Judgement Day (or everyday for parents in public)

As a parent, I feel I am always being observed by other parents, grandparents, non-parents and even dog-parents. While everyone seems to have an opinion on the correct way to care for and raise a child, they really have an opinion on the things not to do in childrearing. Topics like co-sleeping, bottle vs breast-feeding and spanking vs gentle parenting come to the top of my mind.

These spectators/parenting experts feel most called to share their thoughts based off a single moment like when the boys have been picking on each other all day until one grows tired of it and shoves the other. The onlooker only sees the shove, the moment of crisis, and makes the judgement about a lack of discipline, too much screen time or the need for more religion in a heathen world. Remember, we are in the South.  

Helpful, not really.

This weekend, we went to a Fall Fest at a winery. There was a face painter, activities for the kids, booths of junk, food trucks and, of course, wine. After the boys bounced out of their socks and shoes in the bounce house, we bought a jar of salsa, checked out the knick-knacks and retreated from the hot sun with water for the boys and wine for us.

Two well-dressed family sets walked past us, the women pushed strollers and tugged on toddler’s hands while the men brought up the rear.

A man in a half-buttoned Hawaiian shirt watched them from a nearby table with a nearly empty wine bottle in front of him. He said loudly to no one in particular, “Yee-haw. One has the fan on the baby and the other has the fan on herself. Makes you wonder which one is the better mom.”

Everyone who heard the man gasped and asked the nearest adult for clarification, “Did he really just say that?”

Somehow the only people who didn’t hear the man were the mothers as they continued pushing their strollers and tugging on their toddlers.  

Daddy Longlegs and I looked at each other and whispered, “Hillbillies.”  

While the hillbilly was offensive, but he brought up an interesting question about self-preservation and self-sacrifice, which one makes for a better mother? Its something that each parent should decide for their family. One thing is for certain, moms don’t need judgement. We get enough comments and side eyes from the outside world, not to mention the criticism that generates from our own heads and hearts about what we should or should not be doing.

We need support and understanding. And some of us need fans.  

Fight or flight

While waiting in line for a pancake house, a man with greasy, grey hair and a sunken-in mouth pushed his way through the backdoor of the kitchen.

I held Baby Brother, who is now quite a big two-year old, in my arms and Daddy Longlegs pulled Little Legs close to him.

“Something tells me that guy isn’t supposed to be in there,” I said.

Little Legs yanked Baby Brother’s shoe off. Baby Brother kicked him in the face and Little Legs started to cry. Obviously, we didn’t have the time to speculate long on the unwanted guest in the house of pancakes.

We went back to making observations about the length of the line, the weather, and trying to keep the boys from bumping into people around us with their wrestling.

Suddenly, the kitchen door swung back open and the grey haired man flew through the air, landing on the sidewalk. The cook, a man in a white apron with a backwards ball-cap, stood in the doorway with his arms crossed.

“You ain’t welcome here,” the cook said.

“You can’t tell me where to go,” the man said.

He grabbed the top of the trashcan and threw it to the ground, not unlike a certain set of boys, in an adult-style tantrum. The weight of the lid surprised the man, and it didn’t go far, landing next to his feet. Returning to his rampage, the man snatched the hat from the cook’s head.

The manager of establishment appeared, a woman with frizzy, blonde hair and black pants.

She said, “You gotta go,” and thumbed the air.  

The man threw the hat down and grumbled something at her. He puffed his malnourished chest up at her like a sick rooster.

She planted her feet firmly in the ground and said, “I am not afraid of you.”

Another kitchen staffer arrived on the scene with a four-foot-long wooden stick, wrapped with white tape. He held it in one hand as he approached, prepared for battle.   

“I don’t need this,” the man said, eying the weapon and the growing crowd of kitchen staff.

The man shoved his way through the line of onlooking, prospective pancake eaters.

While this was happening, I slowly crept backwards, carrying Baby Brother and pulling Daddy Longlegs and Little Legs along with me, not wanting to draw attention to our retreat.

In this open-carry state, it would take one vigilante of justice to pull out a gun and fire shots. I was not interested in one of us catching a stray bullet or trashcan lid as the two sides waged a breakfast war.

That night, Daddy Longlegs asked Little Legs, “Did you have any questions about what happened today?”

Little Legs nodded, “Why did Mommy run away and make us leave?”

And now I have questions. Am I a total wimp? (Yes) Should we have stayed? (No) How do I teach my boys to be brave in a safe way? (Still unsure but accepting any and all advice.)

Great Snips

A skinny woman in an outfit of all black ushered the boy through the salon to an adjustable chair. She tapped a silver lever near the base with the tip of her tennis shoe. The chair eased down closer to the ground, while a blurry snake tattooed on her ankle wrapped its way around her leg.

“Climb on up there,” she said to the boy.

“Its too high,” the boy said as he clamored onto the seat, one limb at a time.

“What are we doing today, mom?” the stylist asked.

“Let’s go a little shorter than usual,” the mother said from behind the chair.

 Nodding her head, the stylist ran her fingers through the boy’s hair. 

“And then I get a lollypop,” the boy said.

The stylist shook the folds out of a crinkly cape and snapped it at the back of the boy’s sun-browned neck.

“If your mom says its ok,” the stylist said.

“She says its ok,” the boy said without a moment of hesitation.

He stuck his tongue out at the reflection of his mother in the mirror and turned to his own countenance, admiring the shaggy brown hair as it edged into his eyes and over his ears unaware as a wooly lamb that he was about to be sheared.

The Summer Day

By Mary Oliver

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t exactly know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Old Teachers

I waited for Daddy Longlegs in the car with the boys in the backseat. They giggled in a secret, quiet way as they conspired together on something. I have found it best to quietly observe than to turn around and disrupt their work. I readjusted the rear-view mirror and watched them with a raised eyebrow.

A sock hit my shoulder like a single musical note, followed by another, and a size 7 Croc landed on the dashboard and hysterical laughter rose in a crescendo from behind my seat.

By the time their father returned, the boys were irritated. There was nothing left to throw. No socks, no shoes and since they were strapped into their seats, throwing their pants was not an option. I had gathered a nice collection of everything they lobbed into the front seat.  

The trunk popped open.

“They couldn’t find the right stuff,” Daddy Longlegs huffed as he loaded stones into the back of our Honda-CRV.

He shut the trunk and slid into the driver’s seat.

“The guy in there,” he gestured towards the store with his thumb, “he was trying to match the stone to what I ordered until I said, it’s the cobblestone. And the guy laughed and said, ‘I’ll never forget it now. Cobblestone, cobblestone, cobblestone. That reminds me of my fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Cobble. I wonder where he is now. I’ve been thinking about good ol’ Mr. Cobble a lot lately. What a guy.’”

It made me think of some of my former teachers, like Mrs. Landrum who seemed ancient when I was a kindergartener, but I think she was only in her fifties and blessed with salt and pepper hair, and Mrs. Prince who tossed out Jolly Ranchers for the right answer or if we were having a hard day and Mrs. Ambler who read a chapter a day from classics like Where the Red Fern Grows and Summer of the Monkeys.

“Memory is more indelible than ink.” Anita Loos

I wonder who will leave a lasting impression like that for my sons from the memories and experiences that are unformed and undone and from the people they have yet to meet. Who pops up for you, Dear Reader, when you remember those formative characters from your youth like the unforgettable, Mr. Cobble?

A Book’s Cover

Can you judge a book by its cover? I try to reserve judgement but its there one way or another, either in the very back or in the very front of my mind. Time and time again, I have been wrong after making a quick decision about a person because of their clothes or the way they speak. Recently, I met someone with a feather sticking out of her hair and instantly thought she was crazy, only to find she was a very competent employee and natural leader.

It is human nature, I think, to make up stories about who is safe or unsafe in an effort to understand our world and to quickly categorize those with whom we come into contact. Of course, humans are not so simple and seem to defy categorization because we live a long time and have layers upon layers of experiences that create and transform our character.  

I write all this to explain that we are in the process of finding a new babysitter. Our current gal gave the standard three day notice due to some silly health condition (extreme pregnancy) which we knew would happen sooner or later.

I posted an ad on our neighborhood page and within a few hours had exactly one interested party, a 16-year-old who lives down the road who loves kids. We set a date for her to come over for a meet and greet. She arrived in a baby doll dress with big eyes and blond hair. The boys had hearts in their eyes as they ran to her and offered her lollipops and popsicles to stay and play.

And I found myself making a hasty assessment of her thinking, she is young, well put-together and has so much potential, she would not jeopardize her future by doing something foolish or negligent with my sons. I want to see the best in her and as a long-time social worker, I know that potential is limitless in all directions, for better or worse.   

As we finished our popsicles, I said, “The job is yours if you want it,” with a hope for the best.

Fear of the Bad Man

There is a fear that follows me like a shadow. It has been with me ever since I was small. To be honest, I am still small and some days it seems that only the fear has grown.

It’s the fear of The Bad Man. You know, the man with the baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes lurking in the bushes or the guy crouching down and waiting beside your car in a dark parking lot.

I am talking about the pervasive fear of the predatory man that is perpetuated every time I watch the news or listen to the radio. He is out there, waiting and watching for his opportunity to cause harm.

As an independent, childless woman, I kept the Bad Man at bay, aware and defensive. Now that I have children to protect, everywhere I look, the potential for an interaction with the Bad Man is there.

We can’t go for a walk without the thought that he might be around the corner or back to the car from a store without an extra scan to see if he is following us. I lace my keys between my fingers or carry a metal water bottle, just in case. Yesterday, I priced out pepper spray options that I ultimately decided against due to the absolute certainty that one or two curious little boys would spray themselves.  

This fear is a gift from my mother, creative in her protection, she created the idea of the Bad Man and with years of constant reinforcement, it remains with me. I suppose it keeps me alert and present, albeit paranoid, anxious and a little neurotic, and therefore I keep my sons a little safer in a world that feels so very dangerous some days.

Does anyone else struggle with this fear?  How do you face down your fears, real or imagined?

The Resistance

The boys go to daycare twice a week. They get to socialize, pick up new germs, and begin to learn how to conform in a play society of pre-schoolers and toddlers which is ruled by 18 year-old girls/classroom teachers. Most, if not all, of my piddly paycheck goes to pay for this opportunity which also gives me a break, even if the break is spent working.  

I do not ask much out of the staff, aside from how was the boys’ day and do they need another set of play clothes or diapers/wipes? In return, the staff only shares the essentials, such as, “Yes they had a good day. They had a nap and a bowel movement.” Or “No, they did not have a good day. There was an incident and….” Fill in the blank with any number of ways that a toddler can fall off a table or collide with another child that results in blood shed and head injuries.

I did not complain when the front office staff changed over seven times in the past ten months, or when the teachers mysteriously disappeared to be replaced by the latest female crew from America’s Most Wanted. When the center shut down for two weeks due to Covid, and then for another two weeks, I patiently waited for things to return to normal. As the boys have been sick every other week from what I suspect is a lack of sanitizing, again, I expressed understanding for the Daycare Experience and let it go.

However, when I received a group email from the director that parents were spending too much time talking to staff, my head exploded in a puff of electric purple. Effective immediately, all concerns and communication needed to be routed through the front desk to be relayed to the classroom teachers to reduce the distractions for the teachers and the delay in drop off and pick-ups.

Regardless of my anger, I decided to respect their request and dropped the boys off without the usual few words to check-in about the weekend, changes in health or having the right weather-related clothes. Baby Brother was greeted by his usual sweet, smiling teacher who took him into the room in her arms. The problem was the fresh set of adult faces in Little Legs’ classroom who appeared already exhausted and overrun by the whirling dervishes.

One woman approached Little Legs and said, “What’s your name?”

Little Legs shook his head and backed up towards the door, refusing to give up his identity.

“Come on little boy, show me where your cubicle is,” she requested.

I popped back in and said, “This is Little Legs,” struggling to control the tight pulling of irritation in my face and chest.

From there I marched down the hall to the front desk where I would like to say I eloquently expressed my concerns and desire for change. Instead, it is no exaggeration to write that I lost my sh*t about the dangers in limiting communication between parents and classroom teachers in addition to constantly changing staff.

The director stepped out of her office and apologized for the misunderstanding and that the email was meant for the parents who were spending half an hour talking to the classroom teachers.   

“You can talk to them for 15 minutes if you want,” she said graciously.  

“Thanks, but no thanks, I just need a few minutes.”

I left feeling drained and surprised at the power of my own emotions. I am ready for the next daycare showdown. My voice is my weapon, even though my throat is starting to get suspiciously sore.

I am Mama, hear me roar. Sort of.

Savage Life

The boys are in the kitchen eating cereal and toast. Carbs with carbs, just the way I was raised. Baby Brother is standing on a two-tier stool to reach the counter and Little Legs is perched dangerously on a backless bar stool.

Usually, we eat at the table, but the Wildings surrounded me and demanded breakfast before I could think straight enough to get them to properly sit and patiently wait. The thought of the boys being proper and/or patient is a bit of a joke. I had to throw gummy fruit snacks down the hallway to distract them long enough to make a dash for the toaster.    

Little Legs hops down from his stool to retrieve a Matchbox car that is essential to his breakfast process. And during his brief absence, the dog takes the opportunity to grab the unguarded toast in her mouth and swallows it with one gulp.  

There is no hesitation, chewing or remorse involved. Carpe Diem, Seize the Toast.

Little Legs turns around as the slightly burned, mostly uneaten bread disappears whole, like a mouse down the throat of a snake. Little Legs throws his hands up in the air and screams the worst insult he can muster with the limited vocabulary of a three-year-old.

“You a toast eater! You a bad dog, you toast eater!”

It is a dog-eat-toast life here in Tennessee.

Savages, all around.

The Painter

“Brother, what happened in here?” Little Legs asked.

I heard the concern in his tinny voice as I let the dog outside. An urgent need to lay eyes on the scene and the siblings overwhelmed my senses.   

Forget about the dog, I thought, as I ran through the house. I made it to the room just in time for Little Legs to repeat his question, mirroring my thoughts as I surveyed the situation.  

“What happened in here?”

An artist had clearly been at work. He used just one color and painted everything, including himself, with it. Baby Brother was now a brown boy living in a brown world.

He looked up at me with big, wide, innocent eyes and said, “Poop.”

“I see,” I said.

To further emphasize, he reached around and placed a hand in his diaper.

“Poop,” he said.

“Yes, now I really see.”

I struggled to hold down the creeping vomit long enough to remove the boy from his crib for a handoff to Daddy Longlegs in the shower. Baby Brother splashed in the water and knocked over bottles of shampoo and conditioner while the clear water turned brown and then clear, again.