I see her all the time: my pre-motherhood self. I see her in unimpressed strangers if my three year-old launches a ‘BUT I WANT IT’ rage over some withheld treat, or the baby wails in her buggy on the bus. I see her in the man whose face falls when we sit next to him on the train. I even see flashes of her in the café owner whose frozen smile and barbed comments have left my girls and me effectively ASBO’d. Most of all, I saw her in the student who spent an entire carol service glaring at the two families in the row behind: four harassed and (initially) apologetic parents, two wriggling and vocal toddlers, and a baby I was trying to breastfeed under my coat so she didn’t scream the place down.
Ten, twenty years ago, I couldn’t bear it when children had snot running down their face. My internal monologues on the people who ‘let’ their children scream during weddings were a masterclass in intolerance. I used to wonder why parents whose babies kept me awake on a plane weren’t marching them up and down the aisle from take-off to landing. I would have loved the latest transport innovation: child-free zones.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like children. I adored my little cousins and later my nephews and friends’ children. But I thought parenting was just a matter of doing it the right way. I thought badly behaved kids = terrible parents. I failed altogether to grasp two simple truths. 1) Children are their own people. 2) You’re so desperately tired – from the start of pregnancy until, well, forever probably – that it’s impossible to follow even the simplest rules.
Calm but firm, I thought, looking superiorly around at all the uncalm, unfirm parents and rampant children around me. That’s all it takes. Now I wish I could go spiralling back through the decades and chant at my former self: ‘Calm but firm. Calm but firm. CALM BUT FIRM. Ha ha ha ha ha.’ Then I’d go round apologising on her behalf.
Of course, I still judge other people’s parenting. (Be honest: we all do it.) But I’ve got a whole new margin of tolerance, and a whole new realm of understanding. There is some bad parenting – there is some shockingly awful parenting – but there are a lot more parents who are trying their best, even if that isn’t always obvious to the childfree bystander.
I understand, now, that the four year-old sprinting up and down the train carriage has probably been allowed to do that because she’ll yell herself silly otherwise. I know if you are only going two bus stops more, it’s not worth wresting the baby out of the buggy to calm her down. I understand that the mother clutching her wailing infant on a plane may be too exhausted from a zillion sleepless nights to stand, never mind walk. I know the baby may be teething, or have sore ears.
I know that snotty-nosed mite’s parents probably did just wipe it, because I am now horribly familiar with the incredible speed and volume of toddler snot production. (Scientists should really be trying to replicate it as an energy source.) I realise it’s at least a possibility that the happy couple asked parents not to remove their noisy offspring from the wedding ceremony. (Although I’m still kind of with younger-me on that one: I whisk my own babies out at the first squeak, with the result that the only wedding service T. and I have sat through together since A. was born was the one with the no children rule.)
Now I think why on earth have a kids’ menu if you don’t want actual – living, breathing, moving – children in your café. (Faced recently with a notice on a restaurant indicating that children were welcome only if they were quiet and still, my sister and and I laughed out loud and took our hungry brood elsewhere.) I realise that parents have to do some of the things they enjoy with their little monsters in tow. It’s that or have no life. And why the hell not? It’s crucial bonding. Plus children are part of society – even if some commentators seem to forget that – and get as much if not more out of museums, galleries, parks and holidays as we do.
Most of all, I understand just how hard it can be to say ‘no’ to a small person who has your heart firmly gripped in their little fist. And I know how bad you can feel when you give in to those disapproving stares and end up being stricter than you actually think is fair.
But that doesn’t mean it should be a free-for-all. If we expect tolerance, we have to show some consideration. As parents, we’re not always good at that. We are all too inclined to think the world should revolve around our children, and that they are so cute that everyone should be prepared to overlook even the most outrageous behaviour. (People are much the same with their dogs, I’ve noticed, and it is every bit as misjudged there.)
Why should the childfree should have to put up with all the noise and mess that goes with being around small children, when they don’t get the amazing, intangible positive stuff that we get from parenting? It’s not like we do them a favour by having children. (In fact, as an environmentalist, I feel like I should thank anyone who chooses not to.) Maybe we should remember that more often than we manage to do, caught up in those day-to-day exhaustions and petty battles.
There’s a line somewhere between letting your toddler stand up on the bus seat to chat to the passengers behind, and watching her drag all the books off the shelves in a shop; between handing out ‘I’m sorry’ goody bags to fellow passengers the minute you step onto the plane, and sitting silently while your progeny throw food and pull hair all journey. And, of course, there are venues and venues. Anyone who has had a special occasion meal out ruined by someone else’s running, shouting child is entitled to be pissed off. But it’s just plain stupid to take a laptop into a ‘yummy mummy’ café and expect peace and quiet to work.
As for me, I like to think I have some intuitive idea of where that fine line lies between being over-restrictive to my girls and inconsiderate to others. But I still fall off it, on one side or the other, on an almost daily basis.