Here's what I wrote about the photo (apologies to those of you who already saw this. I have more to say): "I hate this photo so much. What the hell is wrong with people? Why is childish innocence such a hard thing to just accept and nurture? This woman should be locked in a haunted house with Freddy Kruger for a night. If I saw somebody try to scare Coraline like this, I'd flip the fuck out and this bitch would find a grandmama bear climbing up her lion-headed ass. I really hope she isn't this baby's mother."
After a short conversation in the comments, I remembered just how hard it really is to protect kids from people who are threatening them, especially when it's a mother who's doing the threatening. I remembered how helpless I felt when I couldn't.
My friend and I did what women friends do. We went to the lady's room together. It was the only quiet place in the restaurant. We were talking and laughing as we washed our hands. We saw each other in real life so seldom, and shared so much online. We were happy about the day, and sad it was over.
As we laughed about something, a young black woman, a mother, came in dragging a crying three-year-old by her arm. She shoved the child into a stall, already screaming threats at her. She slammed the door shut and locked it.
I can only paraphrase what she said, because it's been enough years I don't remember exactly. It was something like, "I am going to beat you so hard. How dare you do that do me? How dare you? You are going to wish you'd never fucking been born....." It was brutal language.
Another woman who had come in behind us, quickly washed her hands, looked at us with what could only be a mixture of disgust and guilt, and hurried out the door.
My friend and I stayed. We were frozen, eyes locked, trying somehow through telepathy to figure out what the fuck to do.
In the meantime, the young mother continued shouting and threatening her child, "How dare you hit me in there? You fucking hit me and now I'm going to hit you so much harder. You'll never hit me again. Stop crying! Either you stop or I'll do it right here....." In that vein.
We didn't hear her hit the child. Only threaten to. And the little girl stopped crying when she was ordered to. Three years old and she stopped crying on command so she wouldn't get it worse. I hadn't mastered that by three.
My friend and I made some noise. Cleared our throats. Rattled our paper towels. The shouting and threatening continued for .... you know, it was probably seconds, and not hours as it seemed.
Just as I thought I might make a move, say something, threaten to call the police, the door to the bathroom stall opened and the mother dragged the child out again. She wasn't crying. As she walked by us, the mother glared at both of us as if to say, "What the fuck are you doing to do about it?" And they left.
My friend and I looked at each other in disbelief, tears in our eyes. And for me it was more disbelief that I had witnessed such a thing and done nothing than that I'd heard it happen. I got some pretty rough treatment myself as a child; I've written about that once before. I can barely write about this incident without ducking, wanting to run, my gut clenched with anticipation, waiting for the hit.
That's no excuse. I'm not a child now.
I'm not sure which one of us broke the silence. "Shit. How did that just happen right in front of us and we didn't do anything?"
Why indeed? We're both mama bears. Both fiercely protective of our own kids, any kids. We were furious as it was happening, flooded with adrenaline ... and apparently, helpless to protect a child from her mother.
We went back to our table and told the story. The other family had left, I think -- the one with the mother and child. We both thought we would only have made things worse for the little girl if we'd said anything. The mother was furious. Two older white women interrupting would only have made her madder.
And yes, we agreed it was possible race was an issue. That the mother might have been more embarrassed, angrier at her daughter, because we were white and she was black. That we considered that as we stood there doing nothing. But neither of us thought we would have intervened if the mother had been white either. We just had to be honest and say it mattered. Why not. We couldn't feel worse.
Because that experience pretty much stripped us bare of the illusion of control and protectiveness that was so much a part of us it was our very skin. Both of us felt so .... I'm not sure there's a word for the shock and shame we felt that we had witnessed a child being abused and said not one fucking word to stop it. Not one fucking word. I'm not sure how my friend felt. I felt like everything I knew about myself as a mother had been stripped off me and all that was left was my own cowardice.
And yet ..... we tried to think what we should have done. What we would do if it ever happened again. And we couldn't think of a damn thing. It's OK if you judge us. We did too. But we couldn't think of anything we could have done different that would have made the outcome more positive.
The bottom line was that we knew we couldn't stop it, but we could make it worse. Or we thought we could. The mother didn't hit the child, at least not in that bathroom stall. She didn't do anything illegal. I didn't need my social work degree to know that. But it was abuse. Of that I have no doubt. It's just not the kind that's illegal.
And had we embarrassed her in front of her child, she probably would have done more than shout when they got home. As far as we could tell, once she made the little girl cry and then made her stop, she was satisfied. No way to know.
I cried a good part of the long drive home that night. I lay awake many nights obsessing over what I could have done to make a difference. I imagined myself ripping the door open, grabbing that little girl into my arms and giving the mother a dose of her own medicine. I even imagined handing the child to my friend and beating the shit out of that young mother.
I more often imagined saying, kindly and gently, "Sounds like you're having a rough evening. Anything I can do to help?" And that my friend and I, being the amazing, nurturing women we are, would talk to her and help her see there are better ways to deal with kids and anger. We would fix everything with empathy and experience.
I imagined calling the police, and telling them she had .... what? Yelled at her daughter for hitting her back in the restaurant? Threatened to hit her, but hadn't. I could imagine how that would sound.
I've been indulging in a Sons of Anarchy marathon while I've been recuperating from food poisoning, and I thought, What would Gemma do? She'd stomp the shit out of somebody, is what she'd do. She'd tear the paper towel dispenser off the wall and slam it into young mother's face. Then she'd get really close and threaten to find her and do worse if it ever happened again. And you'd believe it would never happen again. Fiction. Life doesn't work like that.
Much as I chewed and gnawed on that incident, I couldn't think of one goddamn thing I could have done to help that little girl. And it's small comfort to know she can go through shit like that, come out the other side, and still become a different kind of mother. One who doesn't threaten violence or worse. I did.
She shouldn't have to.
So while I like to put up a big, tough, earth mother front about what I'd do if I saw a child being abused -- like in the photo above or worse -- what I know, both from my life and from being a social worker -- is that even the most fierce warriors of the matriarchy sometimes just watch and feel helpless. Even I just stood and felt helpless.
Really the only comfort I have is that my friend is a big, tough mama who doesn't back down from a fight. We're both like that. And if neither of us could think of another way we could have acted, maybe it's one of those situations where we did the best we could and it will never be enough.
Funny, isn't it? What a photo of a woman in a lion head scaring a baby will dredge up?
It's OK if you judge. I have all these years. I still do.