Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, June 08, 2015

The Wound That Will Not Heal

My sister and I were caravanning with nine kids between us, and it was lunchtime on Friday, so we stopped at a pizzeria, one of a popular Cincinnati chain of restaurants. We sat at a few tables pushed together in a big room, in which were already gathered a group of four old ladies playing cards ("They look like the Golden Girls," my sister whispered) and, in the corner, a group of twenty-somethings in a booth. It took a moment to settle all kids -- two high chairs, a sling for my two-month-old niece's carrier, and the big kids down at the end. William, 17 months, was bored and antsy after several days of chaotic schedule and driving. He scribbled with the free crayons and every now and then would let out a cheerful high-pitched shriek, and I would pop goldfish or croutons in his mouth, or ply him with lemonade, or give him a fresh section of paper to draw on. He settled down to demolish a plate of cut-up cheese pizza, but as my sister and I worked out the details of our last leg of travel, he would squeak at me now and then just to remind me that he was still here and eating, okay, mom? 

As we were finishing up everything, William gave one more yip.

"Shut up!" screamed a lady from the card-playing table.

Our table froze in a collective horror. Finally I turned around and looked at the ladies. I stared each one in the face, and I hope I may never again see such coldness and hostility. I don't remember what most of them looked like, but one lady, not the screamer, sticks in my memory, her blue hair matching her blue flowered shirt and polyester slacks. I looked at her for a good five seconds, and she looked at me, still holding her hand of cards, shaking her head slightly, her eyes behind her big glasses big, her brow knit.

I stood up, seizing William out of his high chair and knocking over the glass of lemonade. 

"I am sorry, " I said, in a voice that was not quite as controlled as I wanted it to be, "that a little child offends you."

The blue lady fidgeted. "He's been screaming ever since you brought him in," she said, gilding the patent falsehood with the very slightest defensive edge of explanation. 

I repeated myself.

"Poor parenting skills," said the screamer, and the table tsked and murmured in agreement. 

We were leaving by now, shaky and disorganized, the children solemn and frightened. The waitress, who was, I think, sympathetic to us, told us to just bring the bill up front and she'd ring us up. As we left the room, the table of twenty-somethings started cheering and applauding the courageous stand of the old ladies.

My sister, two months postpartum, was trembling and gasping out great sobs as she clutched her baby carrier. 

"I have to get out of here," she said. "Did you hear them cheering? I've never seen anything like it. They're cheering that we left. I can't believe anyone would do that."

My eleven-year-old was weeping too. Diana and her little cousins huddled together. William, smearing my shirt and his overalls with pizza, burbled and grinned and batted his big blue eyes. 

Externally I was calm -- I'd been able to speak mildly to the little ones I had to take through the store afterwards, and I'd been pleasant as I waited for them to go through the bathrooms, but I could feel myself slipping into reveries and shutting out the kids without meaning to. Driving gave me another hour to brood. My eyes were hot and prickly behind my sunglasses as I tried to breath easily and pray, a chaplet of Divine Mercy for the ladies and the young people and the entire situation.

For the sake of his sorrowful passion Did you often find it helpful, in your long experience, to scream "Shut up!" at a seventeen-month-old? Did they listen? Have mercy on us Here's my baby. His name is William. Would you like to tell him to shut up to his face? AND ON THE WHOLE WORLD How did you shut your kids up? Would you prefer I slap him? Is that what you did?

And the more I tried to turn away from these thoughts, the more they intruded. I know, and knew at the time, that confrontation only builds defensiveness, and that the kind of hardness I saw is only softened by the Holy Spirit, not by any words of mine, and I regretted saying anything at all and giving them the opening to make the poor parenting crack. I hate giving people ammunition. And the crack rankled, not because I thought it was true on any level, but because it was a lie. A lie that stood unchallenged, and that the lady knew was a lie when she said it, but spit it out anyway because it was something defensive and hurtful to say. And I hoped that I would never get so old that I would forget what it was like to have babies, and to have people judge you based on one isolated situation. I hoped that her estranged children would spit on her grave HAVE MERCY ON US, AND ON THE WHOLE WORLD

Then there was the frustration of not knowing what happened afterwards. Aslan said that no one is ever told any story but his own, but I wanted to hear someone else's story. That kind of hatefulness leaves a mark. Did any of the ladies feel ashamed afterwards? Would they lie awake tonight and regret their actions? Were their divisions in the group, with some feeling that maybe they'd been too harsh? Would the lady I stared at remember my face until her dying day? Maybe the manager had kicked them out afterwards. Had anyone else complained? What if two of the young people had been dating, and one was so disgusted by the other's behavior that they broke up right then FOR THE SAKE OF HIS SORROWFUL PASSION

The next morning at breakfast, we were with a large easy group of old friends and companions at a retreat center, all gathered for the dedication of the new chapel. A small boy sitting at the next table was sing-songing "Shut up! Shut up!" in the same sharp tone we'd heard the day before. Diana turned to someone at our table. 

"The lady at the restaurant told us to shut up yesterday," she announced matter-of-factly, and my heart broke that this was imprinted now on my four-year-old's memory, the time the old lady screamed at us.

The mass for the dedication of the chapel was beautiful in every way, but during the Eucharistic prayer I felt such anger that it was as if I was under attack. I tried to listen to the words of consecration, and I kept coming up with more things I could have said in the moment. Every time I wrenched my attention back to the Mass, fresh arguments popped up -- not even things that I would have said, or wanted to have said. All I could do was trust that the healing power of the Eucharist would work on me. And it did, and for a while I was quiet.

But of course, on the long drive home, I had plenty more time to think about it. I thought I'd let it go earlier, but I hadn't, and now rage was bubbling up and almost consuming me. If this was how I felt about a minor injustice, how must it be for people who've had to deal all their lives with systematic abuse and cruelty? How hard must it be to forgive, and how deeply must those wounds run? A line from a hymn we'd sung came to my mind: "If you are lost, look to the cross." And so I did, and it struck me: we need a God who has suffered more than we have, to put all of our injuries into perspective. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Here's my baby. Look at him. He looks like my brothers. It's easy to be cruel when you don't have to deal with an actual person, isn't it? FATHER, FORGIVE THEM, FOR THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO

That was Saturday. On Sunday I went to Mass again, and felt under attack again. Okay, I need to go to Confession this week. I thought. I need to tell the priest, "I've been so angry this week. I've hated someone. I was at a restaurant with my baby, and a lady said to me..." And at even the thought of speaking this out loud, tears nearly spilled over, and I had to wrench my attention back once again. 

What a wound hatred leaves. What an ugly mark. I like to think of myself as a calm, even-tempered, rational person, and usually I am, I guess, but my life has been comparatively free of large scarring events, and what sad events there have been are so far in the past now that they rarely affect my day-to-day living. I wonder how long it will be before this moves to the back burner of my consciousness, and I can stop thinking about alternate scenarios and pretty revenge fantasies Maybe someone filmed it and will put on Youtube, and the whole world will rise up in indignation I don't even want that to happen FATHER, FORGIVE ME, FOR I KNOW NOT WHAT I DO.


Abigail Benjamin said...

God bless you. I'm in this same fight also. We went to a new parish. My two year old said "Mom, she took my crayon" 10 minutes before Mass started. An old lady turned around in the pew and started telling her basically "You are an evil kid for talking in Jesus' house! Shut up!" as I was stepping over 3 other kids in my pew to help settle relatively calm crayon dispute between a 2 year old and 4 year old. We were so early, the organist hadn't started the prelude.

I picked up my frightened toddler and said "I'm her Mom. I'm handling this. Stop talking to her." That set this lady off even more and she started loudly arguing with me. Which was so ironic, because my kid said one sentence and now this lady has disrupted so many more people around us with her loud & ugly 5 minute lecture.

I was so angry, I said "Stop! and I pointed silently to the Tabernacle. Then I took my toddler to the back of the church.

The lady is a Eucharistic minister. It's been a year and I still have to pray to God for help whenever I take communion from her.

Brandon said...

That is utterly awful; I don't know what goes on in people's heads when they do this kind of thing. Good manners alone should be preventing it.

We often talk about turning the other cheek and the like, but we don't often give credit to the sheer difficulty of it: retaliation against harm is very deep in human nature, and keeping it within its proper bounds is not an easy task. It's something people can't consistently do without grace.

Jenny said...

When people say awful things to me and I start concocting revenge fantasies, I try to imagine all the awful things that must be going on in their lives for them to want to take it out on me. It might be a smidge condescending, but I try to pity their terrible lives rather than try to figure out how I might have proven to them how wrong they were.

Abigail, you are a better person than I am because no way would I ever receive communion from a lady who unapologetically yelled at my children in church. I would find another line.

Pro Ecclesia said...

Speaking of revenge fantasies, here's my uncharitable two cents:

Next time, just sit there. And when your kids aren't looking, turn around to their table, smile, flip the old biddies the bird, and inaudibly mouth the words "Go eff yourselves."

Or you could pray for them. Whatever works.


Emily J. said...

I feel angry right along with you while reading this and am imagining revenge scenarios also, even though I was just reminded not too long ago by the priest in the confessional (because I was having a hard time forgiving a wrong) that we forgive not because the other person needs it but because we need to let go of our resentment.

I could enumerate some other circumstances where we have been on the receiving end of anti-child sentiment, but perhaps the most wounding experience I ever witnessed was when we were at a Mass with an archbishop and during the homily he stopped and asked a mom to leave the sanctuary with her fussy baby. I was stunned and horrified, and I wouldn't be surprised if she never stepped foot in the church again.

Unknown said...

I wept through this whole post. It brought back some hurtful memories when ya'll were babies and toddlers. I have prayed often that none of you would have to experience this kind of behavior as parents from rude people. But the hurt does pass and I find myself still praying at times for those perpetrators. I might be the only one praying for them and perhaps my prayers are the only ones that might get them to heaven and I take comfort in that.

Finicky Cat said...

I have several wounds like neighbours; a woman in a theatre...and you've captured the feelings so well that I almost couldn't keep reading. How long will it be till I can heal? Probably not until my kids are grown and I'm "safe" from it happening again.

Tired with Toddlers said...

I don't know which is worse, normalizing lack of recovery time postpartum and it being acceptable to be out with a zillion little kids and no assistance, or the lack of pity towards two women doing that from the older women and the 20somethings.

I dread waking up a lot of mornings because women like you and your sister normalize dragging a lot of tiny kids around as a norm and thus I get judged as a bad/inferior mother for not choosing to subject myself to that without some assistance. This means people don't think women need to recover after births in any significant way or that they need help with all those kids. It does keep other women from having (very many) babies or feeling like it's ok to ask for assistance with the ones they have. Which I guess is great if you don't want women to have more kids, but I do. Too bad for me!

MrsDarwin said...

Tired with Toddlers,

I'm sorry you feel so tired and put upon. I think that if you come back when you are not so weary and reread what you've posted here, you'd see how most people would find it hard to reconcile the tensions inherent in your comment.

Anonymous said...

Longtime reader and lurker here. I am so sorry: meanness to our children is awful and dreadfully hard to be dealing with. I am so sorry you all had to deal with such mean, ugly behaviour towards children, from people who ought to know better.

My husband and I were at a restaurant sans child. Next to us were a couple with a beautiful 18-month-old. Throughout the meal, the toddler let out piercing shrieks of joy, and her mother *flinched* and looked around. At the end of our meal we went up to them and congratulated them on their beautiful child and they felt they had to apologize to us because of their child making normal human child noises. I hovered some more and said "No, no, she is a gorgeous, happy child," and complimented them on their child's way with noodles and learning to appreciate tasty food -- but what I wanted to say was, "We are all humans in this together. Humans get to be out in public, so children and parents get to be out in public. God bless you and your child."

And as for telling off little children in church!!!...

I am so sorry. How very awful, and how hard it is to deal charitably with such venom directed at children. I wish I had clever quips, but all I have is sympathy for you.


Julie Davis said...

I've been on both sides of this situation. Luckily NOT as a screaming old lady, but there have definitely been times when I've been wincing at piercing shrieks and wishing that someone would take a child outside.

And I've been the mother of a small child when an old lady shrieked at me across the produce section because my little girl touched the twist ties container. I shrieked back at her. My knee-jerk reaction is to lash out. (I'm getting better but that comes with age and Christianity, neither of which I had at the time like I do now!) We're just lucky it was late in the evening and we had relatively few witnesses.

This is something that I struggle with, just as we all do. In the calm, intellectual moments it is easy to see that we are just as C.S. Lewis points out in The Great Divorce.

"Oh, of course, I'm wrong. Everything I say or do is wrong, according to you."

"But of course!" said the Spirit, shining with love and mirth so that my eyes were dazzled. "That's what we all find when we reach this country. We've all been wrong! That's the great joke. There's no need to go on pretending one was right! After that we begin living."

In the I-want-to-see-you-groveling-to-me-and-begging-my-forgiveness moments that run through my brain again and again, I lately have been hanging onto something I read in Brené Brown's "Rising Strong." She's grappling with someone being hateful to her. I don't have it right in front of me so this is from memory:

"Do you believe that people are doing the best they can?"

He had to think it over and eventually answered, "I'm not sure but I'd like to think they are. I know that assuming they are doing their best is what allows me to not judge them and get over it myself. It's the only way I can live with it."

I'll have to look that up, as I say, but you get the point. I don't know what someone is going through and they don't know what I'm going through. Only God knows. And it is only by continually striving and trying and not giving up on myself (the way you show yourself doing in this post) that I can come to see from His point of view a bit more. Because, from that point of view, I also am doing my best ... even when I'm being hateful (and I wish I weren't but I can be just as hateful as the next person I will dislike for something.

Sorry this turned into such a long comment ... guess it should be a blog post or something but it happened here instead! I may grab it anyway ...

Julia Attaway said...

Big, big hugs to you!

BTDT, and I think that part of the reason it rankles is because not only were the comments hurtful, but you could *see the sin*: you could see it for what it was, and on top of that you could see your own reaction for what it was.

The one time I found words to reply in a situation like that, it was to someone who hissed at me on the street, without prior interaction, that I was overpopulating the world and ruining it. I said, smiling, "Ah, but at least there will be five people who are polite to strangers." I must say, it was rather satisfying.

That said, I've come to the semi-conclusion that one reason we need to forgive repeatedly is because of the ripples of sin: we tend to think of sin as a one-time plop of a stone in the water, forgetting the waves that spread out in all directions. For me what works best is to say a Hail Mary on behalf of the person who has hurt me, each and every time I feel the rumble of anger begin again. Pray for your enemies and those that hate you, and all that.

Hugs again. These things do make for fruitful discussions with kids about how hard one has to work to forgive, though.

Joe Harrington said...

Thank God in all things, good and bad. Thank You Lord for this poor old lady with blue hair, she needs your help. And Lord, I know, if she is being hurtful towards me, she is leaving some other poor soul alone that may never recover. Thank You for letting me be picked on, please let me offer it up for some poor soul in purgatory.

Stephanie Z said...

I am sorry you had to go through that; it sounds stressful, hurtful, and embarrassing.

I don't have children, may never be able to have children, so it's not a question of "never get[ting] so old that I would forget what it was like to have babies, and to have people judge you based on one isolated situation." Like Julie, there have been times when I have wished that someone would take a noisy or rambunctious child outside, but I try to separate occasional outbursts from continuous crying/screaming/wailing. I also differentiate between types of locations; what is tolerable at a Max & Erma's or other family friendly restaurant is different from Ruth's Chris (or some other expensive, adult-oriented locale).

MrsDarwin said...

Stephanie Z, I'm sorry to hear that. I did consider the possibility that none of the women had children, but in the end I just had to shake off speculation and leave it alone.

Thank you all for your kind words. I'm trying to use this experience to examine my own behavior and see if anything I do could cause hurt that reverberates. I don't think so -- I've never yelled "Shut up!" in a restaurant, anyway -- but there are always aspects of my life that need to be purified.

Leah said...

Dear Ms. Darwin,
I can see this ruined this trip for you and obviously had an impact on your families. It's hard to consider these things "teachable moments" or "something you can learn from." You CAN and you DID! You took your problem and anger to God. You shared on here. Now just shake the dust from your sandals and don't look back. It sounds like you may have been in one of my favorite restaurant's, LaRosa's! The one in Lawrenceburg when we had just returned from Okinawa and our family was celebrating a very special reunion, the manager bought/"comped" our dinner. It was over $80 in pizza for three families!!! From your bad experience to my beautiful one, God sees all things. It doesn't matter about how hurtful those experiences are. It's about the person we become after. Blessings!

MDiskin said...

I am in tears at your story. What a horrible moment for you and your kids. I am so utterly saddened by those younger people applauding -- to have so little awareness of life! of what this life asks of us!

I think often of Corrie Ten Boom taking the hand of one of the Nazi guards who had worked at the concentration camp where her sister had died. She couldn't do it of or in herself, but prayed in that moment to be able to take his hand -- and did. They wept together for joy.

Of course these terrible rudenesses do not compare in size to her burden.... but God's forgiveness is supernatural, beyond our understanding, and complete, even to giving us love for our enemies. He is both the Will and the Way.

Banshee said...

First off, obviously your kids and you did nothing wrong, and the twentysomethings had no excuse.

But some older people are cantankerous because they've neurologically lost their inhibition switch, and haven't realized it. Occasionally a whole pack of such folks run together. Noises are particularly prone to set them off, because certain frequencies are painful to folks wearing hearing aids.

But you did nothing wrong, the twentysomethings had no excuse, and it was a mean thing for the old lady to say.

And boy, do I empathize with the struggle against anger.