Children in Public Places

I got varied reactions from others to my baby’s presence; it seemed there was always some irritated person wherever we went who objected to having him around. Because Dale was so active, curious, and verbally expressive I felt forced to pick my battles with bystanders.
“Hearing your baby crying, even though you brought him outside, brings up traumatic memories for me and I don’t think you should bring him to meetings,” an upset woman told me at a self-help meeting.
“Could you please take your baby outside?” a woman asked politely during a speech at a church function. I was standing with Dale in the back of the room while he held on to a chair, smiling, bouncing his peach fuzzy head up and down and cooing softly with delight. “He’s distracting us.”
The same thing happened during another speaker event, only this time the room was much larger and I stood against the back wall hoping that no one could hear Dale’s soft “a-a-a-u-u-”s and his “mama-a-a”s from where they sat. One woman did, however and she turned around and gave me the evil eye. After the talk was over she confronted me.
“Don’t bring your baby to church events again. Can’t you find someone to babysit?” She pinched her lips together as and her eyes pierced me like lasers.
“No, “ I said. I was a single parent, subsisting on public assistance because I took maternity leave and was not given back my job. My parents only babysat grudgingly. If I asked them, I’d better have a darn good reason.
“Did Susan tell you not to bring your baby?” another equally angry woman, who was also a single mom asked after Susan walked away. Oh god, I thought, not her too. By now I was so intimidated that all I could utter was a weak, breathy “yes.”
“Oh, she makes me so MAD,” she said, turning around and striding off toward Susan. Relief flooded through me. At last, a kindred spirit. “People think we single moms can just DROP our kids off somewhere whenever we want to go out and do anything,” she said, looking at me over her shoulder. She whipped her hair back around and disappeared around the corner of the chapel, no doubt to tell Susan off.
Another time I went to a church service but the childcare person couldn’t take Dale because she had too many kids to watch. I took Dale into the service, where he made his soft, happy noises and played with my car keys. Perhaps I was used to tuning out Dale’s noises better than others, for a few days later I received a letter from one of the church’s reverends telling me never to bring Dale to a service again.
People glared at me in restaurants and coffee shops. The only public places where I felt welcome with Dale were local parks and grocery stores, but even they presented problems. One day Dale and I played at a park and he attempted to pet a German shepherd lying on the grass next to a play structure. “Don’t let your child come near my dog,” the dog’s owner, a woman, said. “He doesn’t like children and might bite.” I asked the woman if she could take her dog away since the park was teeming with children. Surely she didn’t want any of them to get bitten.
“This is a public park, we were here before you and we have every right to be here,” the woman hissed at me.
“Oh lordy, lordy,” an old woman said when Dale had a howling tantrum in a grocery store. She looked at us in disgust as she rolled her shopping cart past.
Those incidents didn’t happen everywhere we went, and for every person who complained there are a greater number who delighted in his irresistible smile, responsive laughter and bright, gleaming eyes. But the negative incidents happened with enough regularity that I realized our society was divided into two camps: Those who either had children or liked them, and those who didn’t.
Being one of the former, I’m biased. Whenever someone gave me an annoyed look or asked me to leave because Dale uttered any sound, however quietly, I thought that they had learned to tolerate adult’s occasional cough, throat clearing, shifting in seats, and laughter. Why then couldn’t they tolerate the same subtle noises from a contented baby?
To get more perspective on that, I looked at websites about people who are “childfree”, or who hate children. The childfree people wrote about being okay with children in general but just not wanting any of their own, but the child-haters—my god. They wrote about kids as if they should be wiped off the face of the Earth. They called mothers “breeders” or “sows”, fathers “sperm donors” and kids “sprigs”. They seemed to believe that kids shouldn’t be allowed anywhere accept home or school, or maybe park playgrounds, where anyone with a child-biting dog had priority.
One day years later when Dale was six and I was pregnant with my daughter, I waited in a restaurant for my husband to meet me with Dale. A middle-aged couple came in, and the man said to the hostess, “could you please sit us at a table that’s not near children? We don’t DO children.” The hostess led them to a table right next to mine. I told them that my six-year-old was arriving soon, so they were seated elsewhere.
People seem to have the mindset that parents need to keep their kids away from everywhere to respect everyone else, rather than the mindset that kids are part of society. They are people who have the right to be out and about just like everyone else. Perhaps we should learn to not be so sensitive to everything or stay inside ourselves.
I’ve heard from acquaintances that Mexican society is far more accepting of children. “You Americans are anti-children,” a Mexican man I worked with told me.
“This is my daughter,” a Mexican woman announced to our class in college. “In Mexico people take their children everywhere and they are welcome, and I will be bringing my daughter to class with me often.”
Remembering how boldly this woman stood up for herself, I often asserted myself with others. “I cannot agree to never bring my baby to self-help meetings/church functions/church services again. There are no rules against this and I can’t help how you feel toward children.”
I really didn’t want to bother people. I always brought Dale outside when he cried, except for that time in the grocery store (hey, everyone’s gotta eat) and once when I was right in the middle of a bank transaction, but every time we went anywhere and he got grabby, restless, shook his rattle, started to fret or coo or laugh or make ANY sound at all, my blood pressure rose and I thought, o-o-o-oh, please don’t let anyone get mad. Some days, badly shaken by the latest person’s protestations, I hid in my house. Then, my courage renewed I ventured forth again with my beloved fledgling monster, ready to handle the next onslaught of reactions from bystanders.

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elizabethjohnsonlee

January 2015

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