this now circuitous journey, Cormac decided he could hold on no longer. With nowhere to pull over on this unforgiving motorway from hell, Malcolm threw him an empty water bottle while sending me a reassuring glance that said “it’s ok, it’s been done before”. I’ll spare you the details – except to say that we spent the latter part of the evening driving around the same city in search of a car-shampoo valet service…”
The blog post that I wrote following that episode was not about how Cormac needed to apologise to me for his appalling behavior, rather about how I had to apologise to him – for completely losing my cool and saying things I dare not recall again even a year later. Really nasty, hurtful stuff that I seemingly had no self-control over. At the time I didn’t apologise for what I said immediately. It took me about three days to actually work up to it. Partly because I was still mad. Partly because I was quietly ashamed of myself. In fact I could easily have gotten away with ignoring it altogether – only parents have that kind of unquestionable authority to pretend like shit just never happened. While procrastinating, I even looked up the Wikihow manual on how to apologize – 13 detailed steps. I considered making a stop-motion animation using lego mini figures – you know, something where the Mum is thrown in the city jail after beating her kid over the head with a two-brick.
In the end I didn’t want to be a parent incapable of admitting fault, more than I didn’t want to admit fault. So I wrote Cormac a letter. As I wrote it, I remembered how it feels to get an apology that begins “I’m sorry, but…”. In other words, I resisted the temptation to list the many justifications for saying what I did, instead opting to write a list entitled “reasons I really like you”. It was an easy list to write; of course. In fact, the whole thing was much easier than I thought it would be and Cormac was gracious (in an 8 year old sort of way) in his forgiveness; i.e. when Dad came home from work that night he ran out to greet him waving his letter in the air victoriously like a golden ticket. An apology from his mother?! Who would have thought!! A year later that letter still holds pride of place in the middle of his noticeboard.
So here I am, thinking about apologies again, and why they’re easy sometimes, and other times not. I’m not talking about the public apologies so popular in politics at the moment (those which, Lisa Belkin points out, only cause more outrage). Nor am I talking about apologies that are really non-apologies. I’m talking genuine expressions of regret, even if the insult or injury was caused indirectly or unintentionally. The only thing worse than no apology, is a botched apology:
“When an apology fails, two things are lost — the victims are not asked for forgiveness, nor are they given a chance to grant it. Being asked to forgive restores dignity to the injured. Granting forgiveness is a step toward moving on. A botched apology not only taints the act of apology but the ability to accept an apology as well. And that is unforgivable.”
And I guess that’s the nub of it. An apology is not a one-way street. Maybe that’s why it’s hard sometimes. Sometimes you’re ready, and the other party isn’t. Sometimes the other party is, and you’re not. But if an apology is to be genuinely given, and genuinely received, you both have to be in the same place, at the same time. The brilliant thing about apologising to little kids is that they’re so generous. They always want to be where you are, all the time. So it’s easy. It doesn’t matter how you apologise – with pen and paper, lego animations or blog post. Or as Bobbie demonstrated, you don’t even necessarily have to physically verbalize your apology. You just have to be sorry. And the rest will surely follow.