To the woman who phone-shamed me when I was out with my kids:
It had been a long day. I was in desperate need of a nap.
The chronic pain I experience left me tossing and turning and with not much quality sleep to my name that day. Yet I managed to make it through my workday and head off to pick up my youngest son from preschool.
He was tired, which means his listening ears were off. But being tired wasn’t going to stop him from being his silly 4-year-old self. We made it to the public library to pick up my oldest son, who wasn’t ready to go. We set off inside to find him, and my preschooler led the charge.
“Shhh!” I said as he shouted his brother’s name walk-running past the librarians at the circulation desk. For me, the tension was already high. The text messages I’d received from my oldest son earlier that day hinted that it hadn’t been a good day for him.
I forgot to call his counselor! In my home, we talk things out. If there are things my son doesn’t want to talk to me about, I make him an appointment to talk to a counselor. It was the first thing he was going to ask me about, and I knew it. I was right. When we finally collected him from the computer room, he reminded me to call his counselor.
“I’m on it. I’ll do it right now!”
As we made our way back to the front of the library and back past the circulation desk, my 4-year-old started picking up speed. “Freeze!” I screamed. And it worked, long enough for me to dig in my purse for my cellphone and search my contacts. He had slowed down and was only a few feet ahead of me rounding the corner, still within my eyesight. That’s where we came into contact with you.
You were coming from the library entryway where we were headed to exit. You didn’t know what was going on in the minutes before, and I’m not sure that it even matters. You stopped in your tracks, looked at my child and spoke to him, with me a few feet directly behind him. “Where is your adult?” you asked him. You were a stranger, and so he didn’t answer you, but I did. “I’m his adult,” I said as I pressed the green call button on my cellphone.
“Well, I didn’t see an adult,” she said. “There’s no one holding his hand. Maybe if you would get off your phone.”
Your words cut. Your words and your actions suggested that I was making a frivolous call and that call was somehow putting my 4-year-old in danger. Your actions suggested that I was ignoring the needs of my kid, when in fact I was tending to the needs of two kids while neglecting my own needs. The judgment you unleashed upon me, a complete stranger to you, stayed with me for a while — cutting away at my confidence as a mom. That is, until I decided to do something else with those feelings.
Now, whenever I see a mother being pulled in five different directions with children doing what children do best, being children, I share a smile — maybe even a witty one-liner about how tough parenting is. I hope to communicate through my actions that I see her. I know what it’s like, and those kids, the ones crying for fruit snacks or walk-running a few steps ahead of her, are going to be OK.
She’s not somehow ruining them by giving something or someone else a few seconds of her attention on her phone. She shouldn’t have to worry that total strangers are judging her parenting based on a two-minute encounter involving a cellphone. I refuse to contribute to a culture that demonizes anything a mother does that any person should be allowed to do.
My wish for you is that you learn to do the same. The truth is, there’s a lot you don’t know about the mothers and the children you’ll come across in this life and what they are dealing with.