I’m sorry I’m late.
I’m sorry my house is a mess.
I’m sorry but I have to bail on our plans.
I’m sorry I forgot.
I’m sorry I didn’t have time.
I show up, kids in tow, an apology already on my lips. I’m embarrassed about something: the mismatching shoes on my toddler or the state of the house I left behind or the volume with which my son is yelling or the volume with which I just yelled at my son for running across the parking lot.
Motherhood can feel like just a series of apologies. Everywhere I go, my crew takes up too much space or makes too much noise. Even when I go out without my kids, I realize I’ve forgotten something I should have remembered or discover that I’m either overdressed (because I was so excited to get out of the house alone that I put on my favorite dress) or underdressed (because I barely escaped and didn’t have time to change). I apologize for all of it.
There is something deeply, persistently humbling about motherhood. I can’t seem to get it together. Or even when I do get it together, I can’t manage to keep it together for long. So I apologize.
But all this apologizing was beginning to muddy the waters for me. I was beginning to lose track of what was really worth apologizing for and what was just embarrassment. I felt like I was failing all the time, but most of the time I was only failing to meet my own standards; I was not failing anyone other than myself. But I was still apologizing.
I’ve been realizing I need to audit my apologies. That is, I need to pay attention to who I’m apologizing to and what I’m apologizing for. “Sorry” is a precious word because it offers us a means of making things right again, but it is a powerful word that elicits feelings of regret and remorse. To apologize for every shortcoming, every mistake, every problem all day long is exhausting and, frankly, not very healthy. To apologize is to take responsibility, so I’m learning to save my apologies for when I truly need to take responsibility for my sins. I want to experience “godly sorrow that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10) not just the dead-end kind of sorrow that takes the blame and grows more despairing every time.
It may seem like semantics, but it matters to me now to try to apologize less. I try not to apologize for a less-than-clean house. I can say “I wish I’d been able to clean up” but when I apologize, I make it seem like I’ve done something morally wrong by having a messy house. I try not to apologize for my inefficiency. I can say “Thank you for waiting” instead.
Reading the scriptures has helped me to make an important distinction between sins and mistakes. I need to apologize more for my sins: for my angry reactions and selfishness, for my failures to love my neighbor. I need to apologize less for failures to meet other standards.
This is actually helping me to become a better mother. When I began to recognize the difference between my standards for myself and God’s standards for me, I realized I could stop apologizing for so many things (and therefore stop feeling like a failure so frequently.) I started thinking more long-term about my goals as a mother. I’m not just here to keep things neat and tidy and ensure my kids have impressive table manners and good grades. I’m here to disciple my children, to teach them how to offer forgiveness and to seek forgiveness, but forgiveness for real sins not just forgiveness for breaches of imaginary protocol. I’m here to teach them how to love difficult-to-love people. I’m here to teach them how to serve their neighbors joyfully. I’m here to laugh with them and show them that we’re all works in progress. I’m here to show them how deeply I need grace and to offer that grace to them as if it were limitless, because it is.
When I apologize for things that are not sins, I set up the expectation that perfection is possible. I reinforce to myself that nothing less than perfection is acceptable. I demonstrate to my children that they ought to expect perfection. Every apology seems to suggest that usually these things don’t happen, declaring to everyone around me that this screaming child or neglected duty is actually a rare occurrence. Of course that is what I want everyone to think. The actual truth of the matter is that forgetfulness and messiness and loudness are now the norm. And I’m just going to have to come to terms with that and stop apologizing for the state of my entire life.
When I apologize for sins, I begin to recognize the real problem. My messy house is less of a problem than my anger at the kids who messed it up. My forgetfulness is not the problem but my selfishness with my time might be. I start taking responsibility. I start confessing and asking for help in my prayers. I start seeing my sins just a second before I’m about to commit them. The Holy Spirit starts helping me recognize when I’m about to get angry or acknowledge when I’m about to make an excuse that isn’t true.
I’ve had to take an inventory of what I’m apologizing for and who I’m apologizing to. I’m learning to apologize less but also to apologize more accurately. It doesn’t change the state of chaos that I live in, but it does make me more realistic about what I can change and what I can’t, and this makes me feel less like I’m failing.