When my first child was a toddler, she decided to have a meltdown in the middle of the grocery store. After all, what’s the fun in having one in private? She threw herself to the floor and began wailing. Irritated shoppers all stared at me or complained, and some started instructing me in what to do. Since the instructions were all contradictory, and some were abusive, they only made things worse. I became almost paralyzed with embarrassment and fear. How was I going to get out of this?
Then, a woman who was a complete stranger walked over and said cheerfully, “You’re doing just fine. Ignore all these irritating people. She will get bored in a minute and then you can get things back under control.”
The other people who had been criticizing me quickly left the scene, making me think of Jesus chastising the stone throwers. Relieved to find someone on my side, I calmed down and got the situation back under control. The woman disappeared before I could thank her, but I’ve never forgotten her kindness.
I wonder even today why so many shoppers felt compelled to pass judgment on my parenting publicly and based entirely on a single moment in my life. Some of them announced that I was a bad parent, even though they were complete strangers. They had never seen me feeding an infant every hour around the clock due to health issues, or reading stories for hours on end, or sitting on the floor building with blocks. They hadn’t seen me chasing away nightmares in the middle of the night, caring for a sick child, or making the hard decisions every parent makes. All they knew was that I was a mother whose child had a meltdown in the middle of a store and who was not capable of stopping it. The truth was that they were the reason I couldn’t get it stopped and I suspect they would have been offended if I had given them permanent labels as troublemakers based on their couple of minutes in my life.
Motherhood is hard. It has a work week that is too long and a work day that seems to go on forever. There are no absolute rules you can follow that guarantee success. When I was battling a parenting issue with an infant, I complained to my mother that I’d done everything my parenting books said to do and my daughter wasn’t responding the way the books said she would. My mother said, “Maybe that’s because she hasn’t read the books yet and doesn’t know that’s how she’s supposed to respond.” While I found the answer annoying at the time, I have since raised three children and I get it. Baby books are about generic babies. I wasn’t raising generic children. I hope that when we see a child behaving inappropriately, we remember that the child isn’t generic and there are no guarantees about raising kids. We just do the best we can and pray for good results.
I took a short online class with Camille Fronk Olson, a professor at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University, a few years ago. She noted that when we read about a woman in the Bible, we are often reading about fifteen minutes of her life, but we’re deciding what kind of person she was based on those few minutes. She suggested we imagine being judged by a randomly chosen fifteen minutes of our lives. Depending on which minutes were chosen, we might be seen as wonderful or awful, when really, we are sometimes wonderful and sometimes not so wonderful over the course of a lifetime.
The same is true of the fifteen minutes of parenting we see when we’re watching a complete stranger. You might just have had the misfortune to catch her at a bad moment in an ordinarily great parenting life. Even when we see people we see often, we really aren’t seeing the whole story. The perfect children sitting in front of you may be awful at home and the wild and silly children the next aisle over may be angels in a less structured environment, such as their home.
Instead of complaining or passing judgment, consider offering some help next time. If a mother with fussy children is behind you in line, send her ahead of you. If a mother looks to be on the verge of her own meltdown over her children’s behavior, smile and assure her she’s doing fine. Stop the whiners from picking on her.
The following story about a man who later became a Mormon prophet represents, for me, the folly of passing judgment without all the facts and the importance of helping instead:
“Stranded in an airport because of bad weather, a young mother and her two-year-old daughter had been waiting in long lines for hours trying to get a flight home. The child was tired and fussy, but the mother, who was pregnant and at risk of miscarriage, did not pick her up. A doctor had advised the mother to avoid lifting the two-year-old unless absolutely necessary. The woman overheard disapproving comments from people around her as she used her foot to slide her crying daughter along in the line. Nobody offered to help. But then, the woman later recalled, “someone came towards us and with a kindly smile said, ‘Is there something I could do to help you?’ With a grateful sigh I accepted his offer. He lifted my sobbing little daughter from the cold floor and lovingly held her to him while he patted her gently on the back. He asked if she could chew a piece of gum. When she was settled down, he carried her with him and said something kindly to the others in the line ahead of me, about how I needed their help. They seemed to agree and then he went up to the ticket counter [at the front of the line] and made arrangements with the clerk for me to be put on a flight leaving shortly. He walked with us to a bench, where we chatted a moment, until he was assured that I would be fine. He went on his way. About a week later I saw a picture of Apostle Spencer W. Kimball and recognized him as the stranger in the airport” (Garrett H. Garff, Spencer W. Kimball: Man of Action, Ensign, January 2007).
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.