Monday, August 27, 2012

Even the fiercest mothers....

I posted a photo on the Facebook page for Reticulated Writer today of an adult woman wearing a big lion mask, fingers curled into claws, apparently trying to scare a baby who is at most a year old. The photo appears to have been taken right before the baby reacts. Here it is.


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.

Years ago when I was still homeschooling the kids, we met some friends who live near Chicago at the Indianapolis Children's Museum for a day trip. The mom was (and still is) a close online friend, and my son Drake was good friends with her daughter. After a long day of playing at the museum, we all went out to dinner at someplace that might have been Cracker Barrel. It was one of those restaurants with shit for sale and too many people packed into the dining room.

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.

Wouldn't it?

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.


  1. Replies
    1. I guess we saw people describe much worse on the homeschool boards. We just didn't have to see or hear it in action.

  2. The hardest lesson I've had to learn, and am still learning, is that I can't save the world. I do my best when and where I can.

    1. I know you're right. There will always be those times when you think you should have been able to do better.

  3. I deal with this struggle - or some version of this struggle - Monday through Friday of every single week. That feeling of doing all you can, and still knowing it's not even a drop in the bucket just sucks. I do everything I can do, and it just has to be enough.

    And yet, last weekend I was in Wal-Mart and the woman in front of me was announcing to everyone around her (loudly and obnoxiously) that the children with her were not her biological children, they were foster children, and that she thought it was ridiculous for the state to keep children together, because she would have preferred that the twins she's fostering be separated. She then looked right in the face of the 7 or 8 year old boys and said, "that's right, I want you guys pulled apart so you can get your #*$& together. You're too much for anybody. And I'm going to tell people that, too." She went on in this manner, and I became more and more upset...

    But I didn't say anything.

    Me, who acts on this stuff and confronts it head on every single day...I didn't say a damn thing. Didn't do anything at all. I just stood there and watched those poor kiddos take it.

    I don't really believe in god, or in prayer...but sometimes, I really think the best you can do is to walk away holding the child's face in your heart.

    1. Hard to call it a best, isn't it? But that brings up just one more problem I have with turning people in: the foster care system isn't necessarily better than an abusive parent. While there are some wonderful, caring, eventually to be burnt out parents in the foster system, there are also way too many abusive pieces of shit like the one you saw. Too many kids go from a bad situation with someone they at least know and love to a worse one with strangers. Or relatives. I wish we had better answers.

  4. While it's perhaps too light for the current vein, I totally want to get you a shirt that says "WWGTD? What would Gemma Teller Do?" on the front, and SOA Matriarch on the back.


    1. I want that shirt! Black, and make sure it shows some cleavage. I suppose I'll have to start packing pistols, a couple in my purse and one in my van. For some people, it's a good thing I don't.

  5. I'm going to make a confession here. When I was a younger mother, I spanked. A swat on the leg or butt. Occasionally...actually, rarely, and it seemed huge & terrible when I did. I always felt awful. And one day I vowed that I would never, ever hit one of my children again. And I didn't. And when I took that option out forever, it opened the door for better, kinder, much more effective ways to respond to my children's behavior. That's another story. As are any stories I have about other mothers' abusive actions.

    The story I want to tell, the story that makes me ashamed to this day is about ME being the raging mom. It's about leaving a full cart of groceries in the store and dragging my son Shaun out to the car, where I yelled at him and reached over and smacked his upper leg. Hard.

    And a little old lady appeared at my window and wailed "Doooooooon't! Don't hit that child!"
    And I was rude and mean and snarly to her. I probably said something like 'this is my child and it's none of your business'

    And a man I presume was her son, came up to gently lead her away, arm protectively around her and said to me, just as gently "Don't talk to her like that. It IS her business -she has a heart." And walked away.

    I've never forgotten how brave that woman was to confront me, though,and between her and her son, they effectively stopped my angry tirade at Shaun. I felt small and remorseful.

    I'd like to say that's the day that made hitting my children Not An Option Ever, but it wasn't that day. It probably took me way closer to it though.

    One way or the other, being the witness to or the perpetrator of violence...there's a lot of wishing we'd done better....

  6. Thank you for telling this story, which is so hard for me to imagine, Zann. I remember you wading into a swimming pool with all your clothes on because you thought Patrick was in trouble in the water. We all have bad mommy stories, but this certainly doesn't define you as a mother.

    I swatted my kids a couple of times too. It felt awful. First because I don't like hitting people, especially those I love most in the world. And second because I have a temper I keep tightly buttoned down. I never want to lose it with my kids. I know what it feels like when an adult loses it and lets go with the hands or the stick or the belt. I never wanted my kids to feel that from me. There are other ways to resolve conflicts.

    We learn to parent by making mistakes sometimes.