I’m paranoid about leaving my kids in the car unattended. I’m not afraid that they will overheat or freeze; I trust myself to be careful enough to make sure that would never happen. And yes, I’m haunted by the horror stories. What I’m paranoid about is someone calling the cops on me, turning a four-minute dash into the drugstore for a box of Tampax into a life-altering nightmare. When I’m in the U.S., I don’t usually take chances. I’ll carry one kid in one arm and hold the other by the hand, cross the parking lot, and tolerate the exponentially more inconvenient experience of shopping with two little kids to avoid a confrontation with a worked-up stranger. Yesterday, I took a chance and my number in the lottery came up.
I’ve just begun conducting field research for my Master’s thesis. I’m interviewing Jamaican-Canadian single moms about the way they incorporate mobile device use into their domestic routines. It’s been a challenge to find women to participate in my study, and when I do find them, it’s important for me to make sure it’s as easy as possible for them to participate. I come to them, at a time they decide on. That’s how I ended up at a Tim Horton’s in Pointe Claire on 5 p.m. on Sunday.
My husband had to work so I took the kids with me. This was an initial meeting with a new participant — we’d smile and shake hands, I’d give her a consent form to read and sign, I’d install an app on her phone to track her phone use, and we’d set a time to meet in a few days for the full-length interview. The whole encounter would last no more than five minutes, but it’s probably the most important five minutes I’ll spend with her. As a researcher asking people to open up about their lives, a good, professional first impression is crucial. She could easily decide she’s too busy to participate and drop out of the study.
I’d parked directly in front of the Tim’s, my windshield no more than 2 metres from the plate-glass windows behind which my study participant was waiting to meet me. I left the kids in their carseats and turned off the ignition, but I left the key in so they could listen to music, a condition my 5-year-old insisted on. Inside, I chose the table closest to the window facing my car. I introduced myself to the participant, we exchanged a few friendly words and she set about reading the consent paperwork. I glanced up at my car out the window, and it was Happening.
A woman of about 50 was standing beside my car, peering in at my kids with a look of horror on her face. I thought I saw her reach for her phone. I got up. “I’ll be right back,” I said to my tablemate. Luckily it was after dark, and the window reflection from the coffee shop’s interior lights made it hard to see outside unless you were really trying to look. She barely seemed to notice as I ran outside.
“They’re mine,” I said to the woman. I was very deliberately keeping my voice calm. “It’s OK. I’m just inside, I’ll be right out.”
“The car is on,” she said. “And he’s climbing around in there.”
She was right — my older son had unbuckled his seatbelt and had climbed into the front passenger’s seat. That wasn’t cool — I hadn’t known he could do that.
“Oh — thank you. You’re right,” I said. I reached in, took the key from the ignition and told my son to get back in his seat. Then I closed the car door and turned to head back inside.
“Are you serious?” she shouted at my back. “You’re going to leave your kids in the car.”
I stopped. The stakes for me in this situation suddenly felt very high. I needed my study participant on the other side of the window to trust me as a competent academic — something that I barely am, as a Master’s student. I needed her to feel good about participating in my study, and I need to complete this study in a timely way so that I can get my MA in the spring. Every single participant in this study has been a challenge to recruit. Every successful meeting has felt like a victory. She cannot see this happening, I thought.
The parking lot woman stood before me. She was half-inside her car, and behind her two teenage girls were watching. She wanted to go for it, the script was ready on her tongue. All I had to do was to get upset, start defending myself, raise my voice. It would be just like in the news — we both had seen the whole scene before. I’d get worked up like the unfit mom that I am, I’d start swearing, showing my true colours. She’d be the avenging angel, the defender of children everywhere.
I’ve thought a lot about how I want to respond to these types of encounters, because I’ve had them before. People want you to get mad and defend yourself, and it’s a bewildering experience for them if you don’t. They’re still mad, but they aren’t as easily justified in abusing you.
“Thank you for your vigilance, but I’m going back inside now,” I said to her.
She wasn’t ready to stop. “I can’t believe you!” she shouted. “Do you expect me to stay here and watch them?”
Here I tried to explain myself, which is almost always a mistake. I approached her car so I could keep my voice down. “Ma’am, I’m inside doing a short interview. I’m taking care of my kids while I am working. I’m doing my best. I appreciate your help, but I’m going to go now.”
I shouldn’t have said the part about the interview, because I’m sure that reminded her of viral news stories of single moms who leave their kids in the car while they go for job interviews at McDonald’s.
“No job is more important than the safety of your kids!” She was shouting now, savouring the cosmic deliciousness of Being Right. “Someone could come and get in the car, and drive away with them! It would take one second, and then where would you be?”
I turned around and went back inside. I couldn’t afford to keep my study participant waiting any longer and there was nothing left to say to this woman. At the table, my participant hadn’t noticed anything amiss, and was signing her form. I was upset but I hid it. Out the window, the woman stood by my car for a moment, and I wondered if she was going to call the cops after all. But she didn’t; she got in her car and left.
Any woman who spends enough time caring for children by herself in public will at some point be scolded by a stranger. It is inevitable. I’ve been criticized with varying degrees of hostility probably half a dozen times in the five years I’ve been a mother. It almost always happens when I am very obviously trying to do something under some degree of duress — carry groceries, move through a crowded store, complete a transaction, load or unload heavy shit. The chances someone shows compassion or a willingness to help in these situations is, in my experience, far less likely than it is for them to inform me that I’m fucking up.
It seems to be more appealing to scold and disdain a mother than it is to offer help. My experience has borne that out again and again. Sometimes, like yesterday at Tim Horton’s, I had made a mistake while trying to juggle my responsibilities. She was right about my keys — that was stupid of me. I’m grateful that she had the instinct to watch out for my kids that moment. She also could have called the cops and didn’t. But that obviously wasn’t the point. When I admitted my mistake and thanked her, she was not satisfied — what she wanted was for me to feel like shit. What is that?
My friend Sheri remarked to me that while it’s painful to see a stressed mom doing wrong by her kids — say, yelling at them in public — what she really needs is someone’s help. She does not need someone’s disapproval. Yes, children can be innocent victims of their parents’ choices. Why not help the parents manage their circumstances rather than punish them when they’re already struggling?
Last night at dinner I told this story, and we talked about how across town, the parking lot woman was probably telling a very different version to her family. Her teenaged daughters could chime in and corroborate all the details — how I didn’t seem to even care about my kids, how I seemed almost arrogant while blowing her off. (Me? NEVER!) It’s more fun for people to bask in their righteousness than to make a low-key effort in helping someone out. Is it easier for people to engage with a stranger through disapproval than through compassion? If your intention is to be helpful, be helpful. Don’t pick a fight so that you get to remind yourself and those around you that you’re THAT KIND OF PERSON, the kind of person who WON’T STAND FOR this or that. Most mothers don’t want to endanger their kids — give us the benefit of the doubt on that one.