Let me start this by telling you that I am not a super-strict mother. I let my kids watch TV. Occasionally, I let them eat things that probably glow in the dark. I don’t have a competitive bone in my body, and I couldn’t give a flying monkey about how someone else raises their child. I insist on good manners, and my children leave the house clean, fed and (mostly) happy. That’s as good as it gets most days.
Before I had my kids and also early on in the infancy of my parenthood, I wouldn’t say “boo” to a goose. Nowadays, however, I do occasionally enjoy picking a fight with strangers.
When I had just one child, my son, I would apologize for him all of the time. If he cried in public, I would spend so much time spinning 360 degrees to make eye contact with people to apologize for the inconvenience. If I’d concentrated on comforting him, he would have cried a lot less. I would explain why he was crying, assure these people whom I’d never met (and likely wouldn’t meet again) that he was a lovely baby, really. I look back at the way I parented that tiny baby, and I cringe. He was a baby; they cry.
Enter my first daughter. Things became a little trickier to handle. Managing two small children in public is at times difficult and occasionally fist-bitingly mortifying. They both developed a penchant for the awkward questions, competed with one another in the “We Are Leaving Somewhere Fun Therefore We Must Lie On the Floor and Scream Until We Are Blue” routine. This dramatically reduced my ability to give a crap what people thought.
“Oh dear! Are they tired?”
“No, just naughty.”
“I see. Have you tried [insert boring advice which doesn’t apply to my children or the situation in any way]?”
Pre-second-baby me: “That’s so interesting, I’ll give it a try because [insert vaguely tenuous reason why it is a useful piece of advice].”
Me now: “No.”
Since the birth of my third child, a second daughter, I have been introduced to a whole new level of advice and interference in public, even the expression of intense dislike for my child. She screams, she claws, she kicks, and she froths. (She even got referred to the pediatrician in case she was having unusual seizures when this happened. To our eternal relief, she wasn’t, but the doctor did express great admiration for her staying power and dedication to a tantrum.) My baby has tested my patience beyond that of both her siblings put together.
The interest strangers show in how I deal with my raging toddler is beyond any previous interference. Now bear in mind, this is rare and reserved for a particular breed of asshole (one which I freely admit I have been in the past). I’m not talking about the supportive people, the kind “I’ve been there” clan; they are eternally awesome. You know the ones I’m referring to, the eye-rollers, the “Oh dear!” brigade. During a recent six-hour train journey with my three children, ages 6, 3 and 2 (six hours, let’s just think about that for a moment), my youngest had one tantrum, only one. The train was heaving, and we had to move all four of us onto two seats, whilst she wanted to walk up the aisle and talk to people. There was no room.
Before I knew what was happening, she “went,” an explosive shrieking, sobbing rage that was made worse by the confined space she was squeezed into. She whacked me in the face with the small board book she was reading and stepped her crying up to a siren cry of short, sharp blasts that increased in volume and intensity, whilst I soothed and stroked her hair, but largely tried to avoid confronting her (it makes her worse). Even my 3- and 6-year-olds were embarrassed.
Out of nowhere, she appeared, elbowing her way through the packed carriage, to get to us. A short lady of about 50 years old, with a furrowed brow and a great sense of urgency, she bent down to my daughter with her own face just an inch away from her distraught, furious little face. Really viciously, with no word to me, she shushed her, finger pointing crossly. Only then did she look at me, sitting jaw agape unable to speak, and shouted at her (me? us?), “That’s enough!”
Before I had chance to process the encounter, my older daughter, not blessed with the greatest sense of decorum or ability to sense when she should speak up or stay quiet suddenly, without prompt or direction, piped up with: “Don’t shout at my sister,” and with a thumb directed at me asserted, “That’s her job.”
She’s right, you know. Until they are in school, or of an age where they know how to behave in public (so 20, maybe?), no one besides me and my husband have the right to discipline our child. Even my 3-year-old gets it. I may appear not to be handling the situation well. I may even give the impression that I don’t give a crap that my children are annoying (okay, I’ll let you in on a secret, sometimes I really don’t).
She went as quickly as she had arrived, leaving me little time to tell her exactly what I thought about her finger-pointing-shush-giving-
Just as I was about to choose the latter, a lady across the aisle tapped me on the shoulder: “Sorry, not interfering or going to try to help,” as my youngest affectionately tried to fish-hook my left eye, “I just wondered—do you want my seat? I’m getting off in 20 minutes, and it looks like you need it more than me.” I could have cried. Grateful I had not chosen to call The Shusher all the names that had gone through my head, I realized that my not giving a crap had beautifully played out as dignified silence. I was suddenly the wronged (and battered) heroine in my own humiliating story.
So next time you feel compelled to apologize for your screamer, or have a hissy fit because someone has rudely interfered, take a deep breath, think about it and remember: The good ones outnumber the assholes by at least 10 to 1. Give or take.