A few months after I gave birth to my second child, a senior (and childless) executive I admired pulled me aside at work. You’re doing a great job, she assured. “But,” she added, and looked me straight in the eye, "You've got to stop apologizing."
I was stunned. Did I really say sorry that often? She suggested I keep track for a day. So I did.
Sorry, I said, when subway delays made me a few minutes late to work. Sorry, I wrote, that I didn't respond sooner to your email. Sorry I couldn’t make it to school. Sorry I can’t stay late tonight. By the end of the day, I'd tallied up more than a dozen apologies. At this rate, I calculated, I was saying sorry nearly 100 times a week.
Maybe I’d over-apologized before having kids too (studies have found women are more apt to apologize than men). But now, I realized, the word slipped so easily off my tongue, I hardly noticed it. Sometimes they were surely merited. But increasingly, apologies had simply become an auto-response to the guilt I felt whenever work and family commitments collided.
By buying into the belief that I was somehow at fault if I could not contort my schedule to accommodate school events, doctors’ appointments, social obligations and work meetings, I realized I had set myself up to fail — and apologize — constantly. Once I started paying attention, I recognized a similar chorus of contrition from friends and female colleagues. One told me that as much as she scrambled, she was always playing catch up. Another felt she was constantly letting someone down, whether it was her boss, her family or herself.
I was reminded of them recently when I read the review of Katrina Alcorn's new book “Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink" in the New York Times (aptly headlined: "Being a Working Mother Means Always Having to Say You're Sorry"). Alcorn, a working mom of three, had noticed the same tendencies to over-apologize among the hundreds of women whose stories she'd collected. And she'd found — as I did — that often we're apologizing for an inability to do the impossible: be two places at once, say, or be both full-time mother and full-time employee. (Yes, fathers increasingly feel the pressure as well, but our culture still places the bulk of household and parental responsibilities on mothers.) In making the decision to continue on with our careers full time after children (a choice that's still not supported by most Americans, even criticized as “selfish”), we often feel we must also shoulder the primary responsibility of taking care of our family and homes. It’s no wonder so many of us have succumbed to the sorry syndrome.
But it’s got to stop.