“Sowwee Momma!”, Henri exclaimed as he stumbled, struggling to hold on to me for dear life and guiding his foot into his shoes. “Oh buddy, that’s alright, no need to apologize. We got it!” I replied as we got finally got the first shoe on; blood rushing to my head from bending over for far too long. As I worked from a different, more comfortable angle to get Henri’s, my two-year-old’s, shoe on I thought to myself: what a thoughtful toddler I have! He empathized and sympathized with the frustration of not getting something done in a timely, sensical manner. But then I started to notice the apologies pour in more often and for situations that didn’t call for a ‘sowwee’, like tripping, a minor spill or a toy slipping from his grasp. I quickly respond in those instances with, “Hey, love, no need to say you’re sorry. We all get tripped up or mixed up sometimes.” He also loves to crash into me or his grandmother and say sorry as some type of silly game he concocted up during his exploration of cohabitation. It gives him the cutest of hysterical giggles, but I felt slightly uneasy about the behavior and so it was important to me to explain to him the proper time and place of apologies. “Henri, let’s save the sorries for when we really need it. Like when we’ve hurt another’s feelings or have truly violated someone’s trust or space. You don’t mean it, and anyways we’re just playing silly. Apologies are a big deal, kiddo.” I’m never sure if my message is hitting home but I knew I didn’t want my child apologizing for merely just being himself or discounting the significance of truly asking for forgiveness. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why he was always apologizing. I also knew it was something I needed to nip in the bud. Of course, I relish in the fact that he says thank you, no thanks, and other polite phrases. We all want a polite, socially conscious child but the constant apologizing is a bit overkill. Where is he getting this false sense of guilt from? I didn’t have to look too far. The answer glared right up at me during a bedtime read of the final part of Tiffany Dufu’s best seller, ‘Drop the Ball’. She examines three happiness hurdles in Chapter 17, titled “Happiness Motivates Everyone” The first hurdle she introduces: BREAK FREE OF GUILT!
“The first hurdle women have to overcome is a perpetual feeling of culpability. If I had a dollar for everytime a woman apologized to me, I would be rich. Unfortunately, saying I’m sorry is a hard habit to break, because as women, we’ve been trained by society to feel culpable for just about everything…As women, we are conditioned to act as caretakers and prone to always prioritize others’ happiness above our own. When we don’t we feel bad. And when apologies are not enough, we’re quick to offer explanations that prove that our intentions were good and selfless…”
Damn, yo! It’s me he’s watching, studying, and emulating. But could I possibly be saying the ‘s’ word that often? I started to be more aware of my own over apologizing. Recently, I went to a Girls Leadership presentation at a local school here in Brooklyn. Girls Leadership is an extraordinary organization that empowers and equips young girls, from grades K – 12, with the tools, education, and outlet for girls to be authentic, find their voice, and become more emotionally intelligent through workshops, afterschool programs, and summer camps. A pertinent piece is the education they also provide the parents to make a more sustainable impact on the girls so they are able to exercise true growth, equity, and support. The ‘Raising Resilient Girls’ presentation was introduced to me through a Women’s Business Alliance volunteer expo at my place of work. When I approached the vendor’s table for Girls Leadership for information and volunteer opportunities the representative addressed the women, standing in the queue, and inquired if we had daughters of our own and their ages. I answered “No, but I have a two-year-old son, and nothing is more important to me than instilling in my son that women have voices, that women are to be respected, and like men, too can lead”. To me, this type of education transcends gender and in order for me to be the agent of change or a contributor to such a movement, it is important to me to teach my son that he too must exercise his courageous voice and allyship. She couldn’t have had agreed more. They didn’t have avenues at the moment for volunteerism but she did hand me a flyer and invitation to attend the workshop presentation taking place at a nearby school on April 18th. I took the flier and the bevy of other materials, including an illustration chart of common place emotions for the kiddo, and registered for the event.
The evening came and although completely exhausted by the day I fought through all my stories and excuses for not going and marched on to the presentation after work. Armed with snacks (can’t focus on a hangry stomach), water, and a fully charged heart and phone I entered the elementary school’s auditorium. I arrived a few minutes late and missed the intro but sat down in time for the presenter’s slides of the type of imagery that bombards and continues to mold the minds of young women and children. The imagery was of unrealistic perfection, exploited sexuality, and superficial vanity that penetrates messaging for youth as early as the age three. That wasn’t anything new, sex and insecurity have been sold to our youth for eons, just seems now with modern technology there is no escaping it. The more memorable slide revealed the staggering number of teenage (and pre-teen) girls that reported signs and symptoms of depression. Almost three times more than boys their age. It’s hard to stay happy, hopeful, and empowered when society is feeding you unrealistic ideals or devaluing as a mere sex object. The number stayed rather high across the breakdown in the numbers for latinas and whites. The figures tapered off into the low percentiles for black girls and black boys of the same age group but for obvious or not so obvious factors the study may have failed to address. Factors such as cultural and gender stigmatisms about seeking counseling and expressing feelings, as well as access to healthcare and socioeconomic biases. Parents, both mothers, and fathers were posing questions and engaging with the presenter. Throughout the presentation, she enrolled the auditorium of parents with polls and open-ended questions. A mother countered an engagement poll, of which I can’t remember the topic, with the very question I asked myself about my dear baby boy. The parent of a middle school aged girl went on to explain the predicament she was facing. She found her daughter was over apologetic. Whenever she asked of her daughter to do her a favor, or pitch in, or offered a course correction, her daughter immediately responded with a ‘sorry’ and proceeded with the request. Her mother was baffled. “I just want her to say ‘OK’ and proceed with what I asked of her, not apologize. Is she just pacifying me or is she just extremely, and overtly apologetic?” The presenter probed a bit a further before posing a question to the group. “How many of you find yourself saying ‘sorry’ for even the smallest slight?” “How many of you start your texts, emails, or even requests with an apology?” Almost all the women in the group raised their hands. I quickly observed that none of the men did. Shoot, even my hand flew up. At first, I was almost shocked that my hand went soaring up, as if my arm was not of my own body and mind. My mother would always remind me how I never showed remorse or offered an apology. But it wasn’t true at all. I said sorry constantly but, like my son during a game of human bumper cars, I was expressing it when not necessary and neglecting it at times it was most warranted or expected by the offended party. I can count on many hands how many times I, and other women I’ve encountered, expressing apologies for a mere brush of an elbow while walking or a reach over a milk station at the coffee shop. Men say excuse me; women say I’m sorry. The facilitator asked those who raised our hands to share some of the reasons why we thought we or other women would feel the need to apologize so often. One woman mentioned perfectionism as a factor, another blamed needing to be ‘liked’ as a reason. My possessed arm reached high yet again. “To avoid conflict and seem less of a threat, women tend to apologize for things out of our control or minor mishaps. For some, especially women of color, our mere presence can be assumed as offensive”. It was like the words just poured out of me. I had never really admitted that to myself let alone thought to share that to a predominantly white assembly room. But it just came out and quickly the light bulb went off for me. Sorry was a way for me to avoid conflict, shrink, and seem agreeable. No need to shake up the status quo. The presenter, a black woman agreed and admitted that her skin color was the reason she would apologize to a passerby, who in fact bumped her, just to avoid seeming like a threat or someone to be feared. She quickly course corrected her self and made sure to be present and aware of the instances she found herself apologizing for something, anything that didn’t warrant an apology. Being over apologetic in fact demoralizes the true beauty of asking for forgiveness. Doling out sorries all willy-nilly is robbing us of our confidence, integrity, and respect. I couldn’t believe it took me so long for me to open my eyes to the subtle, limiting behavior. Guess that’s why they call such behaviors blind spots. But is that truly how I felt about myself? Did I truly think it was better to dim my light or apologize for just being present? Is that how I saw my brown and black brothers and sisters? Is that how I want my son to see himself? I don’t ever want my son to feel like he’s feared or someone’s burden. His voice is strong and vibrant as well as his presence. We all make mistakes and need to do so to grow. My only mission is to ensure my son a healthy environment to grow mentally, emotionally, and physically. When he does apologize I want him to truly understand how his actions impact others. He is to learn and gauge when his actions have caused him to become misaligned with his true authentic self and intentions. And then, and only then with integrity and true empathy is he to apologize and ask for forgiveness from the person or persons whose trust he violated. We trust that the people we love will do nothing to hurt us but that’s unrealistic as we walk through life. When we betray that trust we must realign, forgive ourselves for the grievance, and authentically ask for forgiveness from the one to whom we caused pain or discomfort. He is not to apologize for being ‘imperfect’, or black, or latino, tall, short, fat, skinny, or opinionated. Most of all I want the same for myself and other women. I can only lead by example. So this week I plan to be more aware of my daily communications and tally the apologies and there triggers. My growth homework over the few weeks is to change the limiting habit of being overly apologetic. Let’s make a pact and do it together! Make note when you feel yourself hitting the ‘sorry button’. Apologizing or shrinking comes in many forms and can be found in the following filler words, phrases, or actions:
- Buffer statements: “Sort of…” , “Kind of…”
- Permission terms: Would you mind …” “… if it’s not too much to ask” “Is it OK if …?”
- Avoiding to speak up altogether
- ‘Silent Contracts’ — refers to expectations of other without expression of such
With each day that passes with my son, I never am void of learning and self-discovery. Having a son has ironically strengthened my love for women and mothers everywhere. He teaches me every day to be a better human. How’d I get to be so lucky! Happy healing and cheers to honing and strengthening your voice. XoXoXo