The kindness of strangers

Anyone who has ever tried to go anywhere with a toddler will be aware of the Russian Roulette of outings. When you pack your toddler in the car with 39 changes of clothes, including snacks, a potty, a selection of small plastic dinosaurs, and the all-important wet-weather gear that the odds are he will refuse to wear, you are rolling the dice. Sometimes you get a sweet, biddable young thing who will cheerfully trot beside you, holding your hand and chattering away about the things he can see and hear. And sometimes, for the heinous crime of attempting to leave the house and have something approaching a lovely time, you get the full performance of weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth, and a borderline nuclear meltdown. Gone is the sunny little chap who laughs at funny faces and who enthusiastically hurls food at ducks while declaiming “Hello! I have a special surprise for you!” In his place is a small ball of fury who flails, screeches, and refuses to move. There is just you, him, and a battle of wills, sometimes with an audience. There’s something especially awful about having to deal with a meltdown in public. I sometimes wonder whether the onlookers are going to hold up scorecards like judges at the Olympics. Are they comparing notes?

I experienced one such incident a few weeks ago, when I met a friend for a walk with her toddler and I was unreasonable enough to take my son out of the car and attempt to put his wellies on him. For anyone who is a Lord of the Rings fan, it was a bit like that part in The Two Towers when Frodo and Sam put the elven rope on Gollum. He didn’t want to put wellies on, I didn’t want him to walk in his bare feet. Complete stalemate. So I was standing in the car park, trying to negotiate with Junior Gollum and getting nowhere, and then, miracle of miracles, a smiling lady with a dog appeared. Instead of giving me a sympathetic “I’m not looking at you because I’ve been there and I know how awful it is” non-look, or an inquisitive “I’m looking at you because I want to know how this will turn out” look, she just smiled at my son, complimented him on his (admittedly awesome) dinosaur hat, and asked him if he wanted to say hello to her dog. She kept talking to him in a warm, friendly voice until he was distracted enough that he forgot how angry he was. And little by little, it worked. I got his wellies on him. He walked a few steps, and then he took my hand. We walked along and the lady said that my son reminded her of when her children were little. Talking to someone who had experienced this, even for a moment, made me feel so much better, like I was less alone, especially given the current socially distant world. I felt less like I had a neon sign over my head saying HELP I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING and more like this was something that could, and did, happen to anyone. It was brilliant.

I was reminded of this last week when I went to the Motherkind Café book group and the subject of the kindness of strangers came up in our discussion. Lots of us had had experiences like this, where we’d felt embarrassed and like we were inconveniencing other people when our children had caused a stir in public, but had instead found sympathy and understanding from people who had been there before. Knowing that there are these strangers out there who will share a moment of connection with you over the highs and lows of life with small children rather than ignoring or judging you means so much. And that feeling of being part of something bigger, part of a community of mothers who have been there and who just get it, is exactly what we’re trying to build with the café. So if you’re currently playing Toddler Russian Roulette, Naptime Bingo, or any of the other odd games that are part of motherhood, you’re not alone. Come and join us at The Motherkind Virtual Café on Facebook, where you can find solidarity, support, and the kindness of strangers.

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