My kids and I walk with the other families on the tour of my daughter’s new middle school. We’re excited; it’s a performing arts magnet school half an hour away from our house. She will be a visual art student, and she had to audition with a portfolio, draw on site, and then get in by lottery. We’ve been talking about it forever, and in a week and a half, she will start. As we attend this final leg of the pre-first day requirements, she calls out hello to some of the friends she made during summer orientation. One of the girls is on our tour. “Who is that?” I whisper. “That’s Gretchen. She is so nice! We really hit it off.” My heart melts to see her start out this new venture with friendly faces. “Why don’t you walk with her?” I nudge. She sidles up to the girl and strikes up a conversation. Yay! Maybe middle school won’t suck for my daughter after all! Maybe I can meet her mother and suggest that the girls get together sometime…I wonder if that’s the mother over there…oh $%#@. It’s her.
My mind races back to last week. I’m picking up my daughter from the summer orientation program, and my son is in the car with me. As I pull into the parking lot, he announces: “I’m not going inside with you.”
“Why not? It will only take a minute.”
“No! Please?! I just want to sit in the car! If it will only take a minute, then I can sit here by myself. I’ll be ok.”
Sigh. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, Mom, I’m 8!”
“OK. I’ll be right back.” I walk quickly towards the building. I find my daughter within a minute, and wait another minute or two for the friend we’re taking home. I see a buddy of mine, and am chatting with her as everyone heads towards the door. A woman approaches me.
“Are you the driver of the gray car parked next to me?”
“Your son is in the car freaking out.” Deep breath. Well, if he is, then he was given the choice to come inside with me. Life lesson learned.
“Ok, thank you.”
“…And it is really hot in the car, you left him in there with the windows closed for a really long time.”
“I came inside for just a minute, and he was given the choice to come inside with me, which he refused to do.” Why am I explaining myself to this person?
“Well, you have been in here as long as I have been out there which is at least 5 minutes.”
“I’m sure he is fine. Thank you.” I turn away from her and toward my friend with a “can you believe this?” look on my face, trying to deal with my burning cheeks. The woman mutters and walks off.
I get to the car and throw open his door. “Hey! Are you OK?!” I say in a more accusatory and less concerned tone. Great, now this lady has me yelling at my kid. He looks startled.
“Yes! I’m fine!”
“Were you ‘freaking out?’”
“No! I was just sitting here peacefully!” He’s starting to sound defensive now.
“Are you sure? Because that lady told me that you were in here freaking out! What could you have been doing that made her think that?”
“Nothing! I was fine! Honest!” He’s starting to sound upset now. I’m stumped.
“She was worried that you were hot. Were you hot in the car?”
“Well what would you have done if you had been too hot?” I’m grasping at straws at this point. She has really thrown me.
“I would have opened the door! DUH!” I exhale, relieved. Conversation over.
I was comforted that I knew my kid, and that I didn’t put his health in jeopardy. But this situation bugged me for the rest of that day. I tried to tell myself that I was grateful that there are people out there that will speak up for my kid’s safety, because we all know that there are so many instances of children getting seriously hurt or killed because of neglect, ignorance or malice on behalf of their caretakers. I get it that I am being judged by their actions as well as my own, and I tried to give this person the benefit of the doubt. I tried to let it go. I found myself having imaginary defensive arguments with her for the rest of the day, but by the next day, it was forgotten.
And now on the tour, I find out that this woman is Gretchen’s mother. Great. Well, maybe she didn’t remember me. Except that our kids have been walking together the whole time, and she hasn’t talked to me, or looked at me…basically, she’s avoiding me like the plague.
We get in the car to go home. “Um, honey,” I say to my daughter, “I have a story to tell you about Gretchen…” She cuts me off.
“Is this about her mother and the car?” Busted.
“Oh, you know about that…?”
“Well, Gretchen said something to me about it the next day.”
“She did?” I guess her mother didn’t forget about it after all.
“Yeah. She asked me if you were the one parked next to her. I said yes, and she said that her mom was totally cursing you out for leaving your son in a hot car. I told her that it was him who refused to go in. But she said that her mom is always butting her nose in other people’s business, and she knows someone who has a 6 year old who is ‘always neglecting them and leaving them in a hot car for hours.’ I told her you were a good mom and that my brother can take care of himself. She understood.”
Well, score one for me. But I don’t think we’ll be scheduling those play dates anytime soon…
I know this has hit something deep, because I find myself, again, muttering one-sided arguments with this woman around my house today. I am trying to put words around what I feel, and what it all comes down to is that I feel judged and misunderstood. I feel lucky the police were not called. I feel betrayed by my Village.
This incident was a wakeup call for me, because we are not like most people. Our connective tissue disorder gives us poor circulation. We have a lower than normal body temperature, and we don’t really sweat. So on a hot day where people feel hot and sweaty, we feel fine. Days where most people feel comfortable, I am freezing. So, today I had to say this to my kids: “Hey guys, from now on, if you choose to stay in the car while I’m gone for a few minutes, make sure to remind me to lower the window so that it looks safer to other people.” I realize that the safest thing is to always have my kids with me. But sometimes they have migraines or pain in their joints, and would prefer to rest in the car than hop in and out of it. They are 11 and 8, and can legally be left at home, so they think that they can be left in a parking lot for a few minutes, and they are not wrong.
I both understand this woman and am angry with her. I pride myself so fiercely with protecting and caring for my kids, that even the implication of neglect by a stranger makes me see red. Part of me feels that what happens in my car is none of that woman’s business. And yet, if I had seen what I thought was a situation where another child was in danger, I would have absolutely been the person who spoke up. I see myself as the Mom that protects my kids…and yours. My kids don’t need protection from me. How dare you imply that they do? And this obvious hypocrisy is a white privilege belief. It is a suburban “Village” mentality where SAH middle class mothers think that we have the right to speak out and call everyone else on their behavior, but it is a shock when anyone calls us out. “I am a good parent. I don’t need you to tell me what to do.” We are not used to members of “the system” like teachers, social workers, police officers, and other such people telling us that we are not doing our job as parents. This is our job, and we take pride in it. So when someone else calls us out, particularly another member of the tribe, the gloves come off: it’s ON. I am not defending these conflicting feelings as being right or wrong – but this situation has really brought to light an obvious dichotomy deep down in my “Mommy beliefs,” and I am struggling with it.
I love my children, I am glad to know that there are people who would protect them, even from me. But I am sad to think that I would be judged as anything less than the mamma bear that I am: the one person who always protects them from everyone and everything else. I don’t want to stay in this angry place. Mother’s judge each other too harshly, too often. The Village should be a place of comfort and protection from this stressful and difficult job. It truly does take a Village to raise them. I rely heavily on it, especially during those times when I need to parent from bed. This woman does not know me. She does not know that this day was the eighth day in a row of a migraine that would not go away. She does not know that we all have a chronic medical condition that challenges us daily. She only knows what she thinks that she saw. And I know absolutely nothing about her. I don’t know if her marriage is happy, or if a family member is dying. I don’t know if she is healthy. I know nothing, except that I think she cares enough about people to try to make a difference.
Maybe we will move past this very bad first impression, and our daughters will hang out. Maybe not. But I do know that I plan to be a lot more gentle with my tribe from now on, like Jennifer Hicks in her piece about Moms on their iPhones. Gretchen’s mom is a mirror of my own past behavior. And though her heart was in the right place, I think ultimately she was wrong. She saw what she wanted to see. She asked no questions. She had no compassion…for me. I hope I remember how this feels the next time I catch myself judging another parent, or thinking that I know better. I don’t.