It’s been a long time– too long maybe– since last I unleashed my fancy word-dicing ability upon a stranger. I am a little feisty in general, maybe even sassy, but on the whole I conduct myself the way I would want Maren and Gavin to conduct themselves. And today– truly– was no different.
I took my kids to Itasca State Park this morning, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been (and a definite addition to all y’all’s bucket lists). I came very prepared, because the last time I visited was a total Disaster From Mosquito Hell, and I am pretty sure I have PTSD from it.
There’s a million things to do at Itasca, but in general, I take my kids for a little trail walk to the Headwaters followed by a picnic lunch.
The Headwaters is a place that is unique. It’s a stream, basically, that comes out of Lake Itasca. What’s special about it is this stream is actually the Mississippi River. For real. The water I was splashing around in today will be in the Gulf of Mexico in like three months. They have the Headwaters set up so that you can walk on a bridge across it, ford the stream yourself, or climb over rocks.
Maren has been there about a hundred thousand times, is a fairly confident swimmer, and what we teachers like to refer to as a Good Listener. So I strapped her into a life jacket, gave her a few reminders (“if you fall down in the water, just stand up.”) Then I put Gavin in his life jacket, and the three of us splashed in.
This was Gavin’s first time in the river, as last summer he wasn’t walking yet. In general, he is the most dangerous combination of baby: he refuses to believe that his age and relatively small size and strength should be considered “limitations”… and he is not afraid of anything. Anything.
Things were going okay– I kept a firm hold on Gavin and one eye on Maren. A few times she slipped on the rocks and my heart was in my throat, but she remembered what I said. She just stood up, took a breath, and kept going. I was so proud of her when she made it to the other side, waved at me, and started back.
But– to be honest– Things started to go downhill fast, as these things tend to do. Gavin saw a bunch of fish. He slipped my hand and toddled merrily away. The water is not deep and the current is not strong, but even so, it swept his feet out from under him and my baby went cruising, face down, for the rocks.
I scooped him–sputtering and then howling– out of the water. I decided this was a good time to look at my clock– almost lunch. So I started yelling for Maren that it was time to make a quick exit.
Now, I think it’s fair to characterize Maren as a very good girl who, on occasion, likes to visit the Dark Side. This was one of those times. She heard me– her little golden head cocked to the side instinctively at the sound of my voice calling her name– and then she decided to pretend I didn’t exist.
So my slippery baby– still howling– and now terrified of the water, was begging to be out out out, climbing up my head like some Siamese cats I have known– and Maren was across the river acting like she was an orphan. So I reacted instinctively also– I got out my teacher voice. The classically trained opera singer voice. The voice that has saved countless preschoolers from running into the street and even one very determined second grade class from completely disappearing on a field trip to the botanical gardens. And boy howdy– I used it.
Maren stopped immediately and came splashing through the water, her shoulders raised and her face obviously abashed. I knew people were staring and I was blushing, but I pretended not to notice and told her to take off her sandals, rinse out the rocks, put on her shoes, and meet me by our bench.
I took Gavin to the bench and wrapped him in a towel, took off his trunks and started getting his clothes out of the bag when I heard the sound that turns all Mothers into Wild Animals. Maren, still in the water, was seriously screaming for help.
I turned around and couldn’t see her– my brain was reminding me that she was in a life jacket, and as long as I could hear her she must be okay– but there were so many people that I couldn’t see her. I was terrified that she had slipped and was somehow stuck.
I unceremoniously plopped Naked Gavin into his stroller– where he perched like a baby bird, clinging to the side, his long legs crunched underneath him, because I hadn’t actually set him in the seat the right way and he couldn’t figure out how to get his legs through the holes. I tore back through the crowd, and found Maren just where I had left her–bawling. I did a once-over to see where she was hurt, while she screamed that she was crying because she couldn’t get her damn sandals on her wet feet.
I will admit that i was angry. I could not believe that Maren had used her “i am in big trouble!” Voice when she wasn’t. But I helped her, stood her up, and turned around, already planning my sermon on Better Solutions for Small Problems. I was met by several stony faces watching me. Some looked away as I raised my eyes, but many– mostly women– were plain out gaping. One woman shook her head. I realized then that the crowd had gathered around Maren when she was screaming because they wanted to watch the spectacle, not because they thought she was in danger.
As I picked her up, one older lady with HUGE sunglasses and a visor (so, basically a Walking Stereotype) said to me– to my face, with my sniffling four year old in my arms,
“Why are you all alone? Don’t you think it’s pretty irresponsible to bring two young kids here by yourself?”
Oh yes. She did.
And Internet, I let her have it.
The audacity. The sheer nerve to tell a stressed-out, solo stranger that she is a bad mom. I have been working with kids for a long time, and every anti-bullying initiative that goes through addresses the wrong issue. Kids are bullies because adults are bullies. This lady was a bully, and this crowd was ripe for bullying. There is no such thing as an innocent bystander. No one was going to step forward and tell her to back off. No one was going to offer to help me, or ask if they could help Maren. Whether or not they agreed with her didn’t matter. The crowd was maybe not guilty, but certainly they were complicit. We are a society of people who would rather keep our heads down and stay out of things, and in so-doing we become accomplices to monstrous crimes.
But not today. Because this lady had picked the wrong runner in the Mompetition.
I am pretty proud of myself for having the presence of mind to put Maren down and tell her to go to the bench. I took two steps closer to that lady, and I kept my voice low. I looked right into her huge sunglasses, and said (you know… With a few colorful revisions…) this:
‘Why am I alone? Do you want to know the answer to that question? Is there any possible reason for me to be alone that would be acceptable to you, or would have made this situation more comfortable? Do you not realize there are about a million thousand reasons for a woman to be on her own with her kids, and NONE of them are irresponsible? What if I were a Dad with his two kids here– wouldn’t you be just gushing over how sweet a guy I was to bring the kids on my own?
Well I am on my own, about 98% of the time. It’s not how I prefer it, but it’s how it is. Does that mean my kids shouldn’t get to enjoy their summer? Should I deny them an experience that is awesome and amazing because it might be a nuisance or a handful?
Did you really think– at any time– that my kids were in any danger? I highly doubt it, considering you didn’t offer to hold my crying baby or to help my daughter with her shoes. Instead, you waited for a whole crowd to be around to point out some Nasty Idea you have in your own brain. Well, aren’t you Mother of the Year 1967? I must have missed that issue of Bat Shit Crazy magazine, where you decided to let all us solo moms know that we should be staying locked up, fenced in, and waiting patiently for SOMEONE to come and tie our shoes for us and give us permission to take our kids to the park. No thanks.
And you want to know the truth, lady (and all ladies)? My parenting style IN GENERAL rides in the zone between unmitigated fear and uncontainable joy ON THE DAILY, so yes, absolutely, I was scared that today was going to be a big mistake. But what would be ‘irresponsible’ would be letting that fear keep me from showing them the world. I don’t need your help judging and questioning and peddling hindsight like it’s your own patented invention. I am all stocked up.’
I marched back to my kids– straightened out poor Gavin and clothed them both, and then handed them both a banana and graham cracker and we started back to the car. I took my time, and it was a very quiet few moments, in which my chatterbox Maren, for once, had no questions. She just drank everything in with her big brown eyes.
I mean, we all get judged. And we all judge. There are times when I see some little girl throwing a total tantrum at a restaurant and I think, “Hm.” And look at my little angels– forgetting that just an hour before they were so wild I thought I might have a nervous breakdown. But how this lady got to be as old as she was and not realize that you CANNOT say things like that to people is absolutely beyond me. Bullying– and really, most social situations– are about an exchange of social currency. An exchange of power. This is why it seems like some kids just don’t succumb to bullying, even if the bullies try. Those kids don’t play the game. When you know who you are, and you are blissfully and courageously yourself, your power isn’t up for grabs. But even so, sometimes it’s necessary to push back when a Power Vampire shows up; to let them know that you get it. You’re on to their game. And sometimes when you win those battles, you win the next one for someone else, too. I can guarantee this lady won’t be picking on any strangers, at least for awhile. She’ll have to settle for terrorizing her own family for awhile.
As we were driving out of the park– Gavin already snoozing– Maren said, “Mom, I love you.”
“Thanks, pumpernickel. I love you, too.”
“Even when you are mad.” She clarified.
“Oh sweetie.” I said, feeling awful. “Of course I still love you, even if I am mad. And I wasn’t really mad at you today, I just needed your attention.”
“I know.” She said agreeably. “I mean that I love YOU. Sometimes grown ups ARE mad. Right?”
“Yes. Sometimes I am.” I said. And she replied, wisely,
“Well. I love you. Even when you fight.”
And that’s about as much of a stamp of approval as I need today. Or any day.