The things that will never make it in the baby books and other musings from a stay at home mom

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The opposite of a drive-by

It had been a long day, but the last hour of it had seemed the longest. I had spent the better part of the past twenty minutes trying to hustle Julia through a post-swimming lesson shower at the Y and my nerves were all but shot. After waiting through the whole lesson and the shower that followed, Evan had been sitting in a stroller for far too long and he wasn't afraid to tell me so. Julia was tired from her class, a situation that was manifesting itself in some of the most difficult behavior she knows how to display. Every one of my requests to participate in the shower process had been met with a flat "no." The simplest tasks were taking her five minutes to complete. She was being whiny and stubborn and altogether unpleasant. The temptation to simply leave her naked in the locker room and walk out of the building alone was frighteningly strong. I frankly wasn't even sure I wanted to bring Evan with me.

Child abandonment clearly wasn't an option, so I had no choice but to grit my teeth and finish getting Julia dressed. After her hair was dry (a nearly impossible task since she refused to stay within 10 feet of the blow dryer I was trying to aim at her head), I handed her coat to her and started to help Evan put his on. As I struggled to get his arms in the holes without releasing him from the stroller that I knew I'd never be able to get him back into if he escaped, a woman I'd never seen before caught my eye. Her kids were years older than mine, and she was simply sitting on a bench waiting for them to get dressed. If I'd had the time to think about it, I would have been incredibly envious.

"You're very patient with them," she told me.

I couldn't hide my shock. Hadn't she heard me snapping at Julia and begging Evan to stay put? Here I was entertaining fantasies of leaving my children alone to fend for themselves in this world and a stranger was lauding my patience? "Are you KIDDING me?" The words were out of my mouth before I could even consider them.

She smiled. "The way you talk to them..." she began. "You're very patient," she repeated as her kids appeared from their dressing rooms, all ready to go. And with that, she was gone.

I finished getting everyone into their coats and we all headed for the car. Julia was still whining and Evan was still squawking, but all of the sudden, I had a smile on my face. I heard myself thanking Evan for waiting so nicely for Julia and promising Julia a snack as soon as we got home. They both perked up a little bit. I was listening more to what they were really saying, I realized, and responding more to their needs. All of the sudden, I was being patient with my kids. And all because I was trying to live up to a stranger's perception of me.

Judgment flies fast and furious among mothers of young children. "Can you believe she's giving that kid a pacifier? He looks like he's almost THREE," we whisper to each other in the grocery store. "Do you know how much SUGAR is in that muffin she just gave her child," we mutter in coffee shops. "Thank God it's not my kid screaming like that," we think to ourselves as we silently watch other parents trying to calm tantruming two year olds in restaurants. As mothers struggling with unfamiliar situations, unreliable youngsters and more than a bit of uncertainty to begin with, these critical looks and comments often wound more than they should. However innocent their origin, such judgments can make us increasingly doubtful and defensive about our parenting decisions and skills, and that self-doubt can translate to some really lousy parenting. But in that moment in the locker room, I saw clearly how easily the opposite can be true. If we build each other up instead of cut each other down, if we show each other a bit of the respect that we all deserve for our work as parents, maybe we've got a better shot at being our best. And maybe our kids have a better shot at getting the best we have to offer.

I don't know what it was on my face or in my words that made that woman decide to compliment my parenting instead of judging me for my kids' misbehavior. But in doing so, she made me a better parent. I'd like to think that if she thought at all about the exchange when she went home that day, she recognized how much her words meant to me. And I hope she felt inspired to be a better parent herself.


At 2:16 PM, Blogger Steph said...

Thank YOU for putting the lesson out here for the rest of us. It's definitely far too infrequent that we compliment others on their parenting. It just seems so much easier to critique.

I've struggled with my patience lately. You bringing it up here reminded me again that I need to keep working at it, and give my kids the best that I can.

Thanks :)

At 9:07 PM, Blogger Dana said...

What a wonderful post and what a wonderful thought for today. I have found that when I'm at my wits end, its only by stopping looking at the situation as a stranger would, that helps me gain a little perspective (and become horrified, frankly.) Thanks, I needed that.

At 9:47 PM, Anonymous Gretchen C. said...

Couldn't you have kissed her? I had almost exactly the same experience in Idyllwild last March when Ben and I took Sam and Matt out to dinner at the nicest restaurant in town, and they acted like, well, Sam and Matt. As we finally left, a grandmotherly lady who had been sitting at a nearby table passed us and said to me, "You're a wonderful mother." Just when I'd spent the past hour silently vowing never to leave the house with them again! Bless those women for telling us exactly what we needed to hear, exactly when we needed to hear it.

At 9:13 AM, Blogger Joy said...

I'm so glad you posted this as patience is one of the hardest things for me. It's helpful to know that others struggle with this at times as well.

And thank God for women like the one who complimented you! I had a similar situation a couple years ago after a flight from Vancouver back to MN. Toddlers and planes do not mix unless the child is sleeping ;-) After the flight, a woman came up to me and said "I just want to tell you what a wonderful job you did on the flight." Talk about an ego boost!

I will always remember that and I'm definitely going to have to remember to follow her example.

At 7:13 AM, Blogger Kristy said...

My mother, of all people, is "guilty" of doing this for me. She and I are of very different parenting styles, and yet she will definitely take the time to tell me I'm doing things right -- by no means, her way, but, right by another way. It means all the more to me coming from her.


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