‘Hey,’ says a man on the street. I look up from my phone, he continues talking but I can’t understand a word he is saying. I grab my eldest’s hand as we are moving from the roadworks onto what is a busy street and look at him puzzled.
‘Get off your phone,’ he says in English, gesticulating at my daughter and the busy street.
‘Excuse me?’ I ask, confused and surprised at his vehemence.
‘You, you’re dangerous. It’s a busy street, you should be watching.’
‘I didn’t ask for your opinion, Sir.’ I offer, turning away.
‘I should report you to the police,’ he continues, his face screwed up tightly, his eyes bulging at me like a pit bull.
‘Go on then,’ I say, holding my daughter’s hand more tightly now. I watch the man walk off continuing to rant and gesticulate wildly, outraged at my audacity. I wish I’d been composed enough to say to the man ‘please don’t attack my self-worth, I don’t have a lot of it to spare.’ I wish too, that he’d have been able to hear that and respond with empathy. But empathy was not being served.
Adrenaline surges through my body and I feel weak in the knees. I wasn’t putting her in danger, I tell myself, I was looking for directions, and I was watching the road. But a seed of doubt is planted. And I feel guilty and bad, and dangerous, and not at all good enough for the responsibility of motherhood.
Never mind the fact that my daughter is 5 and capable of crossing the street on her own, I’ve spent months, years, teaching her. Never mind the fact that he had no idea what I was actually doing, he has looked at the situation, decided he knows exactly what is happening and feels entitled to not only make a comment but to insist that the way he is seeing it is the only right way to see the situation.
What is it about having children that make us community property? Or is it just that I notice it more since having children. It’s like high school all over again. But instead of people gossiping about how drunk you got and whether or not you let some boy go to too many bases at a party, it’s whether or not you are a good mother, and by extension a good person. I don’t recall any of the boys at school being harangued for being ‘slutty’ or ‘too easy’ or any other of the variations that were volleyed around on the same theme.
I ask my husband if he gets stopped in the street and told he is a bad father? He looks genuinely perplexed. ‘No, people just tell me what a good father I am.’ Oh, dare to dream! I think I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve been told that, and mostly just by women I am close to. I’ve certainly not heard it from a stranger. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for a medal for what I do, just some equality, and maybe some curiosity. How much more time does it take to ask if someone needs a hand, or if they are in fact being neglectful, rather than deciding in an instant that they are.
To be fair sometimes, I can be complacent, and I have to acknowledge that. A few weeks ago, I took my daughter indoor rock climbing. It was her third time. On this occasion, she was exploring falling off the rocks and hanging by the rope, learning that she wouldn’t fall. In the process, she discovered the rope made a good swing. She’d been swinging around on the rope for some time, and my phone had beeped several times. So without thinking I picked it up and looked at it. I took one hand off the rope – the rope was locked off and I could hold it with one hand. I checked the messages, nothing about my other daughter, and nothing of interest, certainly nothing to warrant me not paying attention like that. But I didn’t think twice about it, not until one of the staff asked me to keep both hands on the rope at all times and to not look at my phone while she was climbing. She didn’t say anything about me as a mother (although I had plenty to say on that front inside my own head), nor did she make a point of saying it loudly so anyone else would hear. Guilt lit my circuits on fire, and I worked for the rest of the day, the week, and even now not to completely tear strips off myself or shame myself for my carelessness.
Sometimes I can be complacent, and a friendly reminder can be helpful. When we focus on the action and meet the person with empathy, the guilt inspired can be powerfully motivating. Shame on the other hand, with its aggressive, accusatory overtones makes me want to both, hide and to attack the other person. It’s as if, somehow, my very survival is suddenly at stake. I no longer consider them as a fellow human being struggling on their own path, and I know they are not considering me that way.
So what do we do, when strangers feel it’s okay to talk to us that way? I don’t know. I’m getting better at sensing when it is coming, I think. When I sensed the woman at the post office was angry that I hadn’t controlled the three young children I had with me, and asked me if they were mine, I told her politely that it was none of her business. I wasn’t rude but I knew she was going to use it against me. She used it against me anyway. When she told me I needed to do better, I explained that I was doing the best I could. She told me I was not doing my best. And that it was not good enough. I told her I had come to the post office to post a letter and not for her judgment, but if she was concerned about my children she was welcome to ask us to leave. She did not, instead, she told me that her children never behaved this way. I smiled at her sweetly, and let the girls tear around her shop. I’d like to say I’m not proud of it, but actually, I am.
Brene Brown believes that ‘shame is much more likely to be the source of dangerous, destructive, and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.’ I’d be inclined to agree. All of my behaviors from that point on in the interaction showed as much empathy as hers had shown me. And neither one us left that interaction feeling very good.