To the lady at the Adventure Aquarium in Camden today:
You and I were at the Aquarium at the same time today. I was there with my husband and two boys. You were there with three boys - and a baby in a car seat. We seemed to be on the same tour as we meandered around the aquarium. Except I think our children had vastly different experiences.
You see, I have a son with special needs. I took a chance and decided that Gavin would walk as much as possible today. It was so crowded and kids were running everywhere - but Gavin, who is really just learning to walk at five years old, really held his own. Sure it held us up - but from what? We brought the kids to the aquarium to have a fun morning and we certainly weren't in a hurry! Plus, Gavin walking is such a huge accomplishment as it is. It's amazing that he walked amongst the overwhelming crowds for such a long time. I hope you noticed how encouraging we were towards Gavin and how even his little brother would frequently pipe in with a, "Good job, Gavin!"
Meanwhile, it was hard not to notice you. You seemed to isolate your wrath on just one of your sons who looked not a day over seven. The first time I heard you, your son was lagging behind your family.
"COME ON! HURRY UP!! WHAT? ARE YOU SLOW? CAN...YOU...NOT...UNDERSTAND...ME??!!??"
I hurried Brian along and hoped that he didn't hear you.
Lately, Brian has been obsessed with snacks. He tested me at every corner with "When are the snacks, Mama?" "Is this when we have our snack, Mama?" "Is it time for a snack, Mama" "I'm hungrrrryyyyy, Mama!!!" It got a little irritating, but I came up with a compromise. I wasn't going to fight with him to "STOP ASKING ME FOR A SNACK!" It wasn't important to me. I hope you noticed that I picked my battle.
Meanwhile, you were having your own battle. We were in the same place at the same time again. Ironically, at the shark exhibit. As I stood with my sons, watching the sharks circle above us... it was hard not to notice the sharks circling your son. You were berating him for his shoe being untied.
"GET DOWN THERE AND TIE YOUR SHOE."
I glanced over several times to see his huddled body kneeling on the floor trying hard to tie the laces while your eyes - and the eyes of his brothers - pierced his rounded back.
"WHY CAN'T YOU DO IT?" "YOU'RE NOT DOING IT RIGHT, STUPID!"
At this point, Brian caught on to the angry energy and caught my eye. I just smiled and said, "Look at the sharp teeth on that shark up there!" When I really wanted to say, "Hear the sharp words from that angry lady over there?" as loud as I could.
I felt the urge to say something to you. But I didn't. And as I heard whispers and saw eyes dart your way, I noticed that nobody did anything. We all minded our business.
It got a little too crowded for us, so we decided to leave. As the elevator door opened to the lobby, my heart sank. There you were, sitting on a bench with your family... still yelling at your cowering little boy. Ed was kind enough to run out to the car on this frigid day and warm it up for us... which meant that you and I were across from each other for ten whole minutes.
"PUT YOUR COAT ON, DAMN IT!"
Mama, why is she yelling? I don't know, Brian. She seems pretty angry, huh?
"Can you help me zip it, Mom?" I heard your son sheepishly ask you.
"WHAT??? YOU KNOW HOW TO ZIP YOUR OWN FREAKING COAT. DO IT. NOT LIKE THAT! YOU'RE GOING TO RIP IT! I SWEAR TO FREAKING GOD, IF YOU BREAK THAT ZIPPER OR RIP THAT COAT YOU WILL NOT GET ANOTHER COAT I DON'T CARE HOW COLD IT IS. YOU ARE SO STUPID. STOP CRYING! STOP IT! I'LL GIVE YOU A REASON TO CRY, DUMB ASS."
As your other boys giggled at their brother getting pummeled with insults, one of them spoke up and asked, "Want me to zip it for him, Mom?"
"NO! THE CRY BABY KNOWS HOW TO ZIP HIS FREAKING COAT - NO ONE HELPS HIM."
I stood there frozen with my back to you - staring at my two boys. I know what it's like to feel impatient. It happens to the best of us! And I'm surely not perfect and don't have any "Mom Awards." But as I looked at Gavin and Brian, and saw Brian's eyes as he heard you yelling... I wanted to cry.
I turned around towards you.
I stared. And I stared. I was beaming energy your way and praying that you would look up at me. But if you did - what would I do? I wanted to show you a compassionate smile. It would have meant, "I can see you're struggling, friend. I don't know what's going on in your life that is so bad, but I'm sorry. I hope you can stop taking out your anger on your beautiful son." But I was afraid you'd misinterpret my look of compassion as collusion. I didn't want you looking back thinking, "Yeah - see what I have to deal with? This stupid kid??"
I continued to stare. And stare. What if you looked up and I shot you a look that clearly said: "What the hell, lady???" Would you get it? Would that "check you" enough to stop yelling at him? Or would you jump over your baby's car seat and try to punch me?
At this point, I realized I had to address this with my sons. I leaned down and loudly said to them, "Boys, I promise you - I will never talk down to you. I will always respect you as people. And I will never, ever shame you... in public OR in private." As I lifted my head, I caught the eyes of an old man sitting on a nearby bench. He gave me a nod as if to say, "Well done."
Did I think my two little boys, only four and five, would understand what I was saying? Not really. But it was my promise to them, nonetheless. And if they don't understand my words, they will surely feel that I respect them through my actions.
It's possible you are really struggling. Maybe you have depression or mental illness. Maybe your husband just left. Maybe your house just burned down. I thought of a thousand different scenarios in my head until I realized... nothing would justify your behavior. Nothing.
And it became clear to me that you were not new to this rodeo called abuse. This child was not a stranger to shame, either. If I had to take a guess, I bet you were treated that way as a child. And I'm so, very sorry if I am right about that.
But ma'am, as much as you feel "in control" when you put that little boy with the sandy hair and untied shoe in his place... you are actually the exact opposite. And as much as you think your other sons aren't paying attention... I can assure you, they are. Every one of your four children will learn how to love, how to respect, how to make healthy choices and how to handle stress... from you. You can be the one to break what is probably a generations long cycle. That would be the most powerful thing you'd ever do in your lifetime.
Words matter. Patience matters. Changing matters.
I feel a tremendous amount of remorse for not stepping in. And as I shared awkward glances with others around us that heard your stinging words, I know I'm not alone. I should have stood up for your boy. I should have stood up to you. I should have told you it's possible to love yourself.
I should have stood up for love.
(Please consider voting for my blog? I am hoping increased exposure might give us a lead on a diagnosis for Gavin! You never know, right?!? And check out the blog I vote for in the category "Blog Most Likely To Have You Achieve A Personal Goal - The Orange Rhino - which is devoted to not yelling at your children! Very apropos to today's post!)