Saturday, July 21, 2007

Somewhere Another Mother is Losing It (And What Can You Do?)

Last week I was taking a taxi to midtown Manhattan for a meeting. The day wasn't too hot, so the taxi window was down. As we were passing the Old Navy store on Sixth Avenue I heard, and then saw, a woman yelling — Stop it, just stop it, stop it, stop CRYING. She was tall, dressed casually in shorts and a t-shirt, and leaning over a little girl of about seven, who was sobbing uncontrollably. There was a little boy standing nearby.

My impulse was to yell at her that she should stop hollering at the little girl, but knowing how utterly unhelpful drive-by parenting can be, I did something else. I got out of the cab and went over and ask her if I could help her. She started sobbing herself, explaining that the girl had been crying for two bus rides and wouldn't stop crying, and that all the people were staring, so she had to get off the first bus, and then she did the same thing on the second bus and that she is just so so so tired of it. I said I understood and explained that I had a daughter who cried and tantrumed a lot and asked if there was anything I could do to help. No, no, that's okay, she just has to stop crying. I said, I know, but she probably can't help it.

Then she said, gesturing to the little girl, and sobbing, she's just like me, she's just like I was. I said, I understand, my daughter's is a lot like me too -- high strung . . . she used to cry so much that the police came. She said, Oh yeah, that's happened to me too. She said So you only have one, and I said yes, and she said I have two. I said I can see -- you have one who's easy going and one who's less easy going. Yes, she said and laughed just a little. She's been crying because I wouldn't buy her a toy a Kmart until later today, and now she hasn't stopped crying. I said, I understand. She can't help it. It's as though her brain gets stuck. She said Yes, but she has to stop.

The little girl was still crying, and now she was acting like she had to use the rest room, saying I have to go, I have to go. I said Do you want me to help you get her to the restroom in Old Navy? No she has to stop crying before I take her in there because everyone is starring at us. Oh I said, but she has to go to the bathroom. Yes, she said, but she has to stop crying first.

At that point, behind me, out of view, a police car had pulled up. Two of New York's finest got out, a young woman and young man. What's going on, the male beat cop asked me. Not much, I said, her child is crying, she's frustrated, I'm trying to help her out.

The woman sat down on the sidewalk, against the wall of the Old Navy storefront, and started sobbing. I'm a good mom. I don't hit my kids. But she won't stop crying. She's been crying for two hours because I won't buy her a toy. Then she said, This always happens to me because I'm brown and my kids are white. No one thinks I'm their mom.

The woman cop said No no that's not what we were thinking. But someone called because they were worried about your kids.

The mother said to her daughter, Now you see what you did. Now the police came. Now that's scary, isn't it?

The girl had stopped crying. She looked terrified.

The one officer said, Don't worry, it's okay. It's a beautiful day. Why don't you help your mom out and behave, okay?

The little girl nodded.

The officer said to the little girl, Now tell your mom you're sorry.

Sorry mommy, she said.

Now everybody's sorry, he said. Time to get going and have a good day. Be good.

You can go, the cop said to me.

I know, I said. When I turned around I saw that a crowd had gathered to watch what was going on. I headed out on to Sixth Avenue and hailed another cab, but when I got into the cab I burst into tears, realizing that I'd done no good, and had maybe even made things worse. And realizing that this poor woman is being mistaken as her own kid's nanny, and has grown accustomed to people scrutinizing her caregiving as though she had no parental authority at all. Had I mistaken her for a nanny and not realized it?

In the first nanosecond I'd looked at her and her children, in that moment of "blink" -- of instantaneous impressions that Malcolm Gladwell writes about -- I think I hadn't quite sorted out if she was a mother who was losing it or a nanny having a meltdown. But the moment I spoke with her, I sensed she was their mother. But maybe that's why she had been so eager to establish her biological link -- saying "she's just like I was." Oh, this was so much more complicated that one's average drive-by parenting moment.

When the police arrived, somehow their authority had actually been a help. The little girl was somehow able to pull herself back together, at least long enough to stop crying and say Sorry Mommy. In that sense, this little girl wasn't at all like mine . . . I had been so wrong thinking she was just like my little one. Sweet M is not calmed by the presence of police. On the contrary, for us the police have always only escalated difficult moments.

This ever-so-light-skinned, possibly Latina mother, and her two fairer-skinned children have been with me all week. I can't stop thinking about them and the ten minutes I spent with them -- my brain's almost as stuck as the little girl who hadn't gotten her toy at Kmart.

When you see a mother losing it, what can you do? How can you help? Should one even try, or should one walk on, mind one's own business, and remember what they say about the pavement of the road to hell? Should one abandon one's good intentions?

I just don't know. I don't know if I'd do that again.


kristina said...

I try to stand by and I don't know how to put it, nonverbally communicate my support. I tried to do that at the dentist last week.

I don't think you made it worse---when I've had a tough moment when out with Charlie, I just want a little human contact---a stranger to briefly interface with. I prefer a mom any day to a cop!

Usethebrains Godgiveyou said...

You tried. Never belittle yourself for trying. I think what Kristina said about "human contact" was on the money.

Who knows, the mother might have lost it without you being there at that moment.

Anonymous said...

You meant well and I think the woman took it in that spirit. I've experienced hostile reactions both as a baby sitter in my student days and more recently as the mother of an aspie child,for exactly the same reasons as that mom gave. During my son's more memorable public meltdowns, I personally welcomed compassionate intervention from complete strangers. So yes, do it again and the next time go right ahead and smile, nod and say "I understand."

Suzanne said...

Don't beat yourself up for trying. It sounds like you did help, quite admirably!

Anonymous said...

Thanks everyone, for your support and thinking about this. I just don't know what we can do to help mothers, and sometimes fathers, who are losing it because their kids are losing it. How can one turn this in to a win-win for the families and for the children?

I thought the police were pretty good on this occasion. I was awfully worried that they might escalate it, but I was amazed at how the child responded to their calm, dignified authority. That was fascinating to me. I've never seen that happen. I'm doing a lot of thinking about authority and parenting now.

In the workplace when one has responsibility without any authority, one's work is often thwarted. I wonder how that applies to parenting . . . Has parental authority been so seriously undermined by all sorts of forces (mostly consumerism and mass culture) that parents are stuck with responsibility (and loads of it) with remarkably limited authority?

I'm just thinking aloud about this . . .

Niksmom said...

MV, you are amazing. Not many people would stop on the streets of NYC. I think you *did* help that mother. Maybe not the way you expected to but in subtler, deeper way. At least now, in the moments of utter despair which must certainly hit her, she can hold onto the knowledge that ther is another mother out there who understands. Sometimes taht is enough to carry us through the tough times. Don't discount what you did just b/c it didn't have the immediate result you hoped for. Who knows but thatyour presence there helped the police keep it calm and help the little girl. My hat's off to you!

Pickel said...

Ah, but do gooders don't always do good. I wrote a post about this just yesterday because strangers constantly try to touch Little Pickel because he is cute. Because of his tactile issues it makes everything so much worse.

I would certainly, and always appreciate another mother helping me put groceries into my car or explaining to me that its not just my son but I have had way to many little old ladies touch him and set him off.

Anonymous said...

You absolutely did the right and beautiful thing. So what if you feel awkward? Just reaching out to another mother and consoling her makes us all more compassionate, more connected. It doesn't matter whether her kid was "just like" Sweet M. or not. You helped both of them in their hour of need, and, hopefully, someone will help you when your turn comes. God bless you.


mumkeepingsane said...

Had I been that mother I would have been thankful for your support. Sometimes the only thing you can do is talk calmly and help someone work their way out of a situation. Human contact, as kristina said, can make a big difference when you're feeling so alone and in the midst of despair.

I'd like to think I'd stop and ask what I could do to help.

Anonymous said...

Well, it is hard to know what is helpful, and what isn't.

Given Sweet M's own tactile defensiveness (as the OT's call it), I would never touch someone's child without the child initiating contact, as pickel describes. That's awful. It reminds me of people touching my belly without asking when I was pregnant.

I was sort of stunned when one of the police officer's touched the woman's shoulder in a gesture intended to be comforting. Somehow the idea of uniformed officer of the law patting me on the shoulder doesn't give much comfort.

I still wonder, how can we help mom's who are losing it . . . we've all been there.

Anonymous said...

i love what you did. you offered help. what more can one do? and how much better off we'd all be if more of us actually did that, what you did, asked if you could help and stood by, being with her, being with the situation, without judgment and in such gentle good will.

fluffy would have cried harder if the police arrived were he in that state.

Anonymous said...

Hi, just discovered your blog via AutismVox. I personally think you did a mitzvah--the police may have helped the girl snap out of the tantrum, but you were also there to support the mother.

Anonymous said...

A difficult one!
I have had people offer to help, and i have had people just stare or run away!
What ever they do, people dont get it right!!!!

supposedly susan said...

I think you did a beautiful thing.