I had an eternal belief that ‘I’m sorry’ means nothing. It’s just two words that people used, because there was nothing sufficient to rectify the accompanying mistake it sat in juxtaposition too. I knew this because I had heard I’m sorry more time than I can count, and in varying degrees of sincerity and in a multitude of ways.
The biggest I’m sorry always comes when I’ve been let down. I’m sorry I wasn’t or I couldn’t be there when you needed me. I’m sorry for hurting you, and I’m sorry for making you cry.
I know that in those moments, it is in the sincerity and tenderness of the apology that there is meaning in the words, but how then can you forgive behaviour that harms you? What right does someone have to your forgiveness when all they say is “I’m sorry”.
This is something I’ve come to think of often as I’ve grown up. I spent a great deal of my life angry at my birth parents. Angry they couldn’t look after me. Angry that I was adopted. Angry that no-one would, in fact that no-one could tell me my story or my history.
Part of growing though has been learning what forgiveness really means.
I may doubt the sincerity that comes with the words I’m sorry, a catchall phrase that covers a multitude of sins. From the incredibly painful ‘I’m sorry I left you alone, I’m sorry I didn’t love you like you deserved, I’m sorry you had to deal with that alone’, to the mundane I’m sorry’s–‘ I’m sorry I ate your chocolate mousse, and I’m sorry I forgot to get you diet coke on my way home.’
I have had to learn to look past the words. After all words are just words, and if we all meant everything we’ve said then I have a lifetime of making up to do.
I needed to capture the meaning in the behaviour behind the apology. I’m sorry means nothing if someone doesn’t change their behaviour. When someone says I’m sorry for not being there when you needed me, then you expect them to be there for you. That doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten that they let you down, but you open up in vulnerability and ask them to be there. So when someone say I’m sorry I wasn’t there but then tries to be there every time, whether you need them or not, you can accept that I’m sorry meant more than just words. That’s forgiveness, allowing yourself and this person to accept a mistake and move on.
When I was in university, somewhere between the ages of 18-22, I’m not really sure how old I was, the timing gets all muddled, I reached out to my birth mother. I painstakingly created a fake Facebook profile. I used my own pictures and my name, but didn’t use my last name. I made sure to hide where I lived and my job and what I was doing. Then I reached out.
I spoke to this woman, and was overwhelmed. I don’t know how I thought this experience would unravel, but it wasn’t how it went. I was overwhelmed with bitterness and anger. I spoke to this woman, my mother, on the phone, and I felt hot waves of anger rolling over my body. Here was this woman who had carried me for nine months, and lost me after 2 and half years, but she didn’t seem contrite enough in my opinion. Why wasn’t she crying? Why wasn’t she begging for my forgiveness? Why was she seemingly so calm on one hand, and on the other it felt like all she had was excuses?
She said she loved me, and she was sorry. She asked if I was okay. She told me how it wasn’t her fault, and that what happened to me was a consequence of many things. Sharing with me some of her childhood, her history and her and past. Why she loved me, but it wasn’t what the social services thought was the right love. She said she was able to care for me but the care system decided it wasn’t in a way I needed.
I couldn’t accept any of this. Her ‘I’m sorry’ didn’t meet the impossible expectation I had in my head for her. I don’t know where the idea had come from, but I believed she would have spent the last 18 years thinking of what she would say when she had the opportunity. That she would have cards and presents, and letters. She would tell me that after losing her kids she’d turned her life around and fought to get us back, but it was too late. I thought she would owe me a lifetime of explanations of why she wasn’t good enough. I thought she should be making it up to me, desperate and begging for my love and forgiveness.
It’s shameful to admit really, but I felt like she owed me the world, and I decided I would get what I deserved. At the time, I was going through a stage of spending money obsessively. I was in a severe amount of debt, blowing money on food out and takeaways, and clothes and make up and alcohol and cigarettes. Any way in which I could spend money I did it. I told her, I’ve spent my rent money, and I need £200 to pay for food and bills.
This woman, my birth mother, without hesitation went out of her way to get me that money, and still I wasn’t happy. It was just money, sure she sent it, that was her trying to show up for me, but I wanted words, I wanted apologies, and I wanted honesty about what happened. I had this expectation and fantasy of what I wanted. I wanted her to want me, but I didn’t want her. I wanted her to be sorry and to apologise but I didn’t want to know her story. I wasn’t prepared to hear what she had to say. I knew how I felt, I knew what happened to me. Nothing she could say would change that. I didn’t even allow her the opportunity, because I was on a defensive and argumentative attack from the first conversation. She wasn’t my mother, I wanted her apologies but I would never give her my forgiveness.
She could not do that, because she was only capable of sharing her story. Her truth. One which I steamrolled and ignored and rejected, because I thought my pain and trauma was more than hers.
It’s now been several years since I’ve spoken to her. I completely shut down communication when I didn’t get the apology I thought I was owed, but in reality, I’ve learnt over the last few years, that there were two people at fault in that relationship.
She wasn’t right to hurt me, or lose me or leave me, and I was just a child and a victim. However I was spiteful and vindictive when I reached out again, and set an impossible standard for her to meet. I pushed her, and fought her, and gave her no space to speak or talk or share what she needed too.
If one day she is ready – or even if I find a way for myself to be ready, I would like to hear her story, this time with less judgement and expectation, but just with open ears. I may not agree, but this time I’d like to give her the honesty of hearing, not using.
Until then, I owe her my own I’m sorry, and with genuine depth of feeling I am sorry for using her, and hurting her a second time.
I want to ask for her forgiveness. I also promise that if we do ever talk again, my actions will reflect this apology, because if there is one thing I’ve learnt, forgiveness isn’t letting go of the past or mistakes we make. It is instead, hearing that someone cares and wants the opportunity to show that, not that they can take away what happened, but just the want an opportunity to move forward.