Raising Children Without the Village
On a recent flight out to Vegas to visit my son I climbed aboard a non-stop 4 ½ hour flight only to find myself two seats behind a woman with two small children. I love to watch people and make up stories about their lives, and couldn’t help but check out this particular woman as soon as she boarded the plane. She had one toddler strapped to her cocked hip and the other child was shyly pushing a small suitcase down the aisle. It seemed adorable.
At first glance the three of them appeared to be a unified set of travelers bonded by family and purpose, but upon a closer look at the woman’s worn face, I could see evidence of lack of sleep, no time for personal hygiene or self-care, and a weariness that caused a flashback of my own early years of raising children to give me chills. I found myself wishing the oxygen masks would drop from the ceiling and help me breathe.
The struggle was real as soon as this woman climbed over the person in the aisle seat and fell exhausted by the window. After dropping the one child onto the seat next to her, she disrupted the incoming line of passengers by climbing over the aisle person and digging back through her suitcase for snacks, lifeline necessities, and some water. At first, I felt agitated at her insensitivity to the incoming passengers, but I noticed her haggard and weary body and watched her shoulders slump in defeat when I heard her little girl’s shrieking voice. The child began a monologue that would give Robin Williams and Jim Carrey a run for their money. The toddler’s voice was high-pitched, and she spoke intently and with purpose as she went on and on and on about their travels, the airplane, and a number of other unrelated topics.
After the plane took off, the child kept rambling and covered everything from world peace to why airplanes should be outlawed (of course I’m lying here, but work with me. I couldn’t make out most of the details, but the talk was endless). No one looked up, made faces, or complained about the chaos and I felt like I was the only one noticing. I’d mistakenly left my noise canceling headphones at home and there was no way to quiet the space around me.
With the seatbelt sign off, the woman began a regimen of hauling the children one at a time up and down the aisles and into the bathroom, tromping over people and scowling at whomever glanced her way. It was as though she felt pure hatred for each of us in our apathy. It was as though death rays spewed from her eyes and into each of us as she passed our seats, a silent anger for our not intervening and taking some of the load off of her. A couple of times I was tempted to assist, but images of prison for child endangerment flashed through my mind and I kept my seatbelt on and averted her gaze.
I tried to close my eyes and float back to when my own kids were young, and I went weeks without a proper night’s rest. Fatigue growing until I began to hallucinate, talk in gibberish, and dehydrate, the results being complete forgetfulness of what day it was and losing all interest in make-up, hair combing, or bathing. This kind of thing happens when exhaustion and weariness kicks in and you feel all hope is lost.
I remember right after I regained my ability to walk after my first child was born. We were sitting proudly in a restaurant with my son tucked in a carrier sleeping like an angel. I looked at my husband and said, “People are crazy when they say a child changes your life. Nothing in our life has changed.” I believe that was when the curse fell upon me. It was in that moment that it happened; he woke and began to cry. The riveting reality of motherhood, true change, and the knowledge that nothing would ever be the same fell upon me and sunk into my being.
And yet, I tried to force the illusion that nothing had changed because after my second child was born I attempted (for the last time) to enter a public place alone with my three-year-old son and infant daughter. I remember standing at the checkout line holding the baby in my arms, my toddler standing next to me as I paid the cashier with one hand; my toddler began to beg for a candy bar or whatever was in the impulse buying bin and I said those dreaded words no mother can say out loud in public. “NO.”
I should have stalled, deflected, examined my words, used the art of listening because this wonderfully sweet child began to beg, then scream, and finally flung himself onto the floor like a protester with a cause. Horrified, I had a baby in one arm, my groceries in the other and a child on the floor. Why hadn’t I finished the book on the art of effective communication? Dozens of eyes were on me, including the customers on the dairy aisle, all the employees and management and the checkout clerk. All eyes told me to get out of the store. NOW! Make the screaming stop.
In a fight or flight moment, I froze and stared down at the child and reprimanded myself for not buying the candy. Where was my husband? I hated him in that moment for not being there beside me. This was all his fault: no one can get pregnant without help.
Someone finally took my groceries and mouthed something as they walked toward the door. I followed meekly, humiliated and defeated and strapped the two children into the car. When the woman had gone (I wanted to ask if she’d move in with our family but I was too weak to verbalize the thought), I sat in the car a few minutes, the sound of my son still screaming for the candy pounding through my skull and wished for the days when the village stepped in and helped out a little, especially in the middle of the night when my husband was completely comatose and unresponsive.
This fierce memory stabbed me with empathy for the haggard woman walking the aisles alone with the toddler who never stopped talking and I wondered where her helpmate was. She looked worn, weary, and in desperate need of sleep.
When we finally began to disembark the aircraft people were looking at each other and commenting on the little girl who never stopped talking. I took one last glance at the mother whose dirty blonde hair was hanging haphazardly out of the ragged hair scrunchie, the bags under her eyes dark and stretched with wrinkles beyond her young years. Her slumped shoulders seemed to year for a massage, her body desperate for one relaxing moment. I felt a kindred spirit take hold of me and shot her a smile and a nod.
Raising kids isn’t all bad; the blessings come in unannounced spurts and in moments when we least expect them. Sometimes they appear in the chaos or the quiet and for a brief moment we know these tiny people are worth the struggle, the sleepless nights, screaming car rides, and horrific plane trips. Most of us have been there and that is probably why most don’t complain when they witness the struggle.
And unfortunately, it seems the village passively watches in silent fear, with eyes that also hold quiet admiration and respect…they want to help, but hold back from reaching out and offering assistance, but I believe people truly feel the pain and joy.
So, what’s the point of my story? Well, I’m still praying for that poor woman on the plane, but I feel a relief that my children are grown. My experiences with grandchildren are quite different and seem to come to me in gushes of joy, without the work and sleepless nights involved with the early years of motherhood.
God bless all the parents in the world. But at the fear of being choked, I still suggest moms implement a little self-care. From my own muddled memories, I suggest you lock yourself in the bathroom and take a bubble bath and try to breathe. The kids will still be waiting impatiently outside the door but at least when you emerge you will be cleaner, brighter, and more refreshed. I know mine were waiting there outside that bathroom door each time I entered that hallowed and peaceful place. I made it through, and you can too, even without the village.