Friday, May 24, 2013

Parenting out of context

Stoic Baby questions your parenting.

Last night, my family ate dinner at one of our local co-op's locations.  It turned into a slightly long dinner, so my kids were in and out of the store, running off energy on the sidewalk and climbing a tree.  Toward the end of the meal, Bean came in and he was obviously getting tired.  He was easily frustrated and started yelling about something or other.  We asked him to calm and quiet down a few times, and then I said sternly, "listen, we're about to go to Grandpa's hotel room to see his cat.  But if you can't keep your voice down, we're going straight home.  You understand?"  I feel like there's a tacit understanding between Bean and myself that this isn't punishment, strictly speaking.  This wasn't a threat.  This was acknowledgement that he was having a hard time - the "can't" is really what I meant, not that he was willfully being rude and obnoxious.

Bean took a deep breath, sighed, and said "ok."  As he went outside with The Beast, and I walked a tray of dishes and silverware to the bussing area, I heard "congratulations."  It barely registered - at that point, I didn't realize it was directed at me.

I got back to the table and a woman reading a book kitty-corner from us said to me, "good job." 

I said, "on what?"

"On correcting him.  Letting him know how he should behave."

I smiled awkwardly, just realizing that people were watching that interaction with my son and hoping he had remained oblivious to that fact (he would have been mortified if he had realized!) and said, "well...they certainly need boundaries."

With an immense eyeroll she said, "well I wish my daughter would do that.  She just lets her daughter do whatever she wants.  17 months old and she turns on the gas stove!  Almost lit her dad's arm on fire!"

Ok, now we're evaluating someone else's parenting.  It's quite possible I know this person's daughter, as this is a small town with a tight-knit mothering community.  I know from experience how difficult parenting a preverbal (or barely verbal) toddler can be.  My own younger child climbed up on a step stool and grabbed a hot stove burner when he was just over a year old.  So I'm giving this stranger's daughter the benefit of the doubt - and even feeling defensive of another mother's parenting style - when I say "17 months old!  That's hard.  At that age setting boundaries means repeating yourself over and over."

Looking out the window at my kids, who are now running around with their dad, she says, "well it's good - they respect you!  And look, they're fine!"

I point at Bean and say as I'm heading to the door, "Well, he gets to negotiate quite a bit.  But he does know that it's not appropriate to shout in stores."

As I mention the negotiating, I pass by a woman a couple tables toward the door and she smiles at me and says something like, "that's the way to do it."

I get out the door and think, "what the fuck just happened?" Then I catch Bean as he is running by me and get down to his level. "It seems to me, " I begin, "that you need to yell and get some of that energy out.  The store is not a good place to do it.  How about we get in the car and I turn on some music and we can sing to it SUPER loud?"  He looks relieved (because I wasn't angry?  Because we made a plan?  I'm not sure!) and I start getting him in the car.

At that point, I was facing the distinctive facade of a local restaurant where I experienced an even more open and broad assessment of my parenting almost two years ago.  And that time I was judged entirely negatively!

At the time, I didn't want to blog directly about the incident because I didn't want to fuel the fire as it went viral on the internet.  I know that you can't win an argument on the internet, and felt there was no sense in defending myself.  Anyone who knew me and knew my parenting style - and especially anyone who knew A-Train as the quiet, calm, stoic, super easy baby he was - knew the whole thing had to be overblown.  I didn't feel I needed the approval of The Internet, but it did raise a lot of issues for me to think about and I wrote a blog of questions inspired by it.

Just about two years later, I'll post here what happened.  (Dear Internet, we've already been over this once.  My hope is that I can give my perspective and discuss as it relates to the experience I had last night...not that I will re-start the fire!)

It was June 4, 2011.  I remember that because I went to the Farmer's Market that morning and saw the first of many signs searching for Lauren Spierer and noted she had disappeared just the day before.  My family had a busy day, and it was hot.  The Beast and I had some stupid argument induced by exhaustion and heat, so I called my friend A and planned a last-minute get-together.  I'd already eaten dinner, she hadn't.  She had recently been raving about the desserts at a French cafe, and suggested we go there so she could get dinner and then we could have dessert. 

We both had 3-year-olds and infants - A-Train was 8 months old and her baby was 4 months old.  Our second babies were both remarkably chill, so we didn't even think twice about bringing them with us.  In fact, my family had just been out to eat the day before and A-Train had just sat in a high chair smiling occasionally and hardly making a peep. 

We arrived at the cafe/restaurant to find their two high chairs were already in use by a friend of ours and her family (like I said, it's a small town!).  My friend's baby was young enough that it didn't matter - she wore/held him the whole time, and I don't recall him making any sounds whatsoever.  A-Train definitely preferred to be sitting up, so I tried to make that happen in his stroller (which was his infant carseat in a snap-and-go, so it was rather reclined).  I ended up with him in my lap so he could be closer to the food. 

My friend ordered dinner and we chatted about the argument I had had with my husband.  At some point, her brother and his fiance came in and sat right behind her.  This was totally by coincidence, as it's not that small a town!  I ate a bit of my friend's food, and gave a little to A-Train. 

He was more animated than usual.  He wasn't unhappy or even fussy.  In fact, he was very happy.  I settled him by offering him the breast and pieces of food.  As the entree was finished and we got excited for dessert (the entire reason my friend had been talking about the place for weeks), A-Train found his voice.  You know that squealing older babies do when they're happy?  That.  It's a sound that can be obnoxious or adorable, depending on the context.  He seemed to discover the ability to make this sound right in the middle of the meal.  It was so new that I actually took video of him doing it the next night.

When the owner/waitress came to our table and we asked what the dessert options were, she seemed overwhelmed or put-out.  The restaurant was somewhat busy at that point, and I thought perhaps she was feeling short-staffed (it appeared to be just herself and her husband working).  A-Train squealed at her flirtatiously.  I was holding him and smiled at her awkwardly.  Our dessert and coffee came, and A-Train was clearly not settling down.  He was getting noisier and then started to fuss.  I don't remember dessert because we snarfed it down between me bouncing and nursing, and at one point turning around to apologize to the next table.  I was aware my baby had entered obnoxious territory, and I quickly ate dessert and waited to pay.  Our check - for $37 and change - came and we asked them to split it.  We each then got a check for $20 and I noted the increase but it wasn't worth a hassle - my baby was suddenly entering a freak out and it was time to get the heck out of the restaurant.  Plus, $20 made it easy to do the math and leave a 15% tip.  I signed off on $23 and we went outside.  A-train immediately chilled out, so my friend and I sat at a patio table, nursed our babies, and talked some more.

When I got home, I said to The Beast, "I'm pretty sure that dinner marked the end of my days of taking A-Train with me.  He was a lot of work to keep quiet and then he would not be quiet."  Literally overnight, he had gone from easy peasy dinner companion to no longer welcome!

The following Tuesday, at 8AM, I got a call from A.  I knew something was up with that early a call!  She said, "remember how I told you you should find that restaurant on Facebook, because the owner posts funny little rants and stuff?  Well I looked at Facebook this morning, and she wrote about us!"

My friend read me the post:
Of course we love babies! We particularly love our customers’ new babies. And we do not mind if babies cry; we understand it’s not always easy.

But we do not understand why two friends, each one with her new baby, would choose Le Petit to catch up and spend an entire evening with us sharing one entrée and insisting on having dessert when one of the babies was evidently very uncomfortable and spoiling everyone else's dinner.

Well, at least the moms seemed to have a great time. The unhappy baby’s mother even seemed to find it charming that her little one almost gave me a heart attack, suddenly screaming at the top of her lungs as I was explaining the desserts (in the most unattractive possible way, hoping they’d go for ice-scream somewhere else). But no, they wanted my desserts and were around for another 45 minutes.

Susann and Kent, you were most patient for I am quite sure you had envisioned a quieter dinner when you decided to celebrate your friend’s birthday at Le Petit. “What can you do?” you stoically said, Susann. (But it felt good when they left, didn’t it?)

I must confess I instructed Patrick to charge “a little more” for those two desserts. Ah! My petty revenges…  I should feel ashamed but it made me feel a little better.

What can you do?
We both made apologies for any disruption we might have caused, but also pointed out that a) hello!  we can read this! and b) she was exaggerating the degree to which my baby was noisy or upset and certainly the length of time we stayed after he was upset.  I thought that would be it, and then the thing went viral.  First it went all over Facebook, and then it left Facebook for various parenting-related websites.  People who weren't even there read between the lines of our short responses and asked things like, "why didn't she pick up her baby?  Why did she just let the baby cry?"  My favorite comment was "just nurse the baby!  They can't cry with a boob in their mouth!"  We were even shamed for commenting on the Facebook post and "outing ourselves."  As if we expected it to go viral or even had something to be ashamed of?

If I had a crystal ball and had known my baby was not going to behave as he normally did, I would have done things differently.  If I'd realized the restaurant went for a more upscale feel - or that customers expected that feel - I would have done things differently.  As it stands, the cafe is in a converted garage and has a bit of a bohemian feel.  I remember it as slightly cramped (I have only been there the one time).  It was listed on Yelp as family-friendly and had a breastfeeding-friendly sticker on the window.  They had two high chairs that were both in use when we arrived.  I was almost certainly a bit more laid-back about him being a little noisy than I would have been if I'd been in a place that was not (supposedly) family-friendly; if it weren't perceived as "family-friendly" I wouldn't have taken a baby there at all.

I was publicly castigated and shamed for the way I handled my happily noisy baby. Two years later, and I was right next door being congratulated on parenting my happily noisy child.  I am the same parent.  All that is different is the context. 

When you see a mom (OR DAD) leave an obnoxious behavior seemingly unaddressed, it doesn't mean she's rude or oblivious or not creating or enforcing boundaries.  If you see a mom enforcing boundaries and being stern, it doesn't necessarily mean she doesn't give her kids a lot of leeway and a lot of input about those boundaries...or that she doesn't still have a toddler who runs off into parking lots on a regular basis.  Or that she is always stern or mean.  Or that she won't feel a sisterhood with an unknown mom with a lively toddler who might burn the house down.

I can't control my kids.  And I can't always predict how they're going to behave.  I have influence and I provide guidance.  I do not have control or provide training like I would a dog or a horse.  They have boundaries, but many of them are soft and malleable.  I am often shocked by my children - in good and bad ways.  I have gone out with them expecting the worst, and watched them pull it together and behave wonderfully and be totally pleasant.  And, as evidenced by my experience being dragged all over the internet, I have gone out expecting smooth sailing and hit stormy weather.

Lastly, if you want to comment on a stranger's parenting, compliment them and move on.  Don't do it at the expense of someone else!  I appreciated that a fellow diner thought I handled a disturbance of their meal well.  Too bad the same actions would have been completely ineffective next door two years ago!
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