Just the a couple of days ago, on day six of Andrew out of town, I headed to the Science Center to meet up with my wonderful New Zealander friend Kim and her adorable little boy, Hugo. We spent the whole morning laughing, learning, and generally being curious with our boys. It was a blast and also took a lot of energy to watch after everyone. After enjoying a snack outside, we headed back in for our last stop of the day: the building area. In order to get there, we had to head through a long tunnel that was devoted to outer space. The acoustics in this tunnel are, understandably, amazing and loads of fun for kids. Of course, my boys raced ahead, knowing the way to the building area. My friend and I walked quickly behind them and watched as Oliver weaved in and out of small groups of people in order to follow his older brother and friend. And then, of course, he squealed loudly with glee just as he was passing two elderly women. One of them jumped in surprise, then got really pissed.
She shook her head disapprovingly, and said something to the woman next to her. My friend and I passed them to catch up with the boys. I had Emil strapped to my back and pushed a small umbrella stroller. I smiled and said, “Sorry about that noisy one!” as I passed the two women. One of them snorted under her breath. Ahead of them, I gently pulled Oliver aside, crouched down, and told him in a calm voice, “Oliver, I know you’re excited, but you can’t run and scream inside the Science Center with so many people around you. It hurts their ears!” He said, “Okay Mama” before dashing off again, albeit quietly this time.
Later, at the building area, we watched our boys play and discover, and the two women caught up to us and walked past us. One of them made quite an effort to make eye contact with me as they passed, narrowed her eyes, and said to her friend, rather loudly, “Well, she’s clearly FAILING at being a mother.”
I immediately tried to brush it off for what it was: a grouchy person who had been startled by my four-year-old rushing past her in a whirlwind of loud four-year-old energy who made a snap judgement about me as a mother after observing me for all of 3 seconds. I joked to my friend, “She has me down! After that one interaction, I’m afraid she sees me clearly.” We laughed knowingly and headed home shortly after.
But the comment really bothered me.
Most of the time, when I am out and about with my boys, I get such kind comments from people. They say the nicest things about how well-behaved my kids are, or how great I’m doing directing so many kids on my own. They say things like, “You go, mama!” and “She’s got that down!” But all it took was one negative, nasty comment for me to feel the adrenaline pumping through my body. I felt eyes on me and had a huge inner dialogue going for hours afterwards. I told myself that it was just a nasty, grumpy comment. It was not accurate, and I should just let it roll off my back. But you know, it’s hard to do that. It makes me wonder, why are people so stinkin’ hard on moms?
Parenting styles differ as widely as different species of animals on this planet. Take into consideration generational gaps, and you have even more diversity. I try to understand this, to put myself in someone else’s shoes (hence the apology as I passed). I try so hard not to pass quick judgement on others’ parenting styles that may differ from my own when we are in public. It is easier for me to be sympathetic since I am in the thick of it with little ones myself. I know so many of us are just doing our best to get by. We are doing the best we can. We are doing what we think is right.
There are a few things I hold strong when I am in public with my boys. They are my cardinal rules, and for my kids, I do not waver on these points:
1. Respect others’ personal space
2. Stay where I can see you, unless I have given you permission otherwise
3. Use kind words
4. Wait your turn
Other than these rules, I try to give my boys a lot of freedom to explore, play, and discover. I want them to self-monitor their behavior in their space as much as possible. I believe that giving them space to explore and interact with people on their own terms helps them learn how to be good, capable people in this world. After all, they will be adults someday. But if they are infringing on others’ rights, I intervene. If they are doing something dangerous to themselves or others, I intervene.
Running, playing, squealing with joy, or being just generally active and excited does not elicit discipline from me. I tend to think that kids are naturally like this, and to squash their tendency to be this way is not so good for them. I want them to self-regulate as much as possible, to form their own inner dialogues and their own opinions about the world. I don’t want to guide and dictate to them every minute of the day. I also do not want them to behave like robots because they are afraid of me, or afraid of being spanked if they disobey. It’s not how I’ve chosen to parent.
I am not completely sure what the woman in the Science Center expected me to do when my four-year-old little boy was loud and boisterous (and probably really annoying) when he passed her. Perhaps she expected me to put him in time out? Spank him? Leave immediately? Duct tape his mouth shut?
I did what I do consistently: get down on his level, talk to him like he is a person with a brain and the ability to accept my feedback and make changes to his own behavior according to his age and level of ability, and release him to the wild again.
To make such a hurtful statement to a complete stranger about her entire ability as a mother, to say that someone is failing at being a mother is just such an extremely horrible (and horribly extreme) thing to say. And yet… she felt compelled to let me know that she, the random stranger, disapproved of me as a parent. There’s something about mothers in particular, that we, as a society, feel comfortable, if not compelled, to judge. Maybe it comes from an old urge to raise our children as a whole, as a village. When people used to step in and help or discipline because they all knew each other and knew what it took to raise a child right. I feel these urges all the time, but display them differently, view them differently.
At the zoo the other day, a mother with four young children (the youngest two only 17 months and 2 months old) was struggling getting her toddler to sit still during a live zoo show while she tended to her infant. I was sitting next to her and my boys were listening attentively (for once). When she got up to take her crying baby out, her toddler got up from her front-row seat and started heading toward the stage (only steps away and easy to climb up onto). I gently scooped her up and put her back onto her seat, whispering, “Stay here, sweetheart!” Her mama was back in seconds and was none the wiser. Instead of judging her as a mother, I empathized with her. I know how hard it is. They are kids. We are human.
In the age of hyper-critiques on motherhood, I want to stand by my fellow mamas in solidarity. I want to say YES! I get it. I am here with you, not against you. And when my kids are older, I hope I can remember how it is to wrangle three (or more) little ones by oneself in public. I hope not to roll my eyes when a young one runs by me, screaming with joy (or crying in despair). Instead, I hope to smile, laugh at my ability to be startled, and remember fondly the joy of being four.