As published in the Rye Record on January 22, 2016
I saw a woman leaving the YMCA yesterday with a baby strapped to her chest, another, slightly larger one in a stroller, and a three year old holding her hand. She was infested with small children. I stopped to watch. How in the world are they going to make it to their car, I wondered. How is she going to cross the great abyss between where she is right now and bedtime?
When they got close enough, I could hear that the three year old was trying to make a scene. I say “trying to make a scene,” because he was waging war against his mother, and she was refusing to participate. With a steady gait and an even expression, she ignored him. It was the most spectacular moment in parenting I have ever seen. This woman, who I imagine lives in a shoe, should teach a seminar.
It seemed that I had walked in on the one-sided battle late. The three year old was saying, “You’re so mean to me” over and over again. I tried to think back to all of the things I would have said in this situation when I had toddlers to defend myself against. “I’m mean??” I would have started. “You’re the one who…” But she said nothing, and without a reaction from his mother, this kid was firing blanks.
He tried a new approach. “I’m freezing. I don’t even have any pockets.” To which his mother responded, “Oh, that’s too bad. You should have brought a jacket with pockets.” There was not a hint of sarcasm in her voice. She said this in the tone you would use to say, “I think I’m going to wear my blue sweater today.” The cold weather was not going to turn into an emotionally charged subject either.
There before me was a new existential question of parenting: If a child has a fit in the parking lot and his mother doesn’t react, did he really have a fit at all?
Pound for pound, a small child has more power in a public place than an adult. Small children have the advantage over the rest of us in that they are loud and they are not self-conscious. It’s a lethal combination. A temper tantrum at home can be tuned out. A temper tantrum on a full flight cannot.
For this reason, I bow my head out of respect when I encounter a two year old on an airplane. No one outside the cockpit has more control over how this flight’s going to go than this pretty little creature with the Hello Kitty backpack. I smile at her panicked parents in solidarity. They try not to make eye contact, embarrassed because we are about to find out what a beast their child is. I pray that they’re armed with markers, snacks and Benadryl.
The child hurling himself on the floor of the cereal aisle is exposing our worst insecurities to the eyes of strangers. Those eyes might actually be sympathetic or amused, but in them we only see confirmation of the truth we’ve suspected all along: We’re pretty much doing everything wrong. It was downright reckless of them to let us leave the hospital with a baby. Chances are we’ve ruined him already, so we might as well just give him the Froot Loops.
The key to our parking lot heroine’s success is that she was decidedly not self-conscious. She was aware that I had stopped in my tracks to watch this scene, riveted. But in the same way she wasn’t going to hand her power over to her three year old, she wasn’t going to hand it over to me either. If could go back in time and give my young-mother self one quality, it would be that ability to hold on to my power.
As they got in the car, the child threatened, “When we get home I’m going to my room!” His mother replied, “I think that’s a wonderful idea.” Checkmate.