Recently I was at a work meeting in a hired room at a community facility. It was my job to take the minutes and I was busily typing away.
I was in the zone, feeling satisfied at the opportunity to use some of my non-mummy talents and to allow myself to focus entirely on the conversation at hand without any pint-sized distraction.
While I appreciate the chance to look after my son, my part-time return to work has given me a much-needed counterbalance to those days at home. My two worlds are enriched by each other and round out all sides of me very well.
I cherish my mummy-son days but I equally enjoy that I get time to be engaged with the adult world.
Perhaps I am acutely aware of my luck because it wasn’t always this way. During my maternity leave, I often found myself feeling isolated from the world around me. I could go out when things got tough but it was only really to fill in time or distract myself from the sleep deprivation and challenges of full-time care.
On those excursions, I never really had a purpose. There was no Point A to Point B. It felt more like floating at the edges of other people’s purposeful days, hoping to go unnoticed but at the same time almost begging not to be so invisible.
Thankfully this was no longer the case on that day. I was in the room, I had a purpose, and I could listen in on a very interesting discussion.
But then the memory of my maternity leave filtered in through the door. Well, it more than filtered. The screams of a toddler outside crashed through my concentration. The pitch of the child’s screaming hit me with a sense of urgency. I ignored the urge to see what was going on and continued to type away. Someone else’s problem now, I thought to myself.
Yet the screaming continued unabated. The screams went on far longer than a normal tantrum session and people started shifting around in their chairs, looking towards the door out of curiosity and annoyance. What was the parent doing? Why couldn’t they settle the child or move on?
My boss shot me a look. It was somewhere between her own maternal concern and her boss-hat of “fix it”. I got someone to take over the minutes and went in the direction of the screaming. I began formulating in my head how I was going to ask the parent to move on without sounding hard. I imagined how I would have reacted if that were me while on maternity leave.
And then I saw her, red-faced and crying. All polite formulations left me, along with thoughts of the adult world I had snuck out of. You see though, it wasn’t the toddler who caught my eye first – it was her mum.
My heart went immediately to her side.
I knew the look, the tears of being at your wits end and thinking you didn’t have it in you to regroup and continue. I sat down and patted her on the back, which set off more tears.
I tried to say something, anything, to make the situation better. My words felt so flat and removed from where she was in her mind.
I told her I had been where she was at a few times – once at a bus stop, another time in the public toilets at the nearby mall. As a mum, I tried so hard to keep myself together when out and about but those were the very times when I was at my most fragile. I usually left the house to change a tense situation, like my son not napping or being Mister Grumpy Pants without pause.
I looked around, spotting a six month old in a pram and the screaming toddler behind a couch. I surmised that this woman had most likely “been there” many more times than me given she had two children under three.
With the mum out of action temporarily, I picked up her daughter from behind the couch. She was half stuck, which had exacerbated her crying. I patted her, speaking softly and telling her it was going to be ok.
The mum started telling me what had happened to lead to the situation. The daughter had been punching her for days and acting up at every turn. It is hard not to take toddler behaviour personally because – when you’re pushed – it all seems personal.
Why can’t they just give me five minutes of peace? Why do they have to pinch me? Why won’t he sleep for me?
She kept talking and, to my surprise, they both started to unwind. While I had initially felt useless, I could see my intervention had been a circuit breaker. The little girl stopped crying and the mother had slipped into feeling painfully embarrassed for the scene and disturbing my meeting. I took this as a good sign that they were coming back to reality.
At that point, a work colleague entered the building and saw us there. She assumed it was a friend of mine since I was holding the toddler and confirmed what I had already said too. As a mum of two kids under five, she had lost it too at some points. We all do at some point, even those who appear to have it all under control.
Life with a toddler can deliver the highest and lowest emotional points you can experience as a parent, sometimes all in the space of five minutes.
I looked up and saw my boss peering out the door in confusion at the scene. She seemed just as torn as I was. I felt the tug to be back in the room, back in my other world, even though I would have also just as gladly taken this woman for a coffee. I told her it would be all ok, just in the same way I used to tell myself the same thing when I was on maternity leave. Just give it a day, an hour even. Things will turn around, you’ll see. She’ll grow through this phase.
I said my goodbyes to the little girl and gave the mum one last pat on her shoulder. I went back to typing the minutes and there was no noise from outside. But the moment stuck and distracted me for the rest of the day. I wondered if I should have done more. I replayed the conversation in my head, looking at my words from all angles and wondering if I had said the right or wrong things.
There is a desperate hope underpinning my old mantras I passed on to this mum. Even if the mantras don’t turn out to be true though, some days the hope attached to them is all you have left to anchor yourself with as a parent. Yet maybe she had lost her ability to find anchor and my words made the situation worse.
The work colleague who had walked in to see us there later enquired at the front desk if the mum was a regular to some classes held in the building. And, if so, would it be possible to leave the names of a few contacts for parent support programs? Yes, came the reply, she was a regular but nothing could be passed on.
“Cause it’s not my job”
The attitude was a stab into the sense isolation I remembered from maternity leave.
A mum at her wits end can push herself out of the house and surround herself with people but rarely will she be asked if everything is ok, even when it is visibly obvious it is not.
As individuals, we tend not to let our vulnerabilities show. As a society, we tend not to step in when people can no longer hold them back.
My mind went back to earlier, when I had thought with some relief that the screaming toddler wasn’t my problem. Thankfully, my heart overruled in the moment and I stepped in and cared. It was the first time I had crossed that polite line set up by society. In that sense, maybe that action had a greater impact than whatever words I actually said.
Time has passed since our paths crossed but I do still wonder how the mum is and whether she managed to turn her day around. I really hope she was able to gather up her perspective and see her daughter’s behaviour not as a personal attack but rather a challenge in need of her guidance. And, if not, that she had the clarity of mind to seek out support.
While I don’t know what happened to her, I do know one thing very clearly that I learnt from the experience. If there is a next time, I would do it all the same again. As a mum, my heart doesn’t hesitate as much as it used to.