So when a blogger friend recently wrote about an incident in which she wished she had stood up for herself more with a confounding confrontational stranger, I couldn’t help but think of my own related memory. This is about one of those moments: a little incident that took no more than three minutes, and yet six years later the memory can make me cringe.
In the spring when we first moved to London, Ruby was three. Bella started school within days of our arrival, but Ruby’s new preschool was on a month-long break, so most days I had to entertain her, for hours. We were an outgoing pair, meeting new friends in parks all over north London, taking trains and buses, and exploring our new home.
One morning, with no other plan, I took her to the small playground a few blocks from our home. As was often the case in the morning, there was no one else there for a long while. Ruby ran around, happily exploring the novel equipment: including a merry-go-round type thing (maybe called a roundabout in British?) that I have rarely seen in an American playground, probably because, like most really fun playground equipment, it invites litigation.
Ruby loved to spin it even more than being on it, which suited me because I have always been the kind of mom who prefers to sit on a bench (!), rather than spin or push or otherwise get involved in the release of energy that occurs on the playground. I’m not a hoverer.
Anyway, at some point a toddler showed up with a woman who was probably his grandmother. When he climbed up on the merry-go-round, I called over to Ruby to be careful, and not push it too fast. And the grandmother chimed in with more of the same, admonishing from the get-go.
But of course Ruby didn’t listen. She had no understanding that the baby was too small (although, one thing I remember her saying, later, was that he was enjoying it: he was laughing, if holding on for dear life). She was three. And she was also Ruby at three, which meant that if she was engaged in something, she couldn't hear a thing we were saying. And engaged she was. So spin she did. Before I could even go over to intervene, the grandmother, bold and British and bitchy, told little Ruby off. She yelled at my three-year-old, with me standing right there. She said, “You are a bad girl. You didn’t listen to your mother, and you didn’t listen to me. You should be ashamed.”
And here’s where I cower in shame. I was a new immigrant, I was juggling many novel situations while also doing my best to keep my young kids' lives stable, and I had so much trouble all the time trying to get Ruby to listen to me. I grabbed her by the hand and dragged her from the playground, and as we left I said, loudly, so the grandmother could hear, “She’s right. You never listen. So we have to leave.” And Ruby wept, all the way home.
Never mind that my daughter had just as much right to play with the dangerous playground equipment as the younger boy. Never mind that the grandmother could have taken her grandkid, who was probably too young, off said equipment instead of banishing Ruby, who was there first. Never mind that Ruby was three and three-year-olds, even ones without attention issues, don’t often follow directions immediately. I couldn’t process any of this right then and there. That grandmother had made me feel ashamed of my child, and of my skills at parenting her, and I practically high-fived her instead of telling her off.
I left not, in truth, to punish Ruby, but to get away from the crazy stranger, because I couldn't stand to be judged in that way. It was an escape. But within minutes of returning home, I was furious. The chutzpah of that lady, who probably decided from the moment she heard our accents that we were wild, untamed Americans. If only I had lived up to my nation’s reputation with my response.
More than anything, what I remember from that day is the guilt of not having stood up for my child, or myself, in an effort to placate, subdue, and generally make the conflict go away.
Time has passed. I still don't hover in the playground. But watch out, Granny, if you're gonna try and discipline my kid, while I'm sitting on a nearby bench.