miércoles, 30 de abril de 2014

The Kindness of Strangers

I have been a mother for nearly eight years now and I'm very comfortable in my role. I think I was born to be a mother, so I feel very fortunate to have children. It is, by far, the best thing that has ever or will ever happen to me. In fact, I must be one of those women who seem to have the words "I'M A MUM, SO YOU CAN CALL ME MUM" written on their foreheads. Or does it happen to all women with children that other people call them "mum"? Not other children, but other adults, usually people who don't know you and rather than asking your name, they call you mum because that's what you are: a mum. I always feel like saying, 'Carmen to you, thank you very much,' but I never do because I'm too polite (even if some people might think that I'm not because I don't make my kids apologise or say the magic word. If you want to know more about what I do instead, read My mum doesn't say I have to say sorry.)

While in Spain, if the kids are with me, I get the usted treatment. It is considered more polite, but I've always hated it because it makes me feel old, but more importantly because I think every human being should be treated with respect regardless of age or social status. In a way I think I should be thankful for people thinking that I deserve more respect for having such an enormous responsibility as raising kids. The problem is, I don't think that's it. What happens is that when you have kids you look older. Or when you don't have them you look younger. When they're not around, I'm the most relaxed person in the whole world, because it happens so rarely that I don't have to worry about anyone else but me. And so, people think I'm at least ten years younger than I really am. (When the kids are happy I'm also relaxed and a couple of people have actually asked me if Dave is the result of an adolescent slip. I love it!) In Spain I'm instantly downgraded to and everywhere else people are suddenly interested in knowing my name.

I love meeting new people for lots of good reasons. And I especially love talking to strangers, because most of the time it turns out to be an enriching experience. I have treasured memories involving strangers and difficult societal moments with the children. Maybe I value them so much because during my first years as a mum I was so disappointed in my immediate family members and their lack of involvement in my children's lives. Sure, my way of parenting was revolutionary and shocking to them, but I still expected more understanding than what I got. Never mind: it was their loss and I had support anyway. We all need a tribe and, as individualistic as I am, I eventually found mine. I've met people with a similar philosophy to mine when it comes to raise children and I don't feel as alone as I did the first few years. Back then I resented the fact that on top of educating children I had to educate the adults around me who acted in a certain way just because it had always been done that way and never stopped to question what was wrong about it.

One such memorable moment I treasure happened when Dave was only months old and we didn't have Alex yet. We were at a supermarket and out of the blue he started crying and screaming as if possessed. His dad couldn't stand it. He demanded to know what was wrong so that we could stop it. I said I didn't know but not to worry, it would pass. In the meantime I tried to soothe Dave, to no avail. So his dad asked me to leave the supermarket, it was too embarrassing and flustering; he would do the shopping alone. Of course as soon as we were outside, the baby was happy again. It took me longer to calm down because I had to get over the stress not the baby but the dad had given me. As I was breathing in and out, a middle-aged woman came out of the supermarket. She must have witnessed the scene, because she came up to me, gripped me by the shoulder and said, 'You're doing an amazing job. Hang in there.' I felt so grateful I was close to tears. At least somebody noticed.

Another time, also in a supermarket, I was by myself with the two little ones. It must have been when they were 1 and 2, close to 3, or a bit earlier. They were both screaming, and Dave was throwing a full-on tantrum. This time, though, I couldn't just leave: we had to do the shopping because we needed the food. So I went on, trying to ignore the judgemental looks from people who obviously didn't have children or it had been too long since they did. Despite all the screeching noises my kids were making, one brave young man came up to us, put a comforting hand on Dave's head, ruffled his hair, and smiled at him. Dave instantly stopped crying and so did Alex. It was like magic and again, I felt so grateful.

I've learned a lot from these little experiences, mainly to do the same myself. I must say that these two little episodes both happened in Australia. In other countries my children have been offered lollies in exchange for quietness and 'good behaviour'. Now that did not make me happy, so instead of a thank-you those people got a sigh from me and they were welcome to think I was an ungrateful cow, cos I was.

My kids don't scream at supermarkets anymore, now they fight. Out of the corner of my eye, I always see the looks from people who disapprove either because I let them punch each other while I get the job done or because I'm constantly hissing at them to stop it. But I ignore these people. I only pay attention to the nice ones because I am one myself. I'm one of those who understand and rather than give a nasty look because your child is disturbing my peace, I try to do a nice gesture to make things easier for everyone.

We are in the Philippines now. As we went through customs again, I was reminded of the last time we left Australia, only last month, to go to Singapore. We were protagonists of a scene that neither three of us will ever forget because I'm sure I'll tell Dave and Alex about it many times in the years to come (they always find this sort of stories hilarious). This particular time, Alex was crying his heart out as we were waiting in a very long line to go through immigration at the Perth airport. Everyone was silent as the situation required, except for my two angels: one crying and the other shouting at him to stop. Dave, like his dad, can't stand a child's cry, it drives him up the wall. Alex, like me, doesn't have a problem with it. But Dave can't just leave the scene, because he is, after all, a child himself. Instead, when his brother cries he shouts at him and hits him. For years I've tried to make him see that it only makes things worse because he's adding insult to injury, literally. If it happens when we're at home, Dave now shuts himself in another room until Alex lets it all out and is fine again. At the immigration cue, though, there was no escape. While rubbing Alex's shoulders, I was trying to shield him from Dave's kicks. People were staring at us and the immigration officials stamping passports were looking up and frowning. I was sweating and hoping one of them would gesture to me to jump the line, but that doesn't happen anymore. Only when your kids are babies it does, but when they're 6 and 7 you're expected to control them. I pleaded with Dave to stop hitting his brother because he was hurting him. He said Alex's cries were hurting his ears. The man just behind us was looking at us as if he wanted to kill one of my kids, but I couldn't figure out which one. If only that nice young man from years ago had been there and put a friendly hand on Dave's shoulder... I was so desperate that I actually hissed at Dave, 'What you're doing is child abuse, you know, and we're surrounded by police. If you don't stop it we're all going to end up in jail.' I'm not proud of it, and as soon as my words left my mouth I knew how wrong that was and vowed never to do it again. It didn't work anyway, but it had another effect: the man in front of me started laughing. 'Don't laugh!' I said but at that point I couldn't help the giggles myself. I was so stressed out that I became hysterical. It was just the two of us laughing, everyone else was pissed off. Alex kept on crying the whole time and Dave trying to get at him. But as soon as we crossed the line and officially left Australia, although still at the airport, both kids were happy again and talking to each other as if they were best friends. My heart still pounding fast, I knelt down and asked them what the hell was all that about. They both gave me innocent looks and asked what I meant. They were contented for the remaining of the journey. On the plane a woman who claimed to be a grandmother said to me, 'You have the best behaved children I have ever seen, honestly. How do you do it? Parents nowadays don't know how to handle children, but yours are absolute angels.'  Lying doesn't come naturally to me so I told her they were not always like that. She insisted that they deserved the Nobel Prize for Best Children in the Whole Wide World and I should be so proud. So I thanked her and said I guessed I was lucky. Then I sighed and asked the boys what they thought about that. They shrugged their shoulders as if to say 'whatever'. 'I think it is pretty obvious that she wasn't at the immigration line when we were,' I said.