Contributed by Laura Parrish
Dear Mother in the Grocery store: Yes, I'm judging you.
I'm the woman with the short gray hair, dropping plums into a bag, looking at you grab your small son by the arm and lift him off his feet. He was taking delight in his smaller version of your grocery cart, running down the aisle of shoppers, not listening to you or even hearing you, as he ran and you called. You carried him, wailing, by his arm around the corner to the entrance and told him to put the cart back. He had "lost the privilege" of pushing the cart. He wailed louder. Just a minute before, he had been pure happiness, delight and energy unbound, and now he was pulled back abruptly into a world of adult expectations for small children; a world that he didn't realize included walking sedately behind the cool, shiny cart just his size, staying beside his mother as she bagged broccoli and moved slowly to potatoes. Really, Mother? What did you think a little boy would want to do with his own cart to push?
I'm definitely past the young mother stage you find yourself in now. I remember those years, I remember worrying that everyone was judging me. Deep down, I was pretty sure I had no idea what I was doing, this mothering thing, this floundering in a sea of responsibility and tasks and emotions that pressed in on me. I loved these little ones in my care so much, and I felt that how they acted, how they "behaved in public," was a reflection of the "job" I was doing. They deserved a Good, Loving Mother. If they were crying or running or annoying other people, didn't that mean that *I* was not doing a good job? That I wasn't the Good Mother they deserved? Fear bubbled up. Fear of inadequacy. I was NOT a Good Mother. I was not enough. My poor children were stuck with an inadequate mother. Look at how they refused to listen to me when I told them to stop bouncing on the seats of the booth in the restaurant, to hold my hand in the parking lot, to WALK down the aisles of the grocery store. Think of the terrible things that could happen to them if I couldn't make them listen to me and obey. The absolute scariest thing for me was the thought that my kids were at risk, and here I was faced with the knowledge that *I* was not enough to keep them safe. It confirmed what I had always suspected: I was not enough.
The solution seemed to be Control.
Control is the way to deal with Fear, isn't it? Clamp down, stamp it out, annihilate it. Whatever you do, don't admit it. Don't sink to your knees and ask for help. Don't admit that you are powerless. How will your kids survive with a powerless mother? I needed more control, obviously! I would MAKE them behave! Just like all of the other children I saw out in public -- the children who must be gifted with Good Mothers, those lucky little ones. Once my kids understood that their behavior was under my supreme control, they would be model little tikes, and I would walk beside them down the grocery aisles, secure in the knowledge that I was a Good Mother with Good Children and we would all live happily ever after.
My idea of implementing my new system of control was some hazy concept that included talking LOUDER, demanding more, delivering Consequences. When I found that those actions didn't work, I got LOUDER, MORE demanding, found meaner, scarier consequences and clamped. down. hard. Meek, frightened children are well-behaved children. I didn't want my children to be frightened and unhappy, but at least they were safe. At least I was in control. They would do what I told them to do. They toed the line.
But you know what's scarier than kids who are at risk because they won't obey you? Kids who are frightened and obedient. They can't hear their inner voice, because you have replaced it with the voice of command, and they have learned not to trust their own voice anyway. That is a scary responsibility -- becoming your child's inner voice for the rest of their lives. Ultimate control turns out to be not what you wanted as a parent after all, and the price for obedience is too high. When your children are afraid of you, when they don't trust you, when they hide things from you, or lie, or cringe when you raise your hand, you may realize that.
So, what do you want?
How about trying this: Try letting go. Just Let. Go. Now. And breathe. Trust that your children are intelligent beings and have their own inner guide that will serve them well if you get out of the way and allow them to access it. Help them access it.
So, Harried Mother who grasped her son's arm and lifted him off of his feet, how about planning a different trip to the grocery store: Remember to take a snack and a drink for your child, and try to make the trip at a time when you and your child aren't tired, because all of us are happier when we aren't hungry or thirsty or tired. Let go of expectations that you must get everything on your list. Let go of expectations that your child must behave a certain way. Let go of the worry that other shoppers are judging you. Look at your little boy's face when he gets his own little cart. Try and remember what it's like to be a child. If your son begins speeding recklessly through the aisles, draw his attention to something interesting. Ask him to reach something for you and put it in his cart. Make this trip about him. About him and about joy. Be his partner in joy. Look at him gently and smile and explain that running with carts in the grocery store can frighten other shoppers, because they're afraid they might be hit by his fast cart. Ask if he can show the other shoppers that his cart won't hurt them because he is careful and capable of handling it. Ask if your son would like to find a clear place in the parking lot to run with his cart for a few minutes after you have both put the groceries in your car. Ask his opinion on what you both should buy to have for dinner. Discuss what his daddy likes to eat and ask if he can help you find the best looking apples. Ask him to help take the groceries out of the cart for the checker.
If your son wants to leave, leave. Make him the priority. The world won't end if you walk right out of the store without buying anything, and he will see that his feelings matter to you. And your feelings will begin to matter more to him. I wish you joy.
Editor's note: View Laura's author profile here.