A few months ago I had a pretty rough parenting experience. I considered writing about the situation back then, but eventually decided to push it out of my mind - rather than document it - in an effort to simply forget it ever happened. (I have an unpleasant physical reaction EVERY time I think about the encounter. My fingers are trembling and my heart is racing even as I type this post.) But as time has passed, I have found myself not only unable to forget, but continuously troubled. I want to move on, and since forgetting isn't happening or helping me do so, I'm going to give writing about it a try.
Dear "Abby" (AKA Chasing Roots Readers),
I regularly take Will and Hallie to the park near our house so I can walk around the track for exercise while they play. The track passes the playground on one side, so while I can see the kids and they can see me throughout the entire 1/3-mile loop, I can't easily communicate with them until I reach the side of the track closest to the playground.
On this particular day, I could see Will and Hallie playing and could also see - and hear - that they had begun to disagree about something. I watched as Will repeatedly tried to put his soccer ball in Hallie's bike basket, and listened as Hallie screamed (her frustrated voice always comes out as a scream - we're working on it) for him to stop. At one point, Hallie swung a hand in Will's direction and he knocked her bike over as he tried to dodge her outstretched arm. I knew I would have to pause my walk to help them address this problem and planned to do so, but the situation was in no way serious enough for me to leave the track and sprint across the soccer field in their direction.
As I rounded the corner, I saw a woman walking through the park with her dog change direction toward the kids. She started yelling at/to Hallie, "just run away from him! Just run away!" in a somewhat panicked voice. I continued walking toward the kids and this woman, and in an attempt to diffuse the situation, politely called out, "it's ok, they're siblings. They bicker from time to time." The woman turned to me with a horrified look on her face, took a visible breath, and shot in my direction, "she's TERRIFIED of him! He's BULLYING her!"
The woman's use of the word bullying, especially when I knew this was a case of siblings arguing about something ridiculous, rubbed me the wrong way but I remained calm...apparently too calm for this woman's taste. When I replied, "no, she's not terrified of him. They're brother and sister, and sometimes they fight. I'm right here and I'll take care of it," she LOST HER MIND.
The woman marched over to me and after getting right up in my face, started yelling at me. She claimed I was "nowhere to be found"* which is why she had to step in and stop my "awful son"** from bullying my "poor defenseless daughter"***. She called me a "bitch", a "fat cow", and a "horrible mother". I stood there - in complete shock - and took it, only because I had no idea what else to do and I shrink (and eventually cry) during confrontations.
* I wasn't "no where to be found". I was close enough to Will and Hallie to see and hear what they were doing, and I was walking toward them with the intention of stepping in and helping them work out their issue when she started yelling at/to Hallie.
** Will is anything but awful. He may pick on his sister and they may bicker/argue/fight, but I know - I KNOW - that Will would defend Hallie with every ounce of his strength and wit if anyone else ever tried to hurt her.
** Hallie is anything but poor and defenseless, and to assume to as much simply because she's a petite girl infuriated me. She may not be made of muscle, but she's strong and fast and smart and LOUD and would fight like a girl - in the best possible way - if she needed to do so.
Eventually the woman stormed off, leaving me - and my kids, who saw the confrontation occur but thankfully didn't hear the names she called me - in tears.
I sat down with Will and Hallie at the picnic table and we had a lengthy conversation about the encounter. I explained that while this woman's behavior was not their fault, their behavior - which they considered "everyday and benign" - had ultimately led to what happened. We talked about how people perceive situations differently, and about how even though this woman had misunderstood their bickering as something much worse and overreacted in her treatment of me, perhaps her life experiences had led her to assume bullying rather than sibling bickering. I went back to walking and they went back to playing.
The woman came back, this time without her dog. (I mention that she returned without her dog to point out that she hadn't gotten halfway home and made a split-second decision to turn around. She had gone all the way home, dropped off her dog, and walked all the way back to the park with a plan to attack me again.) She once again stomped up to me, this time to call me all three of the names mentioned above and tell me that for the rest of her life, 1) she would never again interfere if she saw a child being bullied and 2) the ramifications of her not stepping in to curb bullying would be my fault and "on me". I finally mustered the courage to say something, and as she stormed off for the second time, I squeaked out, "I hope you find somewhere else to direct your anger." She spun around and yelled, "I AM NOT AN ANGRY PERSON. I'M ONLY ANGRY AT YOU" before leaving the park for good.
I have never felt worse about myself as a parent - EVER - than I did that day.
I tried to put myself in the woman's shoes. What would I have done if I'd seen two kids - who looked likely to be siblings and whose mother was approaching - fighting? I can't say for certain, but I like to think I would have calmly offered to help the kids iron out their disagreement rather than screaming at the girl to run away. I like to think I would have offered the mother my support rather than my criticism. I know I wouldn't have called anyone any names, especially not such offensive names and within earshot of children.
I also tried to give the woman the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps she had been bullied - or worse, in an abusive relationship - and seeing two kids fighting triggered an involuntary reaction. Perhaps she was having a bad day (a bad week...a bad year) and she took it out on me.
But for someone who claimed to care so much about preventing bullying and protecting people from bullies...I couldn't help but continuously circle back around to the fact that she treated me as horrendously as I've ever been treated by another adult. I certainly felt bullied that day.
In all honesty, I think I might need to visit a therapist about this situation. I haven't taken my kids back to the park alone - I took them once but with my mom, sister, niece, and nephew - since that day, partially because the temperature outside is approximately 1,700 degrees, but also because I worry about running into this woman again. (I saw her near the park another day while out walking alone, so I know she lives nearby.) I worry about my kids running into her while walking to or from school, and I worry about my friends' kids - or any kids, for that matter - encountering her as well.
Since that day at the park, I have also started worrying far more about how my kids behave in public. I don't allow - nor have I ever allowed - Will and Hallie to misbehave or treat others disrespectfully, and I step in when they need my help controlling their emotions, working out problems, or taking a break from one another. I do, however, allow Will and Hallie to behave like kids. I let them be silly and rowdy and dramatic and even loud if the environment can support that kind of behavior. And because I want them to eventually learn how to calm down, settle a disagreement, and/or walk away from a contentious situation without my help, I always let them try on their own before I insert myself.
But now, I step in more quickly. I get frustrated with them more quickly because I'm worried about who's watching and what they're thinking and what they're going to say or do if my children aren't behaving the way a particular stranger thinks they're "supposed to" behave. Long story short, I am now much more paranoid about how I parent in public and I don't like it one bit.
So therapy in the traditional sense then? It's probably in the cards.
In the meantime, I share all of this today because writing about difficult situations - and hearing suggestions from moms about how I can best move forward after they happen - is a version of therapy for me. So if you have any suggestions...please share. What would you have done that day? What would you do now?
A Changed Mom