Certain members of modern British society are inescapably apologetic. None more so, I’ve recently discovered, than parents of babies. I say parents, because the babies themselves are, of course, gloriously unapologetic. I say babies, because it seems to be that once parents have graduated to ‘of toddlers/small children’ status, they gain a cool, embattled toughness of a sort of Beyonce-esque ‘ain’t-apologisin-to-no-one’ ilk. It’s a survivors’ camp of careworn soldiers which I aspire to join one day. For now, however, I’m firmly in the apologetic mill (we’re not organised enough yet to be called a camp) of small-eyed new parents, still wet behind the ears (that’ll be pureed carrot). Apologies spill from our lips like rain from British clouds as we desperately jiggle our enraged offspring, replete with pain-pinkened cheeks as sharp bones struggle to break through sensitive little gums, while everyone else in the public space/ supermarket/ queue of any description watches po-faced. Why? Are our children somehow lesser members of society who warrant apologies on their behalf because they have had the gall to protest when feeling pain or hunger? After all, it’s not like they have a whole lot of choice when it comes to communication methods.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve come across an alarming amount of these unnecessary apologies/ apologetic urges. There was the mum in swimming class apologising for her baby’s unbridled curiosity as I got Lara undressed. A friend apologised when her little boy reached out to grab Lara’s head, and I found myself apologising in reply as Lara retaliated by snatching his teether out of his mouth and stuffing it in her own. I recently took Lara on her first international flight, and felt full to burst with apologies as I took my seat, vividly awake baby on my hip. Why, I wondered on the flight to Italy, as Lara played, babbled, fed and slept like an angel while the tweeny monster sitting behind me resolutely let her tray table fall open and slammed it shut every three seconds for the next two and a half hours. Why, I wondered, as Lara returned the horrified stare of the 20-something lad sitting beside us on the flight home before settling down to sleep without a peep for the entire journey.
Perhaps the most poignant incident occurred earlier this week. Lara and I were shopping in Reading when one of us found ourselves in rather urgent need of some facilities. Striding resolutely towards the good old John Lewis Parents’ Room, the sound of screaming reached us halfway across womenswear. We entered the baby changing area to find a poor mum struggling as her baby boy roared in protest, wriggling and rolling as she attempted to wrestle a clean nappy onto him. Knowing that one of the worst feelings in that situation is the stare of a stranger, I gave her what I hoped was a sympathetic smile and got busy changing my own little monster. As Lara gave a few squawks of her own (either as a mark of solidarity with the other baby or just to reassure us all that she, too, was there and that she, too, had surely not been fed for several long hours) the other mum looked up and apologised to me. I couldn’t quite believe it – this poor woman in parenting hell was saying sorry to me. Why??? ‘It’s absolutely fine,’ I stuttered in bewilderment, ‘no need to apologise, we’ve all been there.’
I’m not saying there aren’t any incidents when apologies are necessary. Lara has peed and yakked on her fair share of friends and family and, though it is entirely forgivable at her age of perpetual incontinence and… yakking… I do feel bad about ruined outfits which don’t belong to me, her or her father. Apologies are at least the polite thing to do. But there is one circumstance during the last two weeks where I think my parental apology was entirely called for – and that was when I found myself saying to the Italian hotel maid, “Excuse me, can you let me into my room? I’ve locked myself out… oh, and the baby’s in there…”