You’ve all seen her. You’ve encountered her in the grocery store, at the park, the library, the gas station, or even braving a sit-down experience at your local family friendly restaurant. She’s the mom accompanied by (usually) more than one young child. She’s the mom who lacks makeup and whose hair is in some semblance of a messy bun piled somewhere on her head. Her clothes are covered in an unknown substance and if they match, it’s a good day. You may think that describes the majority of women tackling motherhood, and you would be correct. What makes that mom stand out is the hysterical, screaming child(ren) who are with her.
She sees you watching. She observes the glares that ooze judgment. She is painfully aware of the reactions of those around her while trying to diffuse her child. She hears the things you say to the person with you…even though you thinking she can’t possibly hear anything over the shrieking and crying coming from right next to her. Her face is beet red with frustration and embarrassment. And if you think those look like tears welling up in her eyes, rest assured they are.
She tries her hardest not to let her temper get the best of her. When the sweet older couple stops to talk to her and the screaming child in an effort to help (which inevitably makes it worse), she forces a smile of appreciation. She does appreciate it, you know. But the situation at hand is overwhelming at best. The folks who mean well are saying things like “it gets better” or “I’ve been there,” and are met with an autopilot response because that’s all she can muster. It takes everything in her to not lash out at the people who loudly question her parenting and the behavior of her children. They have no idea what’s happening. There are a million things running through her head. In the forefront is getting the hell out of wherever she currently is, regardless of the cart full of groceries, the meal left without a bite taken, or the plans she may have had.
She sees you with your children and is struck by a pang of envy. As your quiet, well-behaved, angelic little ones watch with confusion on their faces, she looks at your family looking at hers and silently resents you. She thinks you’re probably one of those PTA moms, making home-baked goodies for your kid’s baseball team and hosting the annual after-season party while balancing motherhood, work, and home perfectly. She wishes she were more like you and things could be that simple.
Years ago, my husband and I were walking around the mall. Our shopping was abruptly interrupted by a shrill, ear-piercing scream from a young little girl. Her mother was leaned over and very calmly trying to console her, but the harder she tried, the louder the child got. Enter the teenagers — three of them. One took it upon herself to very loudly complain to her friends about the annoying child and how she shouldn’t be out in public if that is how she behaves. I silently watched as the mother’s face turned shades of red I was sure couldn’t be natural. She quickly grabbed her daughter and confronted the group, asking the teenager if she had a problem with her daughter. At this point, my husband and I were trying to contain our laughter as the teen sheepishly hung her head and didn’t respond. After a few moments, the mother took her daughter and they disappeared down the hall.
We discussed the events over lunch while laughing at how the teenager reacted when called out. The truly sad part is that we actually agreed with what she said. (Don’t hang me out to dry just yet!) Why do people let their kids act that way? It must be poor parenting. We vowed our future children would never behave like that. They would know better. We would be better parents than that.
Today, I am that mom. I am the woman you stare at while my child loses it. I am the mom trying my hardest to console my kid while keeping myself and my other children together. It is me who dreads any type of public outing because I know the chances of a meltdown are huge. It is also me who sits in my car with my head buried in the steering wheel after the doomed trip to the grocery store, fighting back tears and attempting to regroup. I now get to live the reality that I judged too harshly.
My plea to you is this: Before assuming she is a bad parent, before judging her children and her, before you see the freak-out in front of you and think it must be a lack of discipline, take a second to consider other possibilities. Maybe the child you see throwing down is overly tired, hungry, or has a legitimate issue that can feed into instances such as those. Maybe there are things going on that you can’t see. Maybe it’s not that the mother allows her children to carry on however they choose.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I know I’m not alone. One of my three children has autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorder. You see a child who has started screaming in the checkout line for no apparent reason. In reality, something as simple as the cart no longer moving can trigger a meltdown of epic proportions. You look at me like I have three heads because I’m massaging my hysterical child on the floor. I’m using deep pressure compressions in an effort to “reset” my child and help them regroup. You assume my child is poorly behaved due to lack of parenting — when, in fact, he is experiencing things that are beyond his control and mine too. Even a typical child is not above losing their cool. Having a freak-out is not specific to ASD or SPD, although they do go hand in hand.
So the next time you see that mom, give her a break. Don’t assume she’s a bad parent. Assume she is trying her best. We all have bad days, even kids. Some just have much more than others. When you see me trying my hardest to navigate through a difficult moment, just know I am doing the best I possibly can.
And if you insist on being a judgmental ass who thinks they could do better, then you can shove that opinion straight up yours. You’re more than welcome to walk in my shoes. Until you do, you have no idea what it’s like to be that mom.