When my son, who has autism, was 4, he had such a titanic tantrum on the street in Providence, Rhode Island, where we lived, that I couldn’t control him. He started screaming, running into the street, hitting and biting me — and himself — in a panicked frenzy, and all I could do was sit on the curb and try to keep him reasonably safe. His high-pitched shrieks soon attracted a crowd, people openly staring with disapproval and commenting about how I couldn’t control my own child.
No one spoke to me directly, save for an older man sitting on the terrace of a restaurant; he hollered to me that I needed to bring J over so he could spank him. A few people took their phones out (pre-smartphone era; this episode would otherwise have been immortalized on YouTube), and I thought, finally, someone wants to help. Maybe they’d call my spouse, who was at home a few blocks away, so he could give me a hand. I had broken glass in my knee and one of J’s tiny sandals had been dropkicked so far into the middle of the intersection that there was no way I could retrieve it myself and still hang on to him.
I was about to ask a bystander to retrieve it, when I noticed that one of the ladies who had her phone out, someone who’d made disparaging comments about my parenting a few seconds earlier, was giving me a very disapproving look and stood poised, with the flip-phone to her ear, her finger at the ready at the keypad.
And I realized: Oh, boy, she’s about to call the cops. Instead of me being a sweaty mess of a mother trying to calm my autistic child, now I’m an abuser/kidnapper/potential felon/who knows what.
In retrospect, however, one of truly taxing days of my life had actually been stopped from being much, much worse when my friend suddenly spotted me in the middle of the mob and ran to my aid. My friend is white and clearly looks like a professional, non-felon, etc., and the crowd mutteringly dispersed.
Fast-forward some years; our son is now 11. At the checkout of the Whole Foods, something sets him off and without warning, he screams and sinks his teeth into my hand, biting so hard the joint in my thumb swells to the size of a plum. He starts kicking and screaming; my husband and I carefully escort him out of the crowded store and to our car. He runs the last 10 feet, jumps in the back and slams the door. He has his own jump seat in the back of our station wagon, an enclosed space where he feels safe. We open the windows on a gorgeous 70-ish day and let him finish his tantrum in peace. The tantrum sputters out quickly, and we open the hatch to put our groceries in. I turn back to my cart and see a cop walking toward us, while an entire line of bystanders — Whole Foods employees and shoppers — stare at us from the entrance.
“This lady called us,” he says, gesturing to a middle-aged white woman standing a few yards back.
“I wouldn’t treat a dog the way you treat your child!” she screeches at us, her voice dripping with condensed hate and disdain.
My husband and I look at each other. Was she talking to us? What did we do?
Then I remembered her. She was eating a sandwich, sitting in a junky van as we passed by, my husband and I, one hand on each of our son’s arms so he wouldn’t scratch himself or us. I remember giving her an apologetic look — Sorry to disturb your lunch — as we guided our screaming son back to the car. I didn’t realize that, in her eyes, she saw us abusing our son. Or kidnapping him? I still don’t know what she saw.
“Like a dog,” I heard her snarl to the person next to her, an employee in a Whole Foods apron, who nodded, absently. “Worse than a dog.”
J was perfectly calm, sitting in his seat. He might have even said “hi” to the cop. He likes saying “hi to people; he likes policemen and firemen and garbagemen. The cop does not look overly perturbed. My husband and I are middle-aged; he’s white, I’m Asian. We are both college professors and probably look it. How much more stereotypical can we be with our recycled shopping bags and older-model Volvo station wagon? These things shouldn’t matter, but I think they do. The cop tuned out the screeching lady and calmly listened to us.
“We weren’t abusing him,” I said. “He has autism and was having a tantrum and being inside the car makes him feel safe. And we were standing here with him the whole time. It’s 70 degrees, and the window is open.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said. The cop said his nephew was autistic. “My nephew does stuff like that all the time.” He wished us well and walked away, not even bothering to ask our names.
I walked at a brisk clip toward the woman, our accuser. She, along with the crowd, had stood there observing the cop calmly walking back to his squad car. I wanted to know what she thought she saw. I wanted to know why she didn’t merely talk to us. Before I could get close enough to hail her, she jumped back in her van, refused to make eye contact, and peeled out. The employees faded back into the store. I summoned the store manager.
Yes, he’d seen us here with J numerous times. So had the employees. This wasn’t the first time he’d had a tantrum in the store. My husband and I would not have done a single thing differently, even if we had a whole department of cops and social workers staring at us. But it made me wonder: Sometime, when we are away from home and people who know us, or the cop doesn’t have an autistic nephew, are we going to get arrested? What would happen to J?
A recent spate of arrests of mothers has me thinking about this now more than ever. At what point did parenting go from a communal activity to an actionable crime? A mother in her 40s, Debra Harrell, was jailed for letting her 9-year-old daughter play in well-populated park while Ms. Harrell was at work. Tanya McDowell, a homeless single mother, was charged with felonious larceny when she hoped for a better education for her son, using her babysitter’s address instead of her last known permanent address in a worse neighborhood, to enroll her son in kindergarten. (i.e., “stealing” a free public education). Shanesha Taylor, another single homeless mother, had no one to watch her two small children, so she left them in the car during a job interview. She got the job — and then returned to find the cops waiting for her. (The district attorney in Scottsdale, Arizona, has now agreed to dismiss the charges, as long as Taylor completes parenting courses, and establishes education and child-care trust funds for her kids.) In all three cases, mothers were separated from their children for the act of mothering.
I grew up in the ’70s, when we kids were expected to entertain ourselves, which meant, largely, that we were left on our own. I sometimes walked home from elementary school by myself; when my mother was pursuing her undergraduate degree at the same time, we were often left for long periods under the supervision of my teenaged brother. Being home alone after school was routine for my latchkey friends. The tiny county jail would not have been able to fit all the moms who left kids napping in the car while they ran into the grocery store.
A beloved professor told me that in order to get her PhD while being the mother of five, she had to take her youngest to school with her — and she let him play in the hall outside the lecture room while she attended class. “What else was I supposed to do?” she said. She laughed, also, surveying the no-trimester-is-too-early-to-start-the-Baby-Einstein-tapes of women of my generation. “We didn’t even talk to babies back then — we thought they wouldn’t understand!” Her children survived and even went to Harvard. Her parenting strategy 20 years ago showed pluck, can-do-ness, and other admirable traits, not unlike my mother’s letting my brother cook us no-bake cheesecake for all our meals for weeks at a time.
Now, the same things are seen as a crime — “neglecting” or “endangering” your child. No matter if it’s in service for something necessary like a job, more education, or to put food on the table. Or that affluent white people fudge on their addresses to jockey for a better school district, and while they do sometimes get caught, I’ve yet to hear of a case where someone’s been forced to pay restitution, never mind been arrested as happened to Tanya McDowell.
And where are these so-called arbiters of correct parenting coming from? It seems all one has to do is add a little race or class difference to a dollop of self-righteousness (I’m doing it for the children!), and you’re off to the races in the 9–1–1 race. Did the so-called good Samaritan who came across Debra Harrell’s daughter in the park — she’d been happily playing there without incident for three days — think to have a little talk with the mother, to express her misgivings? Maybe help her find a babysitter, or replace the daughter’s laptop, which had been stolen, and was the whole reason she had asked to play in the park instead of playing on the computer inside her mother’s workplace? Or, did all this woman see was a child of a black mother, a poor mother (her job was at McDonald’s) and whatever smorgasbord of stereotypes she wished to attach to that?
Shanesha Taylor was summoned for an interview for a promising job; with no childcare, she felt the potential benefit of this job was worth the risk to leave her kids in her car during the interview, the kind of risk/reward calculation that mothers make every second of the day. She did a great job at the interview, won the job, and her children were fine. This could have been a happy ending to a story of struggle for this embattled family had the woman who saw the kids in the car alone talked to the mother instead of immediately calling the cops.
Make no mistake, this behavior is not about the children, it is about punishment — for being poor, for being of color, for having children at all, for not living up to the accuser’s standards of perfect parenting. Many of these child protection laws have no guidelines, which leaves them open for interpretation and unequal and unjust application. On a purely empirical level, the thought of Debra Harrell’s daughter playing alone at the park might be unnerving and seemingly at risk of stranger abduction, but it is statistically safe, actually much safer than an affluent mom driving her kid to summer camp — ergo, it’s the rich mom driving to camp whose daughter should be in the custody of social services at least as much as Harrell’s.
The Onion said it best with their headline, “Woman A Leading Authority On What Shouldn’t Be In Poor People’s Grocery Carts.”
On my accuser’s face at Whole Foods, I saw an “I care so much about the children” mask — it was not concern about my son the individual. He was not being physically abused or kidnapped or endangered in any way. If we had been in the privacy of our own home, this is how we would have escorted our son to his room for a time-out. Thus, how would he have been “helped” by this lady if indeed the cop had arrested us? J would have been left alone, needing his pain medicine for his gut and confused and stressed. It would have taken a difficult but stable everyday situation and made it terrible for all parties — and for no reason. For us, we had the luck of the draw — an autism-savvy cop, the positive-parenting visuals of Whole Foods, Volvo, college professors — and the fact our son had calmed down.
If you’re worried about something going on between a parent and her child, by all means, get involved if you think it necessary. But short of a child being kidnapped or injured in front of your face, you might want to start from a place of openness, empathy and concern. Don’t stand far away, launch an emotional drone via police to search-and-destroy. You think you might be helping, but remember, sometimes what you see as a crime is just a parent doing the best that she can, and even a false, disproved accusation inflicts lasting damage.
This article first appeared in Salon in July 2014.