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December 16, 2008

Parenting in Public

9 “If you can’t behave, I will put you in the stroller and use the buckles,” I said to then-three year old Caleb, in my best mommy-is-angry-but-still-calm voice. Not calm enough, however, for a woman who walked by at that exact moment, her head whipping around to see the violent mommy who was threatening her child with buckles. If she’d turned any faster to look at me, she probably would’ve fallen over. 

Satisfied that I wasn’t breaking any child welfare laws, at least not that second, the woman walked on, while I shoveled the whining Caleb into the stroller, hoping he’d stay put without me having to wrestle the stroller staps across his surprisingly sturdy little body. What was he angry about? I don’t even remember now; I just remember the glare this complete stranger shot at me, totally sure that she’d witnessed a woman on the verge...

Now okay, I’m willing to cop to the occasional bad parenting moment, but I have never (yet) beaten my children, with or without a buckled instrument; and yes, I know, my child should always have his stroller straps fastened when he’s in the stroller, lest he flop out on his nose when we hit a bump. And yes, probably he’s old enough to walk on his own but then we would have to: stop to pet all the dogs; wait for the actual “walk” light to cross the street instead of zipping across when there’s a break in traffic; tap each bar in the wrought-iron fence of Stuyvesant Square...and suddenly the ten-minute walk to his brother’s school would take forty minutes.There are days when walking (slowly) together in the city is a marvelous adventure and a learning experience, but more often than not, unfortunately, it’s let’s go let’s go let’s go we’re going to be late! Thus, the stroller.

I don’t envy my suburban friends with the mini-vans (or the convertible BMWs, ala Rebecca Rodskog’s post about driving in LA): all that in-and-out with the car seat buckles (there’s a place in hell reserved for car-seat manufacturers, none of whom, I suspect, have children), the endless search for parking – it makes me anxious.I look at suburban friends and think “god, you have to drive everywhere!” And they, of course, look at me, and think “you're taking the subway?”

But the benefit to the suburban automotive life – something that perhaps the Big Three might want to consider as a marketing strategy as they re-tool their industry in hopes of surviving to 2009 – is the car as Safe House.The mini-van is like Las Vegas: what happens there, stays there.  You yell at your kids to stop hitting each other? They scream that they hate you and each other? Fits of inconsolable wailing because the last Christmas cookie, the one you kindly remembered to bring for a snack, is broken?

Tough shit. As long as the windows are rolled up, it’s your own little rolling fiefdom in which you reign supreme – and there aren’t any witnesses.

Parenting in New York is just so...public. You’re on, lady, at all times – particularly if you’re handling young children: “Shouldn’t he have a hat?” “Still with a pacifier - he looks too old for that" “You should be holding his hand.” “You should really fasten those straps.” On and on it goes, an endless minefield of “should.” Let’s not even talk about the fabulous experience of having your kid cough and cough so hard that he vomits – right into his own lap, dribbling into his shoes, and onto the floor of the pharmacy (because of course, the vomiting had to happen inside, not outside on the sidewalk, where at least I wouldn’t have to pretend to try to wipe it up).

One morning, after Liam told me that I was the world’s worst mother and that he hated me, I told him that he could carry his own backpack to school. He put it on and we continued down the sidewalk, with him shuffling and snuffling behind me, telling me that it was SO UNFAIR and that I was SO MEAN. As we waited for the light to change, a woman told me I was being abusive and that my child was in pain and why didn’t I do something to help him?

Initially I thought she was a fellow mom-in-suffering, so I tried the “mmm, well, it's been one of those mornings, you know..." but she wasn’t interested in camaraderie, nosirree. She railed at me for half a block, with the only upside being that Liam was so fascinated by her nuttiness that he forgot to hate me and by the time we got to school, he had forgiven me whatever sins I had committed.

I know that woman had probably forgotten her meds or something, and that I’ll never see her again, just like I’ll never see the witnesses to Liam’s drug-store vomiting, or the woman who thought I was threatening to beat Caleb if he didn’t behave. Truth be told, realizing that there’s always an audience can sometimes stop a person from going completely batshit if, say, hypothetically, her children were poking each other harder and harder and harder as they walked home and then one cried and the other whined and then it started to rain, which ratcheted the complaining decibels way up...

Then again, if I had a mini-van and were tooling around in the ‘burbs, it wouldn’t matter if it rained. Or if they screamed, or if I screamed. Because you know what?

No one can hear you scream in a mini-van.


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