I hate to write two bummer posts in a row – I’m not depressed, really – but I have to tell someone what I just experienced.
Babby and I were out for our walk with Beloved Dog, and while I picked up poop I could hear the screams of a tantruming child coming from a distance. In our family-friendly complex, this is such a common sound that it took me a while to register it on a conscious level. I began to realize that the pitch was… more urgent than a normal tantrum, and that the words that were being screamed were alternately “Mommy!” and “help!”
I looked around and spotted a small child, no more than three, clinging to the other side of the fence in the old abandoned school yard. People often take their dogs and kids back there to play, since there is a soccer field and playground equipment. I waited for a parent figure to show up and deal with the child, but no parent was in sight. I waited, and waited. No parent, just a small kid screaming for help.
So I crossed the road and started to walk towards the child. There was an open gate about thirty feet away from him, so he wasn’t trapped. But he was pressing his face to the fence and screaming for Mommy. Just as I reached him I heard an angry voice answering from a distance. I looked around and couldn’t see anyone. Was his mother shouting from a window? Maybe he had left the house without permission and gotten lost?
No, there she was, coming up the street a block and a half away on the other side of the street with two dogs on a leash and an irate expression. She was shouting for him to get his butt over to her. He heard her and redoubled his efforts.
“MOMMMMMYYYYY. HEEEEELLLLLLLLLLP MEEEEEEEEEEEE.”
“Just go around! Go around and then get over here!”
He continued to wail while trying to climb the fence.
“Get over here NOW. I mean it.”
What, across the road and everything?
I went through the gate and beckoned to the small boy. “Over here, sweetie,” I said, “just come over this way.”
But he clung to the fence, oblivious. “I want yoooou to come to meeee,” he begged his mother. “Mommmmy pleeeeease. Come to meeeeee.” His voice had that rough sound that kids get when they’ve been screaming for too long. Babby gets it all the time. You could see it in his face, this longing, the need, for his mother to return to him: to prove that she loved him.
He continued to sob as she stormed up through the gate, and grabbed him by the arm, and dragged him out. He struggled to regain his feet and followed her sobbing heart brokenly while she told him how much trouble he was in. He kept trying to reach for her hand.
“I can’t hold your hand,” she snapped, “I have to hold your train. Are you going to hold your train?”
“Nooooooo….” he said, grabbing for her hand, which she yanked away again.
“Well, then,” said the mother. I watched as they went down the road, the little boy desperately trying to get affection from his mother and continually being rejected.
I held Babby extra close to me as I watched them go, and thought “Huh. So that’s what an insecure attachment looks like.”
Now, before all of you with three year olds jump in and tell me how hard it is, let me say as a disclaimer that I realize I have no back story to this episode.
It was pretty evident from what I heard and saw that the boy had refused to leave the playground and that she had threatened to leave without him (a common parental threat which, let’s face it, usually works) and then followed through with it, going at least two blocks away and certainly out of sight.
Beyond that, I don’t know anything about the child’s usual behaviour, the mother’s personal life, her day leading up to this incident or any of the rest of it. I know this. I accept this. No mother is perfect. But I’m empathetic by nature and in this case my feelings were all with the little tot.
The thing that got me was that she was holding him to adult standards. She expected him to calm himself down, find the gate, cross the school lawn, cross the road diagonally, catch up to her, and probably apologize. If you had listened to the scolding she gave him, you would have thought she was talking to a much older child, even a teenager. But he wasn’t a teen, or even a big kid. He was maybe three years old. At most.
The whole “if you don’t come along I’m going to leave without you” threat is a risky card for a parent to play. Sure, it works most of the time, but what about the one time when the kid calls your bluff? If you fold, then your child learns that you don’t mean what you say. If you follow through, you actually have to leave your kid alone at the park… and you’ll have to come back for him eventually.
In general, I feel that love makes for a bad bargaining chip. To threaten to withdraw your love and protection scan be below the belt. When you’re little, being abandoned by your parents is your worst nightmare. You need your parents to survive.
How many of you have a hurtful memory that involve being rejected in some way by a parent? Hopefully it was a minor incident: Your painting not being put on the fridge. Finding last year’s Mother’s Day card in the trash. A parent missing a baseball game, or a concert. Nothing worse.
But even those minor memories still sting, don’t they?
I can’t help but wonder if this will become his first memory – crying alone in the park, convinced that his Mommy had left him forever, and too paralyzed with misery to leave and search for her.
Am I wrong to feel that this mother went a bit too far?
Do you have a memory like this from your childhood?
I’ma go hug my baby for a million years and wonder what I’m going to do the day he doesn’t want to leave the park.