This Mad Mama! Moment brought to you by… empathy.
During our first family clay class, I watched a mom and a son spinning out of control next to us. The mom argued with her son, berated him for mistakes, and grabbed things out of his hands. In general, she was impatient and rude, and did not take the time to listen to or work together with him to find solutions. And here we were, in a family clay class, the point of which is for parents and children to work together on fairly complex clay projects.
My friend H and her daughter A were also in the class. After the first class, she and I talked about the other mom. My friend had been in a previous session with the mom and her son and she told me how she felt terribly anxious around them, even to the point of worrying about the boy’s physical safety.
I said that it seemed to me that the mom’s stress seemed to be the starting point for the bad interactions between her and her son. For example, during the first class, the boy wanted to make a star-shaped box and the teacher recommended against it because of technical issues. It made sense to me, but not to a six-year-old boy. So he kept telling his mom how much he wanted to make a star, but it only served to make her more and more stern with him. She ended up taking him behind the corner and talking to him, where we could tell he continued to tearfully plead his case. Based on what she said to her son in public, I think everyone there hated to think of the things she might be saying to him private.
They came back and ended up making a star-shaped box, but the mom seemed resentful. She had to make the template herself (the teacher provided templates for circles and hearts and squares) and she spent the rest of the class telling him, “See, I told you it wouldn’t work! Now you’re messing it up. We don’t have enough time! Get your hands off, stop touching it, I’ll do it!” Etc. She didn’t yell these things out, but neither was she whispering them. Everyone knew what was going on and everyone, including the teacher, basically just tried to stay clear of them.
My friend and I talked about ways we could help the boy, and we figured that in addition to smiling at and talking to him, helping his mom be more at ease might be the best way to help him. So I introduced myself to her at the second class… She was instantly and immensely relieved. She actually breathed out, “Thank you,” when I asked, “What was your name again?” I also tried to connect to the boy and give him encouragement in any way I could, smiling or commenting on his work and ideas.
But each class brought other tense episodes, and I couldn’t see any way to help dissipate the bad energy between them while it was happening. So I ended up just watching the whole thing play out again and again. She would get stressed and clamp down on him and then he would start silently spinning out of control, unconsciously sabotaging his work or furrowing his brow while she continued her damaging commentary.
Definitely not pleasant. I didn’t like the mom and I felt terrible for her son. After I introduced myself, she made efforts to connect with me and Orlando (sharing tools, sitting next to us, etc.) yet my smile became distant. My desire to remain unconnected to their pain seemed to win out.
And then I became her. Toward the end of one class, Orlando wanted to play with his friend A, but A was still absorbed in her project. He was doing anything and everything to get her attention, and we all (A and her mom and I) kept persistently asking him to stop or explaining that she didn’t want to play. Then Orlando took his paint brush and put it in her hair. I stood up and steered Orlando around the corner, grabbed him by his shoulders, and told him that we would never come back to class if he didn’t leave his friend A alone. I thought no one could see us over in the corner but I looked up to see someone from another class glazing her pots. I don’t even know if she saw what I said or how I said it, since I didn’t catch her eye.
And that’s the thing right there: We’re all parenting alone together. Everyone turns a blind eye.
And that’s because it is a major cultural taboo to appear to get involved in another person’s parenting. I think this is because the involvement is always assumed to be judgmental. But, as Jan Hunt says, “There is a world of difference between officious, hurtful criticism (“How dare you treat your child like that?”) and helpful intervention done in a caring way (“It can be really hard to meet their needs when you’re so busy. Is there anything I can do to help?”). …We can intervene in a positive way, and give the message that we care about both the parent and child.”
I did care about both the mom and son, but their specific interactions remained impenetrable to me. The times when strangers have helped me have been momentary and fleeting… the circus class teacher who came over and helped me dress my overtired toddler; the person in the parking lot who offered to take my cart back for me; friends or family who simply and without comment engage Orlando in a new activity so the negative interaction between us is short-circuited.
I think about being in that corner with Orlando, and actually, in that case, there was nothing that anyone else could have done in that moment. I am blessed (or cursed) with the awareness of those negative interactions when they happen. What I needed was help before and after that moment – someone to help me engage Orlando in the project at hand, someone to feed me a delicious lunch before class so I wasn’t blood-sugar crashing during it, someone to relieve the pressure of learning a new skill, teaching it to my son, and getting it all done before class ended… The tense, shoulder-grabbing moment between my son and I was an illuminating moment for me. I decided, right then and there, to take steps to change things so I wasn’t feeling so stressed (and in turn taking it out on my son).
I actually don’t go to the class anymore. Not because of that other mom and son, though I have questioned myself about that. I stopped going because I have two choices when I’m under stress or reacting badly: change my response or change the circumstances (or some combination thereof). In this case, I chose to change the circumstances. Rom goes with Orlando now, and they love it. I stay home and play and nap with Mica. No one is getting yelled at, at least not in our family, at least not in our family during clay class.
I still think of that other mother. I think of how I judged her and then how I wanted to help her and her son, and then how I actually couldn’t bring myself to get involved. I think about her and her son as a mirror onto my son and me, but I also think of them as their own two unique people in the world. I think of the connections between all of us that are simultaneously undeniable yet unrealized.
All this time I’ve been thinking about how I failed to reach her or truly understand what points comprised her private constellation of stress. But now, after weeks of not being class, I realize that I do know something about her. I know that simply asking her for her name helped to relieve whatever stress she was under. Our eyes met, for just that one second, and I saw her clearly.
Has a stranger ever helped you and your child in public before? Were you relieved or offended? Have you ever helped someone? Please share your stories – how did it go? How did you feel? Would you do it again? What would you do differently?
There are also two short pieces on the same site, written by a woman who has advocated for children who were being hurt or threatened by their parents in a public place:
A Counselor Intervenes
And a nice, general article about respecting children is here:
A New Way of Seeing Children
And an important, paradigm-shifting article about “compassionate holding” of other parents is here:
The Ritual, Tribal Abandonment of Mothers
May all beings be free of pain and suffering.