Leslie here! I am an expert on judgment, being a professional columnist, blogger and judge of things. And I expect blowback sometimes, even with the judgement it warranted, because that’s just how it goes. But that’s when it concerns stuff I think or feel, that has to do with my decisions about “American Idol” or Oprah or whether Denzel Washington is the best whatever there ever was (He is.)
Now, I know what it’s like to be judged, by a complete stranger, about a decision I made that, in that judgey stranger’s mind, would endanger a child. And I have been told to expect this, now that we are hanging out with a baby for the time being. But it still made me want to punch somebody.
Let me set the scene. I am standing at the counter of the local outpost of a huge drug store conglomerate, having placed baby wipes, an ear thermometer and a bottle of wine in front of the cash register. The friendly cashier informs me that I could not buy the wine at this time, as Florida laws prohibit the sale of such things before noon on Sunday. OK, I say, happily putting the wine behind me. I’m not a wino, so I don’t go “What?” or try to hide it in my baby bag.
This may have been the start of the judgement – I think it was – because I appear to be a mother buying alcohol while holding a baby. And I admit I thought “Is that weird?” before I went to the counter, but then decided that it didn’t matter. It’s not like I was drinking it there, or that I’d bellied up to the bar at Blue Martini and ordered a Cosmo with the baby on my hip. It’s legal (after noon on Sunday, anyway), they sell it and I was gonna try to buy it. So I couldn’t, so I cheerfully give her my credit card and rewards number, and waited for her to finish up.
And then she judge-slaps me.
“Is Mommy hurting you?”
I have only been hanging out with this kid for a few weeks, so I still take a couple of seconds to remember that people are talking about me when they say “Mommy” and that my own mother didn’t sneak behind me and was not, in this case, sticking me with a straight pin from behind. Then I realize “Oh, snap. She’s talking me….Accusing me.”
“I’m sorry?” I say. But she keeps staring at the baby, who is happily sucking on his pacifier and smiling at her because he likes attention, and addresses him. Although she is clearly addressing me, as the only person who understands English on this side of the counter is me.
“That bracelet,” she coos, in the most chillingly fake-cordial manner, like I’m on idiot. “She looks like she’s hurting you.”
The baby she is “speaking” to continues to stare and smile contentedly, not like someone being hurt. I look down at my bracelet, which looks like metal spikes but is really just cleverly-engineered plastic, that pulls apart, is not sharp, is quite dull and most importantly not hurting the baby only slightly leaning against it. Because this is a talky expressive boy who would not be shy about telling you he was being impaled. Or at all uncomfortable. Or wondering why you’re not sharing whatever is in that bowl with him, like, right now.
“Oh, no! It’s not sharp. It’s plastic. He’s fine, see?” I say, snapping the elastic on it so she sees it’s all a clever fake. And you know what she does? Are you ready for this, y’all?
SHE KEEPS TALKING TO THE BABY.
“Well, it looks sharp,” she says, her voice now condescendingly saccharine and pointed, now full of sour grapes as if I was the person who’d made an assumption about her and her character. “She looks like she’s hurting you.”
And I want to say “Bisnatch, if I was really impaling this child on my arm, I would want you to call 911 or whatever. But I showed you it was plastic and not hurting him, he is telling you it’s not hurting him because he’s smiling like you’re made of Similac and peaches, and you’re being really condescending, so you need to give me my bag that does not have wine in it and instead is full of things that prove I am taking care of this boy rather than stabbing him with fashion, and keep that mess to yourself. Or at least talk to me like an adult and not like a stupid child.”
I do not say that, of course, because I am not crazy, and because she didn’t deserve my dignity. I take my bag and go home. Here is the thing – I have seen parents and guardians do things in public that made me suspicious, and I have wanted to say something, but don’t, because I don’t know that family’s life and unless it is very obvious that they’re pushing the child down the steps, or forcing them to eat paint in the checkout line at Target, I am not getting involved.
I am reminded of my mom’s story about being in the supermarket and telling us, her twin three-year-olds, that Superman could fly “because,” because even though she and my dad were stalwart in always coming up with answers for us about everything, at that moment it was after work, she had two toddlers pestering her about some nonsense, she wanted to go home and she was fresh out of creative, you dig? But a woman in the aisle who was listening frowned at her and said “You never tell those babies ‘Because.’ You give them an answer” as if she knew that my mother was a neglectful stupid person and not a then-current Masters in Social Work candidate who knew all about what to tell her kids. You know why she didn’t know?
Because she didn’t know her. And because it wasn’t her business. My mother wasn’t cursing us out. She wasn’t beating us or impaling us with dangerous accessories. She was just trying to get us to shut up long enough to go home and keep being an awesome mom, because she was and is awesome.
But this stranger saw fit to butt in and assume things about her based on one tiny exchange. I suspect that it may be because she, as I am, is black, and people seem to assume that black women are inclined to be bad mothers unless someone corrects them.
(And before you think I am “bringing race into this,” a phrase which makes me giggle angrily like I WANT people to act like I’m a neglectful wretch in a Lifetime movie, consider this. The day my husband and I flew back with the kid, the nice women who had helped me in the bathroom by finding my wipes to help correct a baby butt explosion saw me a few moments later meeting my husband in the terminal with the baby carrier, because as a man he could not actually come into the bathroom with me. They were visibly shocked that I was not alone. “Oh! You have a helper!” one woman said, only half trying to hide her surprise. Not, “Oh your husband or partner is here! Great!” Nope. “A helper.” Lady. It’s my husband. But we don’t have the same skin color, so he must just be a stranger or, I don’t know, the guy I hired to carry the diaper bag for today. I mean, I’m 42. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a single mother. But I am not one, and I don’t think that at my age, were I not black, that you’d assume that. Also, I have this ring on my finger. It should not surprise you that I am married or partnered. And yet….)
I have told this spiky bracelet story to many mothers, of every race, and all of them have similar stories of nosy people who don’t have a good reason to tell them they are mothering all wrong. Here is the thing. If you see my endangering this or any child in my care, like danger you can prove, do something about it. I know you’re trying to help. But don’t be cute about it. And then don’t get snippy with my when you’re wrong.
And don’t tell the baby about it. He doesn’t speak English yet.