The Idiom is Actually “Raising Children”

sambuchhauntedhouse

From a sidewalk in Galati, Romania, where one of my adult sons lives

I think I understand why an article titled “Quit Doing These 8 Things for Your Teen This Year if You Want to Raise an Adult” keeps appearing in my Facebook newsfeed this week. It’s about a parent’s choice to refuse to do things like waking her kids up in the morning, packing their lunches, dashing forgotten items to school, helping with projects, and other things most teenagers—people the same age our great-great grandparents were when they were getting married and raising kids and crops of their own—could probably handle without adult intervention. I get it. Kids can become a make-work project, getting them to acquire competence is an important part of parenting, it isn’t easy, it isn’t comfortable, yes, yes, yes.

I understand the message but it is badly presented in this article. It’s not just that the writer’s lack of insight into her own ableism is downright offensive. It’s not just that teenagers grow at different rates, including at rates complicated by developmental delays. Some of them aren’t neurotypical, or are struggling with mood or anxiety disorders that affect their abilities to focus, remember details, and harness the ole get-up-and-go. The article’s bad presentation is all of this and more.

I’m slightly farther ahead in the parenting lifecycle than the author of the article. I have two children who have become adults in spite of me waking them up and making their lunches every day until they graduated from high school. Now that they’re out in the world—one of them in the third year of a computing science degree at a large research university, and the other across the Atlantic Ocean serving as a volunteer in a rough industrial town—one of the things I don’t worry about is whether they will get up in the morning now that I’m not waking them myself. They do. They just do.

No, what I do worry about are the same things I’ve always worried about. I worry about whether they’ll be kind to people, generous with their time and energy. I worry about whether they’ll help people out and offer second chances when dumb mistakes are made, even if those mistakes have bothered them. I worry about them being able to resist petty power struggles, and being prepared to inconvenience themselves in the interest of making life better for other people, particularly people who are smaller and weaker than them. I hope they remember me and their father inconveniencing ourselves to care for them when they were young and weak. To raise a person who doesn’t remember being treated like this is to risk raising someone who doesn’t know to treat other people like this. It’s priming someone to be a problem partner, a problem parent, a problem caregiver for their own parents when the time comes for us to grow old, losing track of our time and possessions, needing someone to patiently and helpfully oversee our daily activities. The tables that we’re sitting at with our children at this early stage in our family lives—they turn.

There’s more still. Not all parents are equally well-equipped for parenting. Some of us work, run businesses, parent alone, are simultaneously caring for older generations, cope with illnesses of our own, spend years in pregnancy and breastfeeding modes that make us less than constantly available to our kids. Maybe what I’m saying when I walk into my fifteen-year-old’s bedroom while it’s still dark and pat him on the arm until he pats my hand back, telling me without a word that he’s awake, isn’t that he’s cute and I want him to stay my baby forever. Maybe I’m saying I realize I never spent an entire week planning and executing a lavish birthday party for him, so I hope he can accept my love in these small installments offered in silence every morning. Maybe what I was saying when I chucked that daily granola bar and sandwich into a brown bag for my eighteen-year-old is how sorry I am that I was too busy with his baby brothers to ever be a parent volunteer in his classroom while he was at school, so I hope he’ll accept rations of food I paid for and assembled with my own hands instead.

It’s trite to spell it out—not to mention terribly ironic to have to write it in response to an article that repeatedly condemns “judging” among parents–but clearly, parents can only offer their kids resources they actually have. Even then, those resources—time, money, talents, health and wellness–have to be tailored to meet the needs and characters of individual kids, rather than being applied as meme-ish rules of thumb pasted under bossy headlines. We don’t, contrary to what the article’s title says “raise an adult.” The idiom is actually that we raise children. Unless kids die young, they will become adults. There’s nothing their parents can do to stop that and there’s no need to quit anything but worrying about it. What’s more important than whether they’ll be adults is what kinds of adult behaviours we’re modelling for them.

Wherein My Son Doesn’t Die

nathanbasin

My Middle-born Boy

My middle-born son, age fifteen, did not die on Wild Hay River last week.

He did not die there but he did go there on a canoe trip with his Scouting group. As they went along, the flotilla wound up in an unforeseen, dangerous flooded section of the river. I wasn’t there but I am told a couple of boys evacuating a nearby canoe accidentally capsized the boat my son, my husband, and another boy, only twelve years old, were in. All three of them were dumped into the river. The current was strong, rushing toward a large spruce log covered in spiky broken branches spanning the river from shore to shore. It was large and dense enough to obscure the view of what was on the other side of it. Beyond and beneath it, there would be more water, and maybe all hell.

In the water, the current divided my husband from the kids. He stood in deep, fast water on one bank, anchoring himself by holding onto slippery tree branches with his cut and bleeding hands, shouting out to the boys not go under the fallen tree but to try to grab onto it if they couldn’t get out of the water. Fighting to stay on his feet, he remained in the water, waiting to see if the boys would be able to stop themselves. If they couldn’t, he would let go and let the river push him after them—a bad but only hope. And that would be that.

The younger boy was closer to the opposite bank and strong and smart enough to grapple out of the water on his own. Our son was further in. He was leaning back against the current, digging into the rocks of the riverbed with his bare feet, his boots long gone. My son’s friends stood on the bank in shock. They watched him being pushed closer to the fallen log—a horrible, unknown. To them, the spiked log might have looked like a barrier in a video game—the kind that ends the level and uses up a life.

I have a vivid imagination. It’s an important part of my trade but it’s also awful. In that imagination, I can see a curly, blond, drenched head pushed along the surface of a rough, glacial river. I can see a little white face with eyes just like my grandfather’s in it, staring up out of the water at jagged spikes.

As the log came within his reach, my son rose up out of the water, moving higher and faster than anyone watching thought was possible. He took hold of the tree’s broken branches and stopped himself from being pushed underneath it. “I’m okay,” he told himself, and hand-over-hand, without the help of anyone he could see, he pulled himself out of the river. Safe, he turned to see his father give him a thumbs up and climb out of the river on the opposite shore.

Earlier this year, I had been invited to the Scouting committee meetings where the trip was planned and I didn’t attend a single one. I wasn’t there asking if the river had been scouted yet this season. I wasn’t there to insist on it or to offer to strap on a can of bear spray and scout it myself. I didn’t do any of those things but I get to keep my son anyway. Do not underestimate my gratitude for the grace extended to parents who mess up.

Sure, many good things will come to my son from this experience. He learned it’s possible for him to rescue himself. The boy who was so unsure of his abilities he didn’t perfect riding a bike until he was eleven has now had the experience of reaching out and saving himself. He also lived through one of those tricky human paradoxes where difficulties placed in our paths (like the fallen tree) are often themselves the ways out of the difficulty. He got more perspective on what he is worth to his father, both when his dad stayed in the water until he was out, and when he saw his father safe on the bank advocating for a difficult portage, for not getting right back into the river even if it meant abandoning the canoes in the woods and reimbursing the Scout group for the loss of them out his government salary. Stuff is nothing, work is nothing, money is nothing. You, boy, are everything.

These are all good lessons—powerful lessons, the kinds of mishap-lessons that find all of us no matter how we live our lives. The world is dangerous and unpredictable for everyone. However, I don’t believe these lessons are the ones Scouting has in mind when it promises kids adventure. It’s a stodgy old Commonwealth institution, actually, one with waivers to sign and plenty of liability insurance. It offers character building in terms of well-organized food drives, and gaining confidence and competence by going into the wild to learn to traverse, navigate, build shelter, find and cook food, and stay safe. It’s about exploration, not exploits—understanding the immense power of the natural world, standing close enough to sense its awesome power, and then taking a respectful, sober step back into the preparations and planning that are our best chance for coming home. We will go back and we’ll do better next time.

Downstream on the Wild Hay River, the canoe my family had been in—the one that had capsized and washed away, upside down, under the fallen tree—was recovered. It was sitting upright and aground on a gravelly bar. In it was the bag containing my husband’s driver’s license, and one of our son’s hiking boots. Gone was my husband’s sloppy Scouter hat I had openly hated. So sloppy–here’s to its passing.

Bad, Honest Advice on How to Write as a Young Parent

心情不好

This 25 year old mother of two is me. Lazy butt had written precisely zero novels.

Enough people have asked how I managed to write two novels while at home with my kids that I thought I’d better craft an answer a little more thoughtful than “by being a crap mother.” Here it is, some very honest and probably very bad advice on how to launch a writing career while masterminding a large, young household.

  • Stop cleaning the house. This is done by a) quitting once conditions become sanitary without proceeding all the way to spiffy and, b) looking at your children the way our great-grandmother’s (and my parents) looked at their children: as a private workforce, a domestic militia of barely competent workers. Assigning one light chore every day and one heavier cleaning task on the weekend should do it.
  • Start mowing the lawn. Look, you’re not going away on writers’ retreats to the Banff Centre any time soon. That’s not the life you chose. But you do need to spend time  alone with your thoughts en plein air, and pushing a machine that drives conversation away all around the backyard is better than nothing.
  • Stay up. My creativity comes in all-or-nothing surges. During a surge, I tend to get about four hours of sleep during the night, maybe less. This isn’t a desperate attempt to make the most of the hours when my house is quiet (though it has that benefit). There’s simply more energy in my mind when I’m creative and it keeps me sleepless for weeks on end. Don’t resist it just because your family needs to get up in the morning. Squeeze a ten minute nap or two into the daylight hours even if it means taking the bus and sleeping away the commute (trust me, most of my university’s student population does this, even the sleep-drooler population). Staying up to write won’t be your lifestyle forever. Think of it as a grueling but temporary training regimen, like going for long, long runs leading up to a marathon.
  • Keep reading. I was badly stuck during the writing of my current novel. There was a difficult decision to be made, I didn’t have the confidence to make it, but until I did, the book couldn’t move forward. The solution was to stop writing for the rest of the day and read some excellent writing that succeeds in doing the very thing I was afraid to attempt. I opened a collection of short stories by Mavis Gallant, read until 1am, and went to bed stoked to take the risk I needed.
  • Don’t spend too long lying around miserable about not being Mavis Gallant. This was an unintended side-effect of reading good writing. It’s inevitable and understandable, just don’t let it go on for too long.
  • Talk to your partner about your book. His input may not make it into the manuscript but airing your story’s sticking points out loud with an attentive adult who wants you cute and happy is a helpful exercise. It also downplays any burgeoning sense of resentment he may have for a) the project that consumes so much of your attention, and b) the way you hog the lawnmower.
  • Share with care. I don’t mean to say you should make your partner to read half-baked early drafts. Don’t do this to your loved ones. They often don’t know what to say and it puts them in an awful position. Instead, use a professional writer-in-residence based in your local library, university, or other arty institutions. These real, working writers are waiting to read fifteen pages or so of your writing and give an impartial, informed assessment of how you’re doing and how it could be better. Their services are free and competition for their positions is fierce so you can usually trust they’ve been well-screened for things like being a jerk. But having said all this, if someone asks you to read their work, do it. You can take a lesson from the writers-in-residence and limit the amount of pages you’ll read, but say yes. Strictly speaking, I don’t believe in Karma but I make a cautious exception when it comes to lending my pickup truck and to helping other writers.
  • Distract. If you have kids at home during the day, introduce them to pastimes they can do by themselves in the same room as you while you sit still and say very little—things other than screen-time, which won’t make anyone happy in the long run. What could those pastimes be? It depends on the kid. For some kids, nothing will fill this bill and you’ll just have to let them trash your house while you get some work done, or learn to type with their heads wedged into the triangle formed by the crook of your arm and the edge of your desk (been there). If they are willing to give you a break, get them some Lego, craft supplies, Play-Doh, a load of siblings, a bunch of ironing to do—anything.
  • Be honest with yourself about other interests competing for discretionary time. If you can’t give up crafting, cake decorating, direct marketing essential oils, etc. in order to make time to write consistently, it might be best to wait until you are willing to make writing a priority. There’s nothing wrong with other pursuits, we just need to be realistic and at peace with how we choose to spend our time.
  • Don’t call your writing a hobby if you’re doing it as a serious artistic project. Don’t let anyone call it a hobby.
  • Go easy on people. People are who you are writing for. Don’t tell me it’s all for yourself, forever and ever. That might be how things turn out but that’s not the goal you have in your heart. Spending time with your kids, your partner, your extended family, friends, colleagues, strangers is part of writing. Nothing is more inspiring than life going on around you. This is an advantage mothers surrounded by people have over other writers. When I was working as a columnist for a newspaper in Fort McMurray staffed mostly by young, single newcomers to the city, a pattern emerged when these people would try to write columns of their own. They’d write a few articles on food they ate or television they watched and then their columns would usually fizzle. What they lacked wasn’t talent or voice or experience, it was other people. They were isolated, lonely, and in many ways creatively bereft. You and I, we are none of those things.

And that is the awful truth of how I do it.

 

 

On My Mother’s Knee-Replacement Surgery

Mummould

My mother took this picture. It’s mould she found growing in the refrigerator, on the surface of a long leftover batch of homemade pea soup, when she came home from a vacation. It’s beautiful and she needed to show us all before she threw it away.

mumteeth

This is a picture she took of herself this winter, when she was propped open, clamped, half-gagged, left alone to wait for anesthetic to set in before root canal surgery. It captures the dehumanization of dentistry with blithely understated honesty where there could be shrill drama.

When I was learning to be a person, the eyes that framed these pictures framed much of my world for me. It’s not that my mother trailed along after me, doting, driving, fussing over making sure I’d grow up to be an artist. Actually, it’s kind of a joke in our family that when I was born, she still wasn’t quite finished babying my 13 month old big brother so she lobbed me at my father with, “Here, this one’s for you.” I’ve never been sorry for that and the truth is, I was never far from her anyway. My father had my ear but my mother had my eye. I saw what she showed me—mould and teeth, pineapple weed in the cracks of sidewalks, clam holes in the sand at the beach.

My aunties said no one finds four-leaf clovers as easily as my mother does. She’d press them in books—thick, heavy, green books by men like Dante and Plato and Milton. She didn’t care for those stories but the books were kept through thousands of miles of moving house for our sake—that is, for my sake, and maybe the clovers’ too.

Get well, Mum.

Angry Grizzly Bear on This Generation

grizzly

 

Seen the #THISGENERATION graphics yet? The generation referred to in this series of red posters isn’t mine—the awkward demographic between Generation X and the Millennials. thisgeneration3The generation in question isn’t the artist’s own cohort either. From what I can tell, he’s a salty old fella from the beginning of the Millennial spectrum. #THISGENERATION—the one harpooned in his simple red graphics—is that of my kids and current classmates.

I spend almost all of my time with #THISGENERATION. Like the artist, I am part of a university community filled with people who get younger and younger than me every semester. In my growing family and in my volunteer activities, most of the faces I see and voices I hear are those of #THISGENERATION. By my own choice, I move through their sphere, outnumbered by them, and perfectly content to be so. What have I found in their sphere? I’ve found the full breadth and depth of human character, intelligence, and kindness. It exists there just as it does among people my own age and among people much older than me. Humanity isn’t something we age into or out of. We’re all equally a part of it.

Of course, I have a huge problem with the way these red posters fail so utterly in representing how or why my children and my friends live the way they do. It’s part of my general revulsion for any sweeping statement made about an entire category of people, especially when those statements appear to be based on fanciful anecdotes unsubstantiated by any proper data and, frankly, smack of the petty mean-spiritedness.

thisgeneration1Let’s pursue a methodical close reading of a few of the posters. In this one, #THISGENERATION is hassled for going somewhere private to take pictures of themselves to post in public. Sure, this is a situation that has and will continue to showcase a whole lot of terrible youthful judgment. But let’s hold our noses, take a page out of the gun lobby’s script, and remind ourselves that cameras don’t exploit people, people exploit people.

When I was in university, my bestie had a cheap, nasty film-camera and pestered me into appearing in ridiculous pictures. She was a genius, I guess. We were taking selfies before there were selfies. I wish two things about those pictures were different: that they weren’t so blurry and that there were many, many more of them. I no longer look like I did when I was twenty. And I certainly don’t blame anyone who is twenty right now for

oldselfie

An Aunthentic, Antique Selfie ca. 1994

understanding they will never be more beautiful and wanting to use the slick, cheap technology they have to document and revel in it. Heck, go ahead and pose in the bathroom if that’s the best place to relax and get a natural expression. Yes, some of today’s selfies will cause regret. That’s awful. But all those picture we don’t have from back in our day cause us a kind of regret too.

This one has more text so the weak points of its underlying assumptions are more glaring. First, the Candy Crush posts on my Facebook feed aren’t from #THISGENERATIONthisgeneration4 but from older people. Most of us won’t commit  to long, challenging gamer-ism so we play simple, free, throw-away games like Candy Crush. It’s mostly an old people game.

Beyond this sloppy misrepresentation, the larger problem with the comic is that it sets up a false dichotomy between online social contact and face-to-face contact. No one has to choose between these two options. Young people’s relationships span both social media and face-to-face life, just as they do for older people. The centre of young people’s social lives has shifted, moving toward a social space that didn’t exist in the past, the same way people’s relationships expanded to include phone calls during the twentieth century. However, the locus of new social contact points isn’t that different from what’s gone before it. My 19-year-old son observed that my 1990s social life required “a lot of legwork.” That’s true. But it wasn’t all about hoofing around, trying to find each other. We tied up our parents’ landlines, wrote notes to each other in class, wore earbuds and ignored our seatmates on public transit, sat together silently watching television because we had to share the same screen, bullied, and gossiped. Our social interactions weren’t always the rich, face-to-face encounters romanticized by “if you remember this your childhood was awesome” memes. My awkward generation also bored each other, hurt each other, wasted time, didn’t go outside enough, and let opportunities to enrich each other’s lives pass by.

In many ways, #THISGENERATION is more connected to their friends and acquaintances than young people have ever been. That can include being more connected to their parents. “So are you more of a friend-mom?” one of my classmates recently asked me. I do my fair-share of nagging and bossing but I do enjoy my kids. All those excruciating baby-years are paying off with these fantastic friends I made myself. That was the point of this parenting project all along— making people with whom to share my life. It’s come to include my online life.

I haven’t even mentioned the safety benefits of having kids in #THISGENERATION. When I was sixteen, my girls and I would get on a MetroTransit bus, leave Cole Harbour, and stay out until the last ferry brought us back from Halifax. We did this without any way for my parents to check on me, without anything in my pocket that could summon rescuers if something went wrong. My husband grew up in a rural area where he’d take a car and disappear into dark, icy prairies, unreachable for hours. I don’t know how our parents could stand it, and I’m glad I don’t have to.

How about this one?

thisgeneration5I was amused recently to read a twenty-year-old paper warning scholars they ought to take spoken literature (orature) more seriously since it was all #THISGENERATION was going to abide. In the early days of texting, a prominent Canadian author wrote a novel including a vision of the future where both written and spoken communication had morphed into flip-phone era texting shorthand. Of course, that hasn’t happened. #THISGENERATION doesn’t often use their phones as phones. When dealing with people at a distance, they prefer written over oral communication. A phone call means someone’s dead or in jail. #THISGENERATION has become extremely literate, plugging away on Tumblr writing heavy text posts about art and  relationships and social justice, learning creative writing in epic style on fan fiction sites, while older adults quip away in 140 characters. No one reads and writes more than #THISGENERATION.

None of this is meant as a glib “the kids are alright” brush-off of how hard growing up is for young people and the elders caught in the blast-zone. Things like pervasive online pornography, harassment, the permanence of online gaffes, and the ways compulsive gaming and social media activity can rob the achievements and relationships kids need to build their futures are all serious problems. So let’s stop snickering and get serious. #THISGENERATION ought to be able to look to older people for support, help, and love to ease their way. We can’t support people when we’re sneering at them. We can’t understand them when we’re oversimplifying them. We can’t show them much of anything if all we see can in them is their worst.

“The Wrong Side of 40” or, the Peak of Our Powers

Mt. Robson, a few hundred kilometres from where I was born four decades ago.

Mt. Robson, a few hundred kilometres from where I was born four decades ago.

At any time in my young adulthood, I could have been found sitting awkwardly breastfeeding, sitting awkwardly writing, or standing outside shoveling. None of these things was easy, none of them was without lasting benefits, none of them was any good for my left shoulder. Not surprisingly, for the first two winters of my mid-adulthood, my left rotator cuff has wound up sprained—weak and sore–by the end of January.

Despite not having done much breastfeeding, my father and older brother have the same repetitive stress injury in their shoulders. When I commiserated with Dad, he seemed like he’d been waiting. “You’re on the wrong side of forty,” he said, recommending his favourite aromatic anti-inflammatory ointment. Every girl dreams of growing old smelling exactly like her even older male relatives. That’s not what I’m objecting to here. It’s “the wrong side of forty”—I’m not yet convinced there’s much wrong with forty.

Come back.

I know. As a younger person, I was irked by forty-somethings marveling about how their lives are better than the sluggish, disease-ridden ordeals they might have been expecting. The more they went on about it, the more pathetic it sounded to smug young me. And hearing 40-year-olds reject the term “middle-aged” when the average lifespan in our country is in the 80s is still annoying. Life does not begin at forty. Counting works. Math is real. Knock it off.

People my age are well and truly half-dead. But for many of us, life has developed into something surprisingly good—surprising to our broke, baby-bitten twenty-something selves with piles of student debt.

A lesson known to fortysomethings who won’t stop crowing about enjoying life is the realization that, “It won’t last” –whatever “it” is. The wisdom is bittersweet, delivering comfort and demanding resignation at the same time. Is that what maturity means?

Anyways, here are a few things in my life that didn’t last–for good, for ill, for real. [Keep in mind I can only speak for myself—that’s what a personal blog is for–and I didn’t craft this list to make anyone feel badly about theirs. I have one life and it reads like this.]

My kids’ baby-years didn’t last. When I was a new mother–25 years old with two little boys–I got weary of older parents urging me not to wish the boys’ babyhoods away. They were difficult little dudes and I wished their babyhoods away pretty much every minute they were awake. My friend Jeannie—a lady my mum’s age—saw into my black heart and promised me my kids could grow up to be my best friends. It’s turning out to be true. My kids and I hacked our way through their babyhoods to their personhoods. There are still two elementary students in our household keeping us deep in Kidsville. But I can go for days without having to see their butts and I’ve learned to laugh off what might have made me cry when I was a difficult young mother. For instance, with my oldest kid now studying chemistry at university, I have the track record and confidence to tell our grade two teacher that six worksheets of homework is too many, we’re only doing two, and no one’s future will be destroyed.

Youthful looks don’t last. I didn’t come out of the child-bearing years in the same physical condition I went into them—which is actually fine since I began motherhood looking like a 16-year-old, raking in all sorts of pitying disapproval from strangers. I’ll spare us the details of my decline. Suffice it to say, my mother-in-law—who’s is in the early stages of dementia–keeps being surprised that my skin looks so different now than it did when we met the summer I was twenty-one.

“Did you get a sunburn? Did you get hit in the face?”

“No, Sweetheart. We’re just old now.”

In some ways, I’m healthier than ever. My kids getting old enough for me to ditch them didn’t do a thing for my bad shoulder but finding time to work-out means I can outrun—literally—the diabetes, high blood pressure, and knee problems that would have come with being overweight in a half-spent body.

Trends don’t last. I can calm the frick down about how people and things are decked out. When we moved into a house decorated in early 1990s brass and oak last year, I didn’t panic and start redecorating. Brass is already back. Oak can’t be far behind—and even if it’s not, what do I care? Best of all, my favourite boots from the 90s are back in rotation in my wardrobe, authentically vintage.

Being flat broke didn’t last. When I was 28, living with three kids in a two-bedroom Fort McMurray apartment complex where people sometimes got stabbed, I used to say all I wanted of the comforts of life was a dishwasher, a second bathroom, and the ability to buy whatever goodies I wanted at the grocery store. Fait accompli.

The generation older than mine won’t last. The Baby Boomers haven’t been the easiest generation to follow through history but that doesn’t mean we want to get rid of them. So far, more than anything that’s degenerated in myself, the progression of my parents and parents-in-law into illness, disability, and death has been the most difficult part of growing older.

A few things have lasted. My husband is still with me, with all his teeth and hair, without his appendix.

My stories have benefitted from aging as well. When I was in my 20s, childfree, too broke to do anything but stay home reading and writing, I was frustrated at not having much to say. I wrote brutish poetry because it was short, well-suited for venting burst of poorly-formed literary energy. My voice had potential but most of what I wrote lacked the substance I knew I wanted to invoke. It took me a long time to be able to write fiction that didn’t make me cringe. The stories I wanted to tell came the only way they could for me: slowly.

But then, looking back and looking ahead from this point I hope is the middle of my time, nothing about four decades seems slow at all.

How to Read Minds in the Check-out Line: Hints for Parents of Toddlers

My uber-toddler. It was the best of times, it was the worst of time.

My uber-toddler. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Those social media posts and blog entries written by moms of young children, complaining about the way strangers interact with them in public spaces — I could have written those. In fact, I once wrote and voiced a five minute piece for CBC Radio about a low point in my public mothering of little kids.

My youngest child is the ripe old age of six and doesn’t attract much attention in grocery stores or restaurants anymore. However, in order to arrive at this time of life, I first had to run the gauntlet of five toddlers.

All five of my kids had monster moments but two of my toddlers – the first and the fourth – consistently and horrendously stood out when we were in public. They were what kind people called “handfuls” or “going concerns” and what not-so-kind people might’ve considered proof that there’s no hope for the future of humanity. Thanks to bad mate-selection on their father’s part, these two also out-class me in every measure of relative size and strength and I often looked more like their underqualified, overwhelmed, soon-to-be-fired nanny than their biological mother.

What I mean to say is I fought in the trenches of toddler-motherhood for as long and as hard as just about any other women ever to complain about it. I hear you, sisters. I remember. Three short years ago, I was you.

I want to show support for mothers of younger children – treat toddler-moms and their kids the way I wish people had treated us. I want to give the assurances I wish someone had given me – even if it’s going to be a few years before toddler-moms will be able to believe me.

Of course, what I have to say might not be true for everyone witnessing the struggle. I know that. I went on the radio and testified about it to the whole country. Yes, there are plenty of grownup weirdos who have no idea how to behave in public and feel they can scold other adults for things that do not concern them. I don’t know what they’re thinking.

But I can speak for myself. And between me and more than a few other parents with older kids, it’s safe to assume there are allies among the onlookers. It’s safe to assume:

No one cares about the noise and mess kids make as much as their parents do. Everyone in line at the Wal-Mart has ninety-nine problems and someone else’s little kid isn’t one. To strangers, little kids are pretty much white noise – alright, maybe beige noise but definitely not the red noise they sound like to their own parents. What might be interpreted as hostile glaring from strangers is likely just bored staring, idle bemusement, a lack of anything else to look at. We won’t remember or resent a noisy little kid. But thanks for the floor-show while we wait in line.

Wanna know what we’re thinking of that noisy little kids’ parents? I’ll tell ya. Nothing. We’re usually not thinking about them at all. Like most people, we have no trouble staying busy thinking all about ourselves. Most experienced parents are only too happy to let newer parents enjoy absolute rule in their own jurisdictions. There’s nothing we want more for toddler-wranglers than the free exercise their own good judgment. Maybe we’re jerks but compassion isn’t the only thing on our minds when faced with someone else’s struggle. Sometimes, it’s more like, “Better them than me.”

Our smiles for goofy little kids aren’t supposed to encourage them to keep acting up. We usually give frazzled moms space, willfully trying not to notice them. But kids don’t understand space the same way we do and can wind up too close to ignore. At times like these, our smiles and friendliness are meant to show goofy kid’s mom that he’s not bothering us nearly as much as she might worry he is. It’s a simple sign of good will. His mom is having a hard time and a common, deeply ingrained social reaction to seeing one of our kind in distress is to offer non-verbal reassurance and comfort with a smile. We don’t expect those moms to smile back at us – heck knows we never did – but if they did, it’d probably relieve some tension. It’d feel better than scowling and making a retort about how it’s not okay. The truth is, if no one’s being hurt, it probably is okay.

Sometimes someone is being hurt and it’s hard for moms of older kids to ignore years of well-learned reflexes and let it go. Raising toddlers leaves us with something like a post-traumatic stress disorder, hurling us into flashbacks of our very worst days – the ones when we went to the emergency room hoping the medical staff wouldn’t call the police about our kids’ bizarre but completely accidental injuries. When a fellow mom is distracted and her little kids look like they’re in danger, we might break down and squawk out a warning.

This was me, a few weeks ago. I was waiting in a slow, painful line while a mom with two young kids was paying for her purchases. She was focused on the cashier, trying to move along as quickly as possible, and her older daughter was pushing the baby back and forth in a shopping cart. It was a harmless, boring game. It was so boring the little girl added a new element. She pushed the cart as hard as she could and let go of the handle. The baby was launched toward a metal shelf. His mom was still busy with the cashier and hadn’t seen any of it. So this horrible voice called out “Excuse me, your daughter…” It was my voice. The mother whirled around, lunged for the handle of the cart, and turned back to the cashier without looking at me. She wasn’t grateful. She was ticked off. I get it. It’s embarrassing to feel like we’ve been called out in public for making a mistake. It’s embarrassing to be the one doing the calling. But accidents happen to everyone, even good parents. People jump in to help not because they don’t care about adults but because they do care about kids. That sounds sappy but it’s true.

We’re not trying to sabotage other parents. Everyone in the mall is muddling through, trying to figure out his or her own humanity. For me, being a good human means if I see a toddler standing alone screaming in a big space full of strange adults I will always rush up to him and say, “Hey, honey, are you okay? Are you by yourself?” Among a thousand reasons, I will do this in case someone who may not be such a softie steps in to take advantage of the situation. There is no way for me to know the kid’s mom is standing behind a nearby planter trying to teach him a lesson about the perils of being a doofus who won’t stop running away. I raised a kid exactly like that. I know how frustrated and desperate he can make his poor mother. But I also know how relieved and grateful I was every time my son truly was lost and someone reached out and rescued both of us. Personally, I’m happier living in a world where the “natural and logical consequences” of my kids’ bad behaviour is encountering compassion from someone with no specific duty to love and care for them who’s willing to love and care for them anyway.

Toddler-mothering sisters, we’re in this together, though maybe not at the same time. We’ve obsessed over the same little failures, exulted in the same small successes. Maybe no one has more confidence in young mothers’ abilities to overcome than mothers just a few years ahead of their schedule. We’ve lived through toddlers and emerged largely undamaged. More importantly, so have our freshly civilized older kids.