This is the story of being busted by my four-year-old daughter for speaking to her in a voice I would never have used in public. It wasn't bad or even particularly angry language; my transgression would not have shown up in a transcript (which is not to say it left no bruises). What I did was cunningly worse.
It was our standing evening engagement: an encounter between combatants separated by 40 years and 100 pounds. In this corner, the Defender repeatedly issuing warnings to cease and desist. In the other, the Challenger persistently goading. And then the sucker punch. That Voice.
Well, she did stop trying to put the peas up her nose. And then she looked at me in sorrow.
"Mama," Charlotte said carefully, "please talk to me in your nice voice. I don't like the voice you're using."
Now that she mentioned it, neither did I.
It was a voice that said, I am more powerful, more important, and worthier than you. It was the voice of disdain.
It was a voice that embarrassed me to own.
Reflecting upon this incident has led me yet again to ponder the similarities between being a parent and being a boss—something I did with reasonable success for a long time before enjoying the humbling experience of being a mother. As a mother, I feel the same huge, sometimes overwhelming, sense of responsibility—and shame when I fail to live up to that responsibility—that, on a good day, I used to feel in the office. I say "on a good day" because as a boss, it was even easier to ignore the responsibility I had to those who were hostage to my moods and whims, to my influence.
Sadly, the opportunities to abuse any power are rich and varied. I hope that my speaking violations are the worst violations I've committed—but I'm sure they're not.
The truth is, what can make you feel lower than being unfair to someone who can't call you on it? No question that by treating anyone disrespectfully, I diminish the respect I have for myself (see "shame" above). And I'm terrified of teaching a certain four-year-old, by my example, the wrong lessons about respect and fairness. With power comes responsibility. Or, as Delmore Schwartz famously wrote, "In dreams begin responsibilities," a sentiment that should be cross-stitched on every parent's and every executive's pillow.
I wish I could say that ever since this episode I speak to my child and husband and friends and mother and dry cleaner in my nice voice, a voice I could use at tea with the Queen—one woman, one voice, no matter the listener. I can't.
But I'm working toward it. At least my hearing has begun to improve.
More for Moms
From the May 2003 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!