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Joe PagettaDecember 15, 2022
a man sits with his daughter on a couch looking sorry, a stock image cartoon drawingPhoto via iStock.

I am on my knees on a Costco anti-fatigue mat in front of our kitchen sink. It’s covered in stains from splattered tomato sauce, chicken grease and coffee. I’m holding my 6-year-old daughter in my arms. She has come into the kitchen to tell me she is sorry for giving me a hard time this morning. Her twin sister has Covid. It has been a hard day for all of us.

Earlier that morning, I had asked my healthy daughter to put on a mask before going into her sick sister’s bedroom. I couldn’t find the mask she liked, though, and she refused to wear the one I had. We had a stand-off, which for her means completely shutting down. She freezes, goes silent and lets her hair fall in front of her face. I have learned to remain calm in these situations and let her come around on her own. Most days.

But while stressed out and worried about my daughter with Covid and the potential spread of the disease to my other daughter, my wife and my 78-year-old live-in mother-in-law—I would contract the virus two days later—I lost it. I grabbed my daughter by both arms, stiffly, and screamed, “Put on the friggin’ mask!” But I didn’t say “friggin’.” I walked away and told my wife I couldn’t do it. I sat in another room, took deep breaths, and gathered myself.

Not long after, while I was readying breakfast and cleaning dishes, standing on that Costco mat, my daughter came in to apologize. I immediately fell to my knees to hug her and tell her I was the one who was sorry. Sorry for losing my cool and yelling. Sorry for not being more patient. Sorry for taking out my stress on her.

For better or worse, I tell my daughters I am sorry once a day. Or at least it feels that way.

For better or worse, I tell my daughters I am sorry once a day. Or at least it feels that way. Usually for raising my voice or forgetting the one thing they ask of me among the litany of things I miraculously remember. And then there are the many other mistakes I make, which they like to call my “bad ideas.” For a while they had a book and pretended to keep track of them. “Uh, oh, put it in the book,” my wife would tell them.

All parents make mistakes, and my own father made his fair share. There was the physical violence, the verbal abuse, the absence of compassion in painful times. Kneeling there in the kitchen, it occurred to me that in the 35 years of my life that my father was alive, I don’t recall him ever telling me, my siblings or my mother he was sorry. There was hardly an excuse for any of it, but as he (and we) got older, and the circumstances in which we lived—the financial, psychological and familial challenges—came more into focus, an “I’m sorry” would likely have been met with some compassion and understanding.

My father’s understanding of fatherhood and forgiveness was probably shaped by cultural differences, too—he was an Italian immigrant from another generation. For him, apologies, and the very need for forgiveness, was likely a sign of weakness or simply not encouraged in parenting. For me, and many American parents of my generation, the message often has been the opposite. And asking for help in finding our way is O.K., too.

So I set up a meeting with Kathleen Seabolt, Ed.D., the executive director of the Child and Family Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Dr. Seabolt added some nuance to my understanding of my interaction with my daughter. She told me, “You were rightly protecting a home from disease, a disease that has killed over one million Americans. You are allowed to make an effort to protect your family. It’s our job as parents.” But she also said that I would be right to make amends: “The repair could be, ‘I know we are both angry right now and I regret the tone of my voice. I regret the words I’ve chosen. I wish I had made better choices. And it’s very important that we all cooperate together to keep Grandma well, to keep everybody healthy.’”

If you ask for forgiveness from your daughters (or anyone else), and call upon God’s grace and receive it (and from God, I believe, you always do), you must then decide to take action.

I was struck by Seabolt’s use of the word repair as a key part of reconciliation. Looking at it through a Christian lens, I thought of the gift and role of God’s grace in the process. It reminded me of something Pope Francis had said as part of his apology this past summer to the Indigenous people of Canada.

“Our own efforts are not enough to achieve healing and reconciliation: we need God’s grace,” the pope said. “We need the quiet and powerful wisdom of the Spirit, the tender love of the Comforter.” By no means is what Pope Francis was doing in Canada analogous to my asking my daughters to forgive me for yelling at them in the kitchen, but I appreciate the framework he lays out and emphasis he places on God’s grace.

And it is that grace that gives us the strength to get to the repair. “Love is bolstered by the tender craft of commitment,” wrote the writer and playwright Renée Darline Roden in a reflection in the daily devotional Give Us This Day. “Inspiration is followed by discipline. Healing is accompanied by therapy—physical or mental. And grace is followed by decision.”

If you ask for forgiveness from your daughters (or anyone else), and call upon God’s grace and receive it (and from God, I believe, you always do), you must then decide to take action. To be more patient. To attempt to fix what has been broken. Even when your daughter, a couple of weeks after not wanting to wear a particular mask, decides she does not want to wear shoes while walking through the airport. But I digress.

If we are trapped in a cycle of ‘I’m sorry,’ those words lose power because there’s no repair attached to the words.

“When we have the capacity as humans to take a breath and reflect and then make authentic repairs, I think that’s the strongest practice a parent can model for their child,” Dr. Seabolt said. “We’re showing them how to assess, how to check in with themselves. The acknowledgement of big feelings is not the denial that these big feelings should exist. I would even say in my own personal faith, I believe we were given these feelings and that we were given them for a profound purpose. It’s to understand what the gift of these feelings is and then how to manage them properly so that we are behaving in a way that is kind and considerate of others.”

But Dr. Seabolt also cautioned that the process must be authentic, that such repairs should also help transform our own actions in the future. “If we are trapped in a cycle of ‘I’m sorry,’ those words lose power because there’s no repair attached to the words,” she said. “If a child chooses to parrot language of apology without the proper feelings and process, then we have taught them a magic spell to make bad feelings go away and for them to be able to go on about their business. That is not the process we want.”

I have, at times, felt stuck in just this cycle—not with my children but with my own mother. She suffered from dementia, and I cared for her as the disease progressed throughout her 60s. Her diagnosis, coupled with a mood disorder, often meant that I felt more like the parent than the child, and I sometimes treated her as such.

It is strange to think that caring for my mother during those years somehow prepared me to care for my children: to continue, despite my mistakes, to go gently where and when I can; to continue to try to do better.

The indignity of that broke my heart, but according to her geriatric psychiatrist, it was often necessary. She would occasionally do things or say things for which I would scold her. Sometimes I would lose my temper or shout. It was all terribly frustrating, and I was ill-equipped to handle it. Thinking back now, I am not sure the psychiatrist was helpful. But in my moments of anger, my mother would often get very quiet, seemingly embarrassed, look me in the eye and say something she never said to me during my childhood: “I’m sorry, Joey.” My heart would break even more, and I would hate myself after.

It is strange to think that caring for my mother during those years somehow prepared me to care for my children: to continue, despite my mistakes, to go gently where and when I can; to continue to try to do better. None of it has been easy, and at times caring for my mother verged on traumatic—my wife recalls a time I became so distraught with my mother, so frustrated and overwhelmed by her disease, that I blacked out. And some of my daughter’s actions could be triggers for my own suppressed pain. But I know this is not intentional, this is not their fault, and I need to allow their actions, however frustrating, to serve as reminders to me, sometimes gentle, sometimes aggressive, of the need to extend and receive grace.

Dr. Seabolt agreed that there were some parenting lessons to be learned from my own interactions with my parents, but also acknowledged that “the difference is the direction that journey [with my children] is going.”

When we are parenting children, she said, we start that relationship with incredible hope and delight. Even through multiple dirty diapers and sleepless nights, we believe we will overcome the challenges and that our children will successfully grow and develop, and that we will get to experience the wonder and miracle of their development.

I hope the lessons I learned in caring for my mother, in forgiving my father, help me to forge a better path forward with my children.

“With elder caregiving, we hopefully have an established relationship of love,” Dr. Seabolt said. “Our emotional response to our new role is wrapped up in that person who used to take care of us, someone we often, for many of us, placed on a pedestal.” She acknowledged that “there is this entanglement of grief because we are not emotionally prepared for what is happening.” We’re not ready for the diminishment of the person we knew.

“They’re just incredibly vulnerable, and so there’s something sad about that level of care because we know they’re not going to grow out of it,” Dr. Seabolt added. It is the type of stressful environment in which it is easy to make mistakes or to say things we don’t mean, or say them in a way we don’t intend. “We’re going to judge ourselves really harshly on that,” she said.

I hope the lessons I learned in caring for my mother, in forgiving my father, help me to forge a better path forward with my children. I know I did my best to care for my mother. I’m proud of the way I reconciled with my father in the years before he died. In retrospect, I think this repair says more about his efforts than my desire to forgive him. And I think I’m a good father.

But I have often wanted to go back and care for my mother all over again with the knowledge I’ve since acquired about eldercare and dementia. I have wished I could go back to tell my father what a great champion of his adult children and grandchildren he’d become. I have wished I could rewind my daughters’ first six years and respond calmly to every challenge that comes our way.

But I know life doesn’t work that way. That’s where grace comes in. It offers an opportunity, not to restart, but to resume with intent, or, as Pope Francis put it, to see ourselves through the eyes of “the quiet and powerful wisdom of the Spirit, the tender love of the Comforter”; to forgive ourselves and make the decisions and repairs that allow us to move forward.

“Forgive yourself the way that you always hope to be forgiven by others,” Dr. Seabolt told me. “Forgive yourself the way that you generously forgive others, because I think it will help us be happier, and help us be better at those jobs.”

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