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Paying it Forward
And the village we've forgotten
Man, I used to have so many opinions about parenting.
Even at a very young age, I would think, “I’d never let my kid do X,” or, “That kid needs a smack on the bottom.” My head was full of all the things parents and children are supposed to do and, despite having no children, I was most certainly a superior parent to the rest of them.
This is the point at which I might say, “And then I had kids and everything changed!”
But no. Even after I had kids, I was righteously superior to other parents who did things differently from me. We’ve all heard of the Mommy Wars at this point, but 12 years ago, when I had my first child, I hadn’t yet. I didn’t realize I was a pawn in a larger scheme to create a rift between two groups that should be first to jump to each other’s support: moms and other moms.
We all go through this shared trauma, flailing about while trying to figure out who our kid is, who we are as humans now that we have kids, and how to (at minimum) not screw them up entirely and (best-case scenario) raise them as a self-assured, independent, empathetic, productive member of a global society.
And we have no idea how to do it.
But we sure think we do! And, worse yet, we think we’re supposed to know. As if, upon giving birth, a manual is downloaded into our brain, and all we need to do is follow it.
Natural childbirth or scheduled induction with epidural? Breastmilk or formula? Cry-it-out or cosleep? Babywearing or stroller? Diapers or elimination communication? We spend months—years!—before our children are born answering these questions for ourselves and ginning up our justifications. We become so committed to our “side” that we often don’t realize there are no sides. None of these questions needs to have a binary answer; they all exist on a continuum, and there’s not a single answer that works for every child and family.
And then, of course, there are those questions that you never knew you needed to have answered, like “How do I grieve a loss when my children constantly need me to be present with them?” and “How do I navigate my children’s learning disability/food allergy/chronic illness/mental illness?” and many more. The answers to these questions change as the children grow older, and they’re never correct or sufficient because we moms are always in survival mode. And that manual? It doesn’t exist.
The cruel joke is entirely on us. Despite our best intentions, regardless of how superior we felt before we had children, and irrespective of our meticulous anxiety planning, kids will always usurp our plans with their own.
Case in point: Aruba, 2023.
It was time to go home. Nobody wanted to go home. It was my children’s first international trip, and my almost-three-year-old son had chosen that very weekend to enter a stage where he doesn’t like to change activities. Didn’t want to go to the beach. Didn’t want to leave the beach for the ostrich farm. Didn’t want to leave the ostrich farm for ice cream. Didn’t want to leave the ice cream place for the lighthouse. Didn’t want to leave the lighthouse to go back to the hotel, which is the first place he didn’t want to leave.
Now we had left the hotel for good, and what had seemed on Thursday like a half-day excursion away from the airport, on Tuesday ended up taking about 12 minutes in reverse.
The battles started before we even got inside the airport. “I don’t wan’ go in the stroller!” said the kid. Threats. Counting to three. Twice. Finally, a buckled seatbelt so he couldn’t slide out under the snack tray.
Inside the airport was a long line. I don’t even know what the line was for. Customs? Immigration? Some other word I don’t know because I rarely travel outside the country? All I know is that the line was long and full of Americans who, like us, would rather just abandon our lives back home and set up on the beach until the end of our days.
Americans who had no desire to listen to the rabid screams of a petulant toddler.
I know this particular toddler quite well, and he’s not usually petulant or rabid. He certainly had never screamed like this before. But those people in line didn’t know that, and I was desperate to do all the things (including the bad parent things) to entice him to quiet down. Because if he kept screaming, surely they’d know I was a bad parent.
“Want me to hold you?”
“Here. Have some juice.”
“I DON’ WAN’ JUICE! I WAN’ GET DOWN FROM HERE!”
“Well, bud, that’s not going to happen.”
“I DON’ WAN’ GO ON THE AIRPLANE,” he said.
I chuckled, and so did a few of the people around us. “No one else wants to go home either,” I said.
You can’t tell a kid in that situation to stfu. I mean, you can, but they won’t listen. Physical intimidation might have worked. But with all that talk about bottom smacking before I had kids, I’ve never raised a hand to them. He was escalated, and I couldn’t figure out why, but I needed him to ease up. As much as I kept my voice level and acted like his screams weren’t boring a hole from the top of my head down through my body, they definitely were. I started to shut down and disassociate, staring at the wall and silently begging the line to move faster.
And then, you won’t believe what the woman next to us did.
She knelt right down next to my son and started talking to him. “Hey bud,” she said. He turned his head away, but she kept talking. “Did you see flamingos while you were here in Aruba?”
I made eye contact with her. “Oh!” I said in that kindergarten-teacher voice I use when I’m talking to other adults but we want the little kids to listen. “No, we didn’t see any flamingos! We saw ostriches and peacocks. I didn’t even know they had flamingos here!”
“Oh, yes,” she said, still kneeling. “I have some pictures. Wanna see?”
My son slowly swiveled his head back in her direction. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing to her phone. “Is that a flamingo?” he said slowly.
They spent the next ten minutes swiping through bird photos on her phone and talking about the “circle beach” (Baby Beach, which was his favorite spot on all the island). By the time we reached the front of the line, he was de-escalated and had made a new friend.
I won’t pretend the rest of the trip was easy (We definitely had to football carry him onto the airplane), but that moment reminded me that moms don’t have to be in constant competition with one another. We can work to support each other—and in fact that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. That saying about it taking a village is true. And anyone can be the village. That day, airport lady was a part of mine.
Last week, we were out at a restaurant at a time reserved for the very old and the very young. We were seated in the back room, and the only other guests back there were another family at the next table over. My son doesn’t fit in a high chair anymore, so we had him sitting in a regular chair. The little boy next to us, just a few months younger but half his size, wasn’t thrilled.
Mom tried all the things (including saying, “Stop screaming like that!”), but the kiddo whined and screamed and after 30 seconds, she took him for a walk around the courtyard outside the restaurant. This whole scene repeated itself a few times. I didn’t want to ask, but I was hoping she wasn’t taking him outside for our benefit. I’m at the age and stage of parenting that, if it’s not my kid, I don’t even hear it.
My kid was antsy, too, and he knows that at this place they have a window where you can watch the pizza chef as she makes the pizzas and slides them into the brick oven. So he stood and watched for a minute, and she gave him some dough he could take back to our table and play with.
The other little boy was back in his high chair, deftly employing the Toddler Food Refusal superpower, and after a minute I could hear him escalate again. I didn’t have to look at Mom’s face to know she looked like I did at the airport. She wanted to eat her dinner. She wanted her kid to just shut up and eat, or color, or play with the toy truck they’d brought for him. He wouldn’t do any of those things.
I went over and knelt next to her, just as she was about to stand up and take him for yet another walk. “Do you think he’ll play with some of this dough?” I asked, pointing to my kid’s uncooked pizza crust.
She blinked. “What?” she asked. She looked like she was expecting me to say something a lot less polite. I repeated myself, and she said, “Oh. Maybe!”
I grabbed a chunk from my son’s plate and showed it to the little boy. I rolled it up, flattened it, stretched it out, and rolled it up again. “Wanna try?” I asked.
He turned his head away from me. “It’s okay, bud, I’ll just leave this here,” I said.
We chatted with the parents a little, and we all finished eating around the same time. The boys ran around on the courtyard before we all went our separate ways. “Mom,” said my daughter. “You were that lady’s airport mom.”
I smiled. I hadn’t thought of that incident in months. “I guess you’re right,” I told her. “And you just gave me the topic for next week’s essay.”