Published on January 3rd, 2017 | by Britni de la Cretaz4
IS IT TOO LATE TO NOT APOLOGIZE? Britni de la Cretaz Looks in the Mirror of Her Daughter’s Words
“Oh! That’s my fault.”
My two-and-a-half year old daughter says, as she has just knocked over a bucket of her toys, as children do. Her words stop me in my tracks and I quickly reassure her. “It was an accident, Sweetie. It’s not your fault.”
On another day she looks at me out of the blue and says, “Sorry about that.” But she has done nothing worthy of an apology, has no reason to be sorry. She has not stepped on my toe or said something mean or spilled a drink. I can’t even figure out why she feels the need to tell me she is sorry. “You have nothing to apologize for,” I tell her, making sure to emphasize my words. “You did nothing wrong.” Is she simply practicing? My stomach drops; I feel queasy.
My daughter is two and she has already begun to internalize the conditioning that so many women are taught. She is learning to apologize for minor infractions, to say “sorry” about literally nothing. She is blaming herself for everything that happens, accident or not. She is learning that, as a girl in the world, you are not supposed to take up too much space, you are supposed to placate and accommodate. She is taking the weight of the world onto her small shoulders and apologizing for the burden.
And she is learning it from me.
Before she was born, I thought about all of the ways I would make sure that my daughter knew she was strong. I would never compliment her on her appearance, making sure to instead emphasize her abilities or character. You are so smart, clever, funny! I would not force her into stereotypical gender roles, freeing her to make choices about what she liked. Yes, baby, trains are for anyone who likes them! I would ensure she had agency over her body, and give her options regarding what she ate, what she wore, and what activities our family did. You are in charge of your body, no one else, do you understand me?
I spent hours having conversations with my husband about how to raise a strong, independent girl. I made sure he knew to ask her permission before touching her, always ask permission. To respect her when she said “no,” even if she is laughing, stop when she says no. To encourage her in any and all interests even if they weren’t “fit for a girl.” I wanted to make sure he understood, even though I knew that, as someone who had never been socialized as a girl, he never really would, not really. But it was important to me that our daughter rejected the patriarchal expectations that would be placed on her; fuck the patriarchy.
I never, for a second, thought that I might be the one who taught them to her.
And yet, how could I not? Because there I was in elementary school, trying oh-so-hard to blend into the background, to say and do and wear the right thing so as not to draw attention to myself. It was middle school when I asked a question and the most popular boy in my grade told me to “shut up” and I did, remaining silent in that class for the rest of the year. High school was where I learned what it meant to be seen and not heard, pushing my breasts up and out and perfecting my pout and turning myself into a trophy for men to collect and display on their shelf. College taught me to be sorry, to say “sorry,” to always apologize for being an inconvenience and so I whispered “I’m sorry” while a boy raped me because it was my fault for not just saying “yes” in the first place I’m so sorry I made you have to do this to me.
I have made myself smaller on trains, folded myself up like origami so that I could be as pleasing to the eye as possible while remaining visually stunning for the male gaze and maybe if I fold myself just one more time I can disappear completely. I have taken the blame for male colleagues, done the work of 10 employees for no extra pay and uttered zero complaints just smiled and it’s no big deal, of course not. Picked up the slack during group projects in school yes of course I can do it, no problem. I have apologized to men after they’ve bumped into me. I have bitten my tongue so hard it bled to avoid offending anyone I’m fine, why do you ask?
It has taken years for me to unlearn this and I thought I had. I have taught myself to speak up for myself, and for others. To say no actually that is not okay but nice try buddy. I have allowed myself to unabashedly take up space and not apologize for it this is my body, not yours never yours. I strive to be unapologetic in any and all things, because I have nothing to apologize for when it comes to existing in this world, not now, not ever, not ever again. I have taught myself the art of saying fuck this fuck that fuck you fuck off.
Yet, despite my dedication to change, my little girl still hears her mother say, “That was my fault” when I drop something, when I bump into someone, when I make a silly mistake. She hears me apologizing for simply existing in the world. She sees me carrying its weight on my shoulders.
And I do even more than that: not only do I apologize for myself, but I find myself apologizing for her in response to the social pressure of childhood behavioral expectations. When my toddler throws herself on the ground in a completely developmentally appropriate tantrum, I apologize to the onlookers for the inconvenience, I say sorry because my little girl is expressing herself the only way she knows how. I say sorry because my child has dared to be neither the cute, meme-able cherub, nor the obedient, seen-but-not-heard angel. And so not only does my daughter hear that I am sorry for my own actions, but she hears me say I am sorry for hers, too. I do not want to be sorry that my daughter is making herself heard in the world, that she is having emotions and expressing them as loudly as she wants.
I want to teach my daughter what it means to be a girl who loves her body, who takes charge of her body, who owns her body. I want her to learn how to make people uncomfortable by being the kind of girl she wasn’t supposed to be, sugar and spice be damned. I want her to know that she never ever ever has to be sorry for being, for living, for breathing.
I hear her say “I’m sorry” and I am so afraid that she is destined to relive the trauma that has infiltrated my insides, to repeat the acquiescence and the apologies that I’ve recited ad nauseum. It is everything I do not want for my precious, precocious, spunky baby child. She has a spark that I never want her to snuff out—I want to nurture it so it can burst into flames.
It is not too late for this, though; she can still light the world on fire. I have time to course correct. She is only two, after all. No matter what the overwhelming mom guilt and self-blame tell me, I have not irreparably screwed up my daughter (there’s time for that, yet). I have years ahead to teach her what it will take me a lifetime to unlearn.
And in showing me who I really am, modeling back to me what I’m teaching her, she gives me the ability to change, to be different, to be the woman I want to be and raise up the girl I hope she will be. Because as much as I have to teach her about how to be a strong woman, she has just as much to teach me about the very same thing.