I was on a beach in the Caribbean. It was a long-planned, greatly anticipated vacation at the end of a particularly grueling year. The plan was to sleep, read, write, enjoy nature, eat fabulous food prepared by someone else, and contemplate great questions about life, work, and purpose. So far so good. I wasn’t alone on that beach by any means; three cruise ships had docked that morning – one from Disney no less – and instead of reading my book, I was actually preferring to watch a super enthusiastic man growling and splashing about with his super jubilant son (I gathered) and two nephews, all under age five. I’d just returned from an epic snorkeling trip, and the water and salt were slowly evaporating off my contented body as I enjoyed the lingering moment in the sun.
Gradually, I became aware of the family occupying the beach chairs behind me. There seemed to be one woman and a gaggle of children (also under five) whose names I quickly learned because she was constantly admonishing them in a fifties-housewife-on-valium sort of extra-saccharine, extra-restrained voice. This voice was having little effect. Julia in particular seemed to be a handful. I got the sense she was going to do what she pleased, with a younger one, Estela, sometimes following suit. Julia would wander off to the water, or to the boats, just out of danger. Sometimes a boy her age, Leo, was a part of her shenaningans. I saw in their faces not the look of “I’m exploring this fascinating world, being curious and delightful” but rather “Screw you grownups, I’m gonna do whatever the hell I want and you can’t stop me.”
There was also whining and shrieking. Again, shrieks of delight are one thing, shrieks of manipulation and defiance are another. And the whine of a human child is one of my least favorite sounds on earth. Shrieks of manipulation and defiance administered in unpredictable bursts at full volume are even lower on the list.
And yet one more startling round of three children shrieking in whiny unison had just burst a few feet behind my head.
What happened next was out of the ordinary for me. Not only had I not given much thought to whether to say anything, what, or how, I somehow reached my limit with no warning, leaned around to look at the family behind my beach chair and communicated the following with an unaccustomed intensity:
“Oh. Come! ON!!”
In retrospect I’m proud of myself for accomplishing three things I’ve been working on: being in the moment, being honest about my feelings, and not thinking too much. But even if I’d thought about it, I wouldn’t have expected what happened next.
The woman – in an equally nasty tone – replied: “Why don’t you just move?!! There are children here!!”
I’m not entirely sure how I responded, but I think I said: “Oh, that’s your solution?!”
Pissed-off mama bear: “What would you like me to do, kill them?!”
Whoa. Even in that moment, I was aware that particular statement was so not about me. Startled by this infanticidal suggestion, I got some of my sanity back and asked [tone still a bit nasty]: “How about something in the middle?!”
Her reply (so not a response to my statement-disguised-as-a-question): “Do you have children?!!!”
I turned my head back around to face the ocean and shook it in an exasperated “you’re worthless and I’m done having this stupid conversation with you” sort of way. But it was because I knew she’d just played the mommy card on me and I couldn’t win.
After a few seconds, I thought of something to say: “Whether or not I have children is irrelevant to the fact that yours are being spoiled brats and disruptive to others!!” I also thought of “Yes, there are children here, do you see any of them acting the fool quite like yours?” and “Your children’s need to shriek and whine, and your need to do nothing about it are not more important than my need to have some reasonable peace and quiet on my hard-earned vacation!” I thought of calling her mommy card play and slightly lying: “Yes I do, she’s 34 years old and never acted like yours even on a bad day!” or outright lying and saying, “Yes, and I left them at home since this is not the place for young children, especially misbehaving mini a-holes like yours!”
I also thought of “Why don’t you leave?! You are the ones who are acting inappropriately for this setting!!” or “It’s your job as a grownup to teach your children to be appropriate to the environment and considerate of others!” (Not too long before I’d lost it, Mama Bear had been pleading with the kids to be quiet since people were getting beachside massages nearby – no joke, and you should have seen the therapists’ faces at one point, watching the performance.) I could have played the classic female you’re-out-of-line-with-the-group-and-I-speak-for-the-mob card and said “Can’t you see you’re ruining the experience for everyone here?!”
But I didn’t say anything, and thankfully the aunt/sister/friend returned, who turned out to be the mother of Julia and Estela, and they calmed down. Mama Bear left to go “check on Baby Alexander” (good grief there were more?).
This episode brought up some things for me as a childfree (childless by choice) person. First, my anger about the tremendous and unfair entitlement many parents feel, just because they are parents. I understand there may be some biological and hormonal issues at play in their feelings and reactions that I know nothing about, but if I were to have gotten drunk on piña coladas and traipsed up and down the beach shrieking, whining, bothering strangers, touching other people’s things and partially exposing myself too, I would have been asked to leave, and rightly so. As a group we tolerate behavior from children and young people that is inappropriate, and then wonder years later why they’ve grown up feeling so entitled and acting so helpless and selfish (Boomer parents of Gen Yers, are you listening?)
And speaking of the group, the whole idea of the nuclear family is a recent development during just the last few decades of the thousands of years of the human experience, and one we aren’t really built for. The responsibility of raising a child (much less two or three or more) being born by one and maybe two adults alone, is not something we are equipped for, nor do well. We should all play a part in ensuring the safety and appropriate socialization of children and youth because their socialization is critical to us all. I may have decided not to become a parent myself, but I have a vested material interest in your children growing up to be respectful, considerate, mature, contributing individuals. I have stepped in more than once to ensure the physical safety of a child that’s not mine, but not to discipline or ensure emotional safety, because of my well-founded fear of the caretaker’s wrath. [By the way — never doubt that women are capable of aggression, especially when our children are threatened. We would do well to cultivate the same level and immediacy of anger and action when our own person – our bodies, our communities, our planet – are threatened as well.]
I think the way many parents treat their children like their private personal possessions is unhealthy for them and all of us and also unrealistic, since not only do I pay taxes that help support those kids (and vote for pro-kid initiatives by the way), I also pay – and handsomely – for those kids who end up needing public services, prison, or other types of support. I pay in less material ways as well when children and young people grow up being irresponsible, disrespectful, incompetent, poor critical thinkers and self-centered.
So just as “there are children here” doesn’t give permission to those children to behave however they want, it also doesn’t give you, as the adult in charge, permission to flail and beseech helplessly without taking charge, managing the situation, mentoring the younglings and demonstrating leadership.
Along those lines, the second thing this episode brought up for me is my disagreement with the belief that only parents have the right to say anything about how children are acting or being raised. The classic “Do you have children?!” phrase isn’t a question, it’s a challenge to the legitimacy of any concerns I might have about your children’s behavior or your choices as a parent. It’s a trap whose primary purpose is to get me to shut the hell up. If I say “no” I don’t have children, the response is that I therefore can’t possibly understand or know what I’m talking about, and should shut the hell up. But if I say “yes” there would be some other excuse for why I’m unqualified to have an opinion or a say, and should still shut the hell up: “I bet they’re terrors too” or “You probably don’t love them as much as I love mine” or “You probably beat yours to make them mind” or “You raised yours in a different time when it was easier” or “But I have to do this on my own and you have help” or “But I have more than you” or “But you don’t know what it’s like to raise these children.” Blah blah blah.
I get that as a non-parent I don’t understand what it’s like to have my own child. I really don’t know what it’s like to be a mom – all day every day for years on end. But I do have some sense of what it’s like to parent. I had a hand in raising my much-younger sister (the aforementioned 34-year-old), I’ve taken care of kids of various ages off and on for many years, and I’ve had many intimate glimpses into the lives of friends with children. One of the reasons I’m childfree is because I do have a sense of what parenting requires, and I’m not willing to sign up for everything that commitment requires, especially with so many uncertainties a part of the bargain. I believe everyone should give much serious thought to this choice — to taking on one of the most important jobs for humanity — and I feel many millions (billions?) more should bow out as I did instead of throwing their frustrations or shortcomings in meeting their job requirements in the faces of those who said “no thanks”. Empathy enhances connection and broadens perspective, but my complete understanding of what parents go through is not required to have observations, concerns, and requests. Understanding doesn’t equal agreement.
Which brings me to the third item this episode brought up for me. The mommy card play is designed as a trap not only to shut up someone like me, but also to shut down mommy’s insecurities and serve as a righteous “get out of jail free” pass. Mama Bear’s sudden rage and suggestion she kill the kids was coming from a deep place. I suspect her embarrassment and frustration were simmering just under the surface, and my nasty comment just boiled her over by expressing what she felt she couldn’t, in order to remain a good person, a good woman, and a good mommy. Maybe her extra-restrained-extra-saccharine-fifties-housewife-on-valium manner was meant to regulate her own nervous system more than her kids’ behavior. Maybe she was jealous of me — older than her, rocking my bikini, enjoying the sun and some adult beverages unencumbered by anyone else’s antics or whims or schedules. Maybe she dreams of killing her kids and being free, and feels guilty or represses these thoughts. Murder was really nowhere on my mind that day, just a desire for less shrieking. I could have asked for this in a way that was less nasty, more mature, more appropriate, more considerate and more understanding – all the things I wanted from her and her children.
Thankfully, the Universe gave me an opportunity to try again. The very next night, after travelling all day and arriving tired on an island in another part of the Caribbean, there was a bit of revelry going on in the hot tub just outside my bungalow. Normally that was the sort of thing I’d be interested in checking out, but I’d had enough of meeting new people for one day, and my body was weary. I read for a while, and went to bed just before 11, the hour of the B&B’s quiet hours. The party group had left for a while, but were back, and after several minutes trying to sleep despite the noise, I decided to act before I got really frustrated, and thought a little about how to approach this. I opened the sliding door to my bungalow and addressed the six folks in the hot tub in a calm, even voice with something like this:
“I don’t mean to break up anyone’s fun, but it’s past 11 and I’m having trouble sleeping because I can hear you guys even with my door closed. Do you think you might be able to continue your party in a way that can allow me to sleep?”
The group was mildly apologetic, and I heard one quiet “wow.” The group dispersed and I went to sleep easily, putting aside my mild feelings of guilt and false mental scripts about being a party pooper or selfish.
The next morning at breakfast, two women sat down at a table near mine and said hello to the folks at another table, addressing them affectionately as “troublemakers.” Based on this, I assumed they had been part of the hot tub group, since I hadn’t seen their faces last night in the dark. I braced myself for some passive aggressive public shunning. Instead, after I chuckled at something witty and sexy one of the women said regarding the previous night’s events, she addressed me, asking if I was the one who’d asked them to be quiet. I said yes, and that I hoped I hadn’t come across as bitchy, but clear, assertive, and non-violent. She said not at all, said my approach was indeed just that, and actually thanked me!
That night at happy hour, the same pair invited me to join them, and we had a delightful lengthy conversation which continued the next morning at breakfast. I left the B&B later that day having gained two new friends, enriched by their humor and intelligence, inspired by their happy relationship dynamic, and validated by their appreciation. In fact, they told me they had actually debriefed my response to their noise and found it very effective and aligned with their own values and goals. Wow!!
Sometimes we’re not our best selves. Sometimes we learn from what happens when we’re not. And sometimes we get a do over, and find not only our paths again, but kindred souls on the same journey.
Happy New Year and Happy Blazing New Trails!
In lak ech,