Last night was one of those real Dark Night of the Soul type deals. It started out innocently enough – fun, really. We had our chores done and our dinner in our bellies and decided to take a brief trip to Walmart for cheap costume supplies. You know how it is when you’re working on a creative project: it takes a little energy and a little focus: Should we head to housewares and look for cable ties? Oh – maybe they have a curtain we could cut up for a cape! or should we go look in the fabric yardage? That kind of thing.
So in between finding some 2X pantyhose and shiny ladies briefs for my husband (you heard) and just before we headed to the toy section for some plastic sea animals – my son Nels started doing his, dart-and-run act and then, actually ran.
Now I generally let my kids go here or there. I almost always know where they’re going (hello, Saturday’s Portland airport escalator fetishist!). But in this case, the “there” for Nels was a particularly douchey combination of scrabbling around under the clothes racks and staying out of grownups’ eyesight.
I don’t know this because I saw him do it (obviously). No, the second I realized Nels had ran off we abandoned our crafting and went looking. And looking. In a couple minutes I walked smack into three female Walmart employees talking about my son. They were loud, they weren’t doing work – or helping wrangle the runaway – and they were speaking in one hundred percent bitch-off voices, all three of them snide and judgy-like. “Well at first I thought it was a girl but I guess it was a boy,” one of the women sneered. “He’s going to get hurt,” a second one chimed in – and let me tell you, the amount of concern for a child getting hurt was at about a negative twelve hundred percent. “Out of control.” the first woman shook her head, turning back to installing child-labor goodies on the racks.
I am used to now and then having a grownup get all pissy about my kids being in public and having the audacity to, you know, be children (it’s odd how one can live on the planet several decades and still think that holding a five year old accountable to Emily Post standards is logical or realistic). I’m usually calm and friendly when this happens. I make eye contact and let the grownup know I’m there, watching, or on my way to correct the child, and of course sometimes I emphatically defend the child’s right to do their thing: Excuse me – what’s the problem, again? And this works pretty well for us almost 100% of the time.
Now let me take a break from my story to say that this “a kid could get hurt” / safety thing makes me totally insane. First of all, if there is one goddamned person on this planet that knows if my son is going to get hurt running under clothing racks (P.S. he’s not!), it’s me. My son uses real knives and saws and drills and he rides other people’s too-large bikes and crouches on my stove and cooks his own breakfast. The amount of times he’s been seriously injured in his life? Once, when he was 2 1/2 – and by the way under the watchful eye of both my parents and Ralph – after he toddled right into the corner of a very sharply-mitered pedestal. And by the way and somewhat anecdotally, in this Mama’s opinion “getting hurt” is a great way, within reason, for a child to discover without whinging and nagging from an adult why not to do something (no, I do not mean the aforementioned pedestal case nor allowing one-year old children on the freeway, et cetera). And let me educate you on my favorite point: in general, I’ve observed people who claim children shouldn’t be allowed to do this-or-that for safety or just in case or liability reasons are A. people who don’t know shit about kids or who are terribly authoritarian, small-minded parents themselves and/or B. people who are continuing the status quo of ridiculous, over the top “solutions” resulting in a culture that, if parents such as myself didn’t speak up against it, helps conspire to eunuch our children’s abilities to actually grow up, go out, and be part of the world. Safety. My. Ass. (Hey hand-wringers, do you really care about kids’ safety? Have you considered driving less? Volunteering to teach swim lessons? Or maybe taking a less selfish point of view?)
I argued with one of the Walmart employees for a bit, then asked to speak to a manager (who was a lot easier to talk to). I gave this woman my name and phone number and urged her to give me a call if my son made any messes, and we would come back to the store and remedy things (the first loud employee could basically cite no other reason for my son’s behavior being “a problem”). Eventually I joined Ralph in looking for my son. I was shaking and shaken. I mean I genuinely thought I was going to lose my shit.
But was I mad at Nels? It didn’t really make sense to be. I wasn’t worried for his safety: consider for instance that I am no longer a fear-mongering Mama who thinks at any moment if I let my wee one out of my sight the very worst thing ever will happen to him and thus, to me. I wasn’t worried he’d cause much trouble, even. I was mildly annoyed he’d put our shopping trip out of sorts, yeah – but of course, if you go anywhere with a grownup sometimes they can wander off to a different section of the store and you look for one another and eventually find one another and just laugh about it if you address it at all.
But I was angry. Angry with the Walmart Haters and their lack of dignity and compassion and customer service, angry at myself although I know this didn’t make much sense (because, you know, somehow it’s my problem that my kids aren’t “perfectly trained”). I was angry with my husband over this last weekend when he’d handled Nels poorly on our Portland trip – and this was still fresh in my heart, maybe a larger factor than I credit. And yes, I was tired – yes, tired of my son being the kid he is, even though I know it’s just him, and that’s OK, and that when I found him he’d be remorseful about running off and we’d have a talk and he wouldn’t do it again (I believe this, with all my heart).
But at this moment I was worn out. And I was at my worst as I wandered through Walmart, being careful not to betray my internal insanity to the innocent public (I’d already allowed a little steam to escape in front of the employees; thank Goodness my husband was now patrolling that area of the store), gripping my fabric supplies so tightly my hands hurt. I wanted to put down my purchases and just walk out of the store, just leave and not even tell my husband where I was going and disappear until Everybody was ready to give me a Break. I knew we’d find our son soon and that for Nels, and for myself, there was nothing to be gained for me speaking in my Terrible Voice or grabbing his arm or calling him “selfish” or telling him he wouldn’t be allowed to watch Blue’s Clues when we got home. I knew that as tempting as it felt to unleash on my son it would have been every other issue in my noisy mind I’d be venting about and he’d merely serve as whipping boy.
Eventually – it felt like a half hour, but it was probably about seven minutes – I was paged to the front of the store. My husband and I arrived at the same time to see Nels sitting by the door greeter – an employee who was, thank Goodness, smiling (I think I would have shit my pants and punched someone in the face had I heard one more assy word out of anyone*). And Nels was composed on a stool talking to this woman and friendly but also looking a little wary and the first thing he did when he saw my face was put his arms up and say, very sincerely, “I’m sorry I ran away.”
I handed Ralph our supplies and took my son out to the car and got in the passenger seat and just cried. And cried and cried and cried.
* Rage much? Yeah, I know.