Sorry, Dada

Kids hear even the things we don’t know we’re saying

When my toddler daughter’s personality first began to emerge, I was relieved. She was strong-willed, boisterous, funny. She was not like me. She would grow into a confident woman, not waste her childhood in shyness and self-doubt.

In many ways, I was the opposite of my own mother, a Filipina immigrant who stayed home with my brother and me for the first few years of our lives. She cooked, cleaned, even sewed handmade clothes. I, by contrast, was a working mother, proud of the careerwoman image I presented to my daughter. I was an infrequent cook (thank god for my husband), and somehow, despite my efforts, our house remained in a constant state of disarray. I couldn’t sew a button, but I ruminated on my daughter’s emotional development in ways I’m sure my mother never did on mine.

It was important to me that I not do what I considered “squashing my daughter’s spirit.” We would never spank her; we would encourage her independence early on, praising her for acts of self-sufficiency as small as putting on her own socks. I wanted her to become self-assured, capable, secure—a woman who made her own choices and believed in them.

So, instead of brushing my toddler’s hair when she yelled, “Nooooo!” at the touch of a brush, I let her wear it tangled to daycare. Instead of making sure her clothing matched, I let her pick out her clothes (however horribly they clashed), grateful when she allowed us to dress her without a struggle. We gave her frequent choices: Which book would you like to read? Would you like milk or water? And sometimes our proffered choices were perhaps broader than they should have been: What would you like to eat? Do you want to take a bath?

Whether it was a result of our parenting philosophy or my daughter’s innate personality, we were raising a daughter verbally advanced for her age. But she could be intensely difficult.

One night, we’d managed to get a diaper and a bib on Aurora before dinner. She sat in her high chair, looking incredibly precious wearing the long red bib fashioned from a dish towel. I marveled at her beauty as I held our newborn son.

It was already after eight o’clock—dinner had gotten off to a late start.

“I need nap,” Ro said. Words I’d never heard her speak in the same sentence. She fought sleep like she fought getting dressed, and nothing we had tried (earlier bedtime, later bedtime, baths before bedtime, reading) seemed to have any effect. Most nights, while I nursed Arlo, Ezra carried Ro around her dark bedroom, singing lullabies he made up until she nodded off in his arms. Or we took her on stroller walks to lull her to sleep.

“Do you want to go on a walk?” he asked her that night.

“I need walk-oo.”

He picked out some clothes and sat on the couch with Ro in his lap. When he tried to pull the pajama shirt over her head, she ran away, squealing.

It was not unusual behavior. In fact, running around naked was one of her favorite pastimes, a pretty much guaranteed event after bath time. Bare-cheeked and dripping wet, she would run from room to room, giggling and shrieking.

“Naaaaked RORA!” she would call and shake her tiny hips before tearing off down the hall. She loved being chased, and when we caught her we’d pin her down, strap on her diaper, and get her dressed. Often, this required both of us, my husband to hold her, kicking and screaming, while I zipped her legs into jammies. Most of the time it was a fun game, fun to watch her run and pounce around on our unmade bed. But the fun varied according to the pursuer’s mood. And my husband was not in the mood.

He caught her in the kitchen.

“Ro, you have to wear clothes,” he said.

She kicked and screamed.

“It’s your owl shirt. You like owls,” I tried.

The screaming continued.

I had a higher tolerance for her shrill cries than did my husband, who absorbed her anger and frustration.

“Fine, you can go on a walk without clothes,” he said, his voice raised, “but I don’t see how it will be very comfortable.” He threw her shirt on the floor and stormed to the mudroom to get the stroller. His footsteps pounded on the kitchen floor, his anger hung in the air.

Ro chased after him.

“Sorry. Dada.” Her words were separated by a tiny pause, and her clear enunciation seemed the result of the concentration required to form new words. Still, I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly. I had never heard her apologize, and I doubted she even knew what “sorry” meant.

Then she said it again.

Her voice stopped us in our tracks. Ezra turned around. Tears stung my eyes.

There she was, my not-yet-two-year-old daughter, apologizing in response to a man’s anger.

I was stunned.

So, it seemed, was my husband. He bent over, picked up our daughter, and hugged her.

“It’s ok,” he said. “You don’t have to be sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

It wasn’t true—she had thrown a fit to avoid getting dressed—but I didn’t correct him. Because in that moment, her apology threw a spotlight on our own behavior.

Where had my daughter learned to respond to anger with an apology? Most likely, it seemed, by observing us.

When my husband—a deeply caring, dedicated father, yet chronically sleep-deprived and stressed—let his frustrations show, didn’t I often attempt to appease him by apologizing, thereby taking the blame for things that were not necessarily my fault? The dishes are piling up. Sorry, hon, it was a rough day. The floor needs vacuuming. I know, I’m sorry, I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

I wanted my daughter to grow into a strong, assertive woman. But how could I expect that when I didn’t assert myself?

Ezra carried Ro to the mudroom. I followed with our newborn and sat on the storage bench Ezra had just purchased that day.

Ro noticed the new bench. “What dat?”

“It’s a new bench Daddy bought.”

She walked over and climbed up next to me. Ezra joined us. 

“Dada, Rora, Mama,” Ro said.

“Dada, Rora, Mama, baby,” Ezra corrected her.

“Dada, Rora, Mama, baby,” she repeated. “Our family.”

“That’s right!” he said, delighted as I was by her toddler knowledge. Our family of four was still a new concept for all of us. “Are you ready to go on a walk now, Ro?” he asked after a moment.

“No,” she said. “Sit.”

She gave the baby a hug, cradling his head in her arms and pressing her head against his. Then she reached for Ezra’s hand, and mine.

Night was falling. Soon we would be wandering the neighborhood in the dark, me on high alert for foxes and skunks. But we sat, Ro with a spaced-out look that indicated she was working something out.

“Let’s go, Ro,” I said after a moment.

But like so many other times, she was defiant.

“Sit,” she said, her little twenty-one-month-old voice powerful. And we did.

About the Author

Liz Iversen

Liz Iversen’s essays have appeared in Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and elsewhere.

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