“Don’t do that in public!” I’m paranoid about my public Mom persona

Guest post by Susie Meserve
DeCA opens new commissary in Belgium with a little help from USACE

I’ll never forget when a friend told me a story about a mom she knew. “She totally yelled at her kid,” my friend said. “In public!”

I try to practice equal-opportunity parenting: be kind to my kid in private, be kind to him in public. I try not to do things out in the world that I wouldn’t do at home because it makes me feel… icky. Kids, of course, don’t live by the same rule. Scratch their butts in private, scratch their butts in public; what’s the difference?

I think a lot about my public Mom persona. My son L is a wonderful, in many ways laid-back but also strong-willed kid. No matter what I say, he’s as likely to stop grabbing fruit from the health food store, declaring it a “sample” and cramming it in his mouth too quickly for me to stop him, as I am to win a contest for my math skills (e.g.: not likely). At this point, the health food store people see us coming and hand me a kumquat and a couple strawberries.

At his first swimming lesson, there was a minor scene. I should have known when we got to the pool and instead of sitting quietly on the edge like the other toddlers, L asked me in a loud voice, “Did you bring any water toys, Mom?” that things might be eventful.

I did not bring any water toys, I told him. Shh!

We started off with kid swimming activities like blowing bubbles, jumping up and down in the water, and singing “The Wheels on the Bus” with pool-inspired hand motions. As fast as turning off a switch, L decided he was bored with “Wheels on the Bus.” He started straining against me, stretching his wet, muscular little 35-pound body in search of greener pastures. Imagine hard little feet in your abdomen, pushing.

“I want to go in that other pool, Mumma.”

“We can’t, Love, we’re in a class.”

He strained some more.

“Let’s go, Mumma!”

“Honey, we’re in a class,” I said. “When you’re in a class, you have to listen to your teacher and do what they say. Let’s listen to Ben!”

He shot me a look that read, you can’t make me. (And that’s when I had some foreshadowing of awkward fifth-grade parent-teacher conferences.) Luckily, he gained interest again and we somehow made it through the class. At the end, Ben gave us a very stern and very scary talk about drowning.

“Drowning happens quickly and silently,” he said. “It’s not like in Bay Watch.”

So, armed with horrible images of Pamela Anderson, I kept L close to me as we left the pool and walked through a little fenced-off section with bleachers where our stuff was. I turned around to find him trying to squeeze himself back through the fence into the pool area. Did I mention he’s strong and wily like a snake?

“L!” I yelled. “Stop!” He was headed straight for the pool.

“L!” I yelled again. “You stop RIGHT NOW!” and, catching up with him, I grabbed his arm. Roughly. And we had a very stern talking to. That’s when I noticed all those other parents, whose kids had been well-behaved in swimming class, staring at me. All those other parents, I should add, who had not stopped my beautiful son from squeezing himself through the gate back towards the pool even though they were in arm’s reach.

I have something of an active imagination, but all evening I wondered what those parents thought of me. Most likely: smart mom, to treat the situation seriously (drowning is the silent, quick killer). Possibly: she’s way too paranoid and strict; a yeller. Unlikely, but you never know: abusive. Clearly, I have to develop a thicker skin, because there is a solid chance that in the next, oh, 24 hours, my son is going to behave in public in a way that requires me to reveal something about my parenting.

But we worry, don’t we, about what people think? Even parents of the easiest children contend with the occasional wicked tantrum, or a disaster of an eating out attempt, or a terrible diaper blow-out in the airport. Here I am, you think. With my pants down and all my dirty laundry hanging out.

But there are redeeming moments. A few days after that swimming lesson, we were at the health food store again. L discovered the bulk bins and was happily imagining me filling him with gelatin-free jelly beans. I kept asking him not to put his fingers in the bins. But lo and behold, I stooped to scoop some rice and damned if L wasn’t wrist-deep in the currants when I came back up. Three people’s spying eyes on us.

I pulled him aside.

“L,” I said, “I need you to look in my eyes so I know you’re hearing me.” (His eyes scooted left, then right, up to the ceiling, and down to the floor before landing on me briefly, then darting off again.)

“I need you to do better listening. I asked you not to put your hands in the bins.”

“But why?”

“Because people don’t want little kid fingers in their raisins. I am happy to buy you a treat, but I need you to promise you’re done putting your hands in the bins. Look me in the eyes and promise. If you put your hands in the bins again, I’m not giving you the treat.”

Eyes darted everywhere. Finally, he promised. We chose some dates and I let him carry them. Five minutes later I was browsing in the sunscreen aisle when a woman came up to me.

“I just need to tell you,” she said, “that you’re such a good mom. I saw you in the bulk section with your son, and I was so impressed. Really. Kudos to you.”

“Me?” I said. “Really?”

It made my day. It made my week. Having a stranger witness my ad hoc disciplinary strategy and pronounce me a good mom afterwards? Beautiful.

Thank you, stranger, for filling me with hope that I am doing something right. In public.

Comments on “Don’t do that in public!” I’m paranoid about my public Mom persona

  1. Thanks so much for this…My sweet, goofy, and strong-willed toddler has now realized he can be contrary just for the heck of it, and it is trying my patience! Trying to figure out age-appropriate discipline in general, and especially in public is a challenge. I just had an instance of this today at the park when he found a sharp stick and started running with it (not quite 2 years old yet and accident-prone, otherwise I wouldn’t have worried too much), and despite me asking him to put it down and offering alternatives, he hauled himself as fast as he could across the playground while my preggo self chased after him shouting for him to stop…while getting stares from the little old ladies taking a walk and other parents with their chill kiddos. Sigh.

      • Oh yes. I remember once we were going to the shop for bread, and I was going crazy looking for socks for my son – who was about 8 months old at the time, and it was in the middle of (Australian) summer. My partner and his brother were looking at me like I was insane, coz I was getting really horrified that they’d even SUGGEST that we leave without his socks, and they told me so.

        I shot back, ‘The old ladies will judge me!!’

        So yeah. Now every time I have even the most MINOR parenting insecurity, they look at me and go ‘Ohhh no, not the old ladies! Quick look out for the old ladies!’

        My fear is a bit strange, seeing as I was raised by my grandmother and 80% of the people I know are (lovely and supportive) old ladies. Funnily enough I feel a lot less worried about it since they started laughing at me hahaha!! Laughing always helps.

  2. Thank you for this piece. As someone who has always been afraid of other’s judgement, motherhood with all of it’s emotional judging has left me all but paralyzed in public. It finally hit me a little while ago, don’t know when or where exactly, that most of the judgement is perceived rather than real because we’re all afraid that we’re not doing well enough by our own children. The fact of the matter is, we all love our children so very much, and we all truly are doing everything we can for them.

    Recently, while sending in an order for more business cards, I had some made that just say ‘Thank you for being a good parent,’ and I hand them out to anyone I see having trouble with their kids. We all get encouragement from everyone when our children are angels, but I know from experience, that the encouragement means so much more when they’re being heathens. When you’re frazzled. So when I see a parent out and about having a horrible time, but holding it together anyway (or sometimes not so together), to me it’s obvious they care about their children, they’re good parents, so I hand them the card (because I’m incredibly shy, but still want to acknowledge them). I usually write something on it, but not always. And it always elicits a smile, which is the intent.

    Just a friendly smile to say ‘Hey, it’s obvious you’re having a hard time right now, but it’s also obvious that you’re a good parent.’

    It may not be much, but I figure if I can just lift someone else’s spirit even the slightest bit, that must be good for something. 🙂

  3. yay for other parents with headstrong (but happy) kids! i have a lot of trouble getting my son to listen to me too. he’s 3. so far, like you did with your son at the health food store, getting down on his level, holding him by the shoulders, and speaking to him calmly but firmly seems to be the best way to do it. of course i have moments of zero patience at home sometimes and just yell, but…yeah, i try not to make a habit of it and don’t like to make a scene like that in public.

    i was out to eat with some friends who have a son the same age as mine the other day, and we were having a fun time trying to keep them sufficiently entertained so they wouldn’t start yelling or chasing each other around the table. then someone stopped by the table to tell us how well-behaved our children were. totally floored all of us, and we all left grinning. i’ll have to remember to pay it forward.

    • What a nice surprise.

      At a restaurant a while back my son was completely freaking out and a woman with older kids came up and said, “It gets easier, you know.” I suppose I could have found that patronizing, but I didn’t. I thought, “GREAT to know.”

  4. thank you so much for writing this! this is great! being a parent is so challenging and doing it in public really does feel like you are airing your dirty laundry, sometimes literally! i have to remind myself that everyone will judge me according to their ideas of what a parent is or should be, and i am not going to impress everyone. growing up i always imagined myself being a carefree parent, but i have found that i am not that way and have accepted the parenting style i have. that’s not to say that i do not question my choices and have conversations with others to decide coarse of action. i just don’t want to fake it to please others out in public. i yell, i discipline, and i give lots of hugs and kisses.

  5. A thing I’ve realize is that when your little one acts up in public, most of the other parents of small children are too busy thinking “I’m so grateful that’s not me. This time.” to be judgmental of anything.
    Those of us with older children and teenagers, it’s mostly sympathy, mixed, weirdly, with a touch of nostalgia. As for the rest – and some people might consider this harsh – as far as I’m concerned, people without children don’t even get to have an opinion about my parenting.

    Small children experience life with all five senses and have no such thing as impulse control. That’s why they yell, and grab things, and sometimes try to taste the neighbour’s cat. They gain skills at different speeds, so some are still doing this when others aren’t.

    Eventually they become teenagers and sometimes trying on new personas means literally, and random Cosplay happens. That will get you some weird looks as well.
    Last year a random stranger in a store, not realizing that my Steampunk/Goth/Anime inspired daughter and I were together, commented to me that “Teenagers are… interesting.” (With all the judgment that implies.) My somehow not-defensive, casual but completely honest response was “Even more interesting when they’re yours. I think she’s awesome.”
    Guess which one of us felt awkward after that exchange? I actually felt pretty good about myself – and it only took me seventeen years to feel that confident about parenting in public, so there’s hope for anybody. 😉

    • Thanks for this response. I found it really generous and wise. I think you’re right that most parents don’t judge (because they’re so happy it’s not their kid tantrumming!) but I do think there is judgment that happens, often when your kid is under two, for some reason.

      I really loved reading about you saying to that stranger, “Even more interesting when they’re yours. I think she’s awesome.” Sounds like it.

  6. I’ve been teaching swimming lessons for 15 years, and your little one seems totally normal! I often love the “challenging” kids, because they’re the ones with the biggest personalities, that say the funniest things and keep me on my toes. We’ve seen it all, and it sounds like you’re doing it right! Water safety is no joke, and if there’s ever a time to be more stern than you meant to be, it’s when your child’s safety is at risk.

      • I was the same way as a kid. I just hated water on my face. It wasn’t until I had a swimming teacher that I had a crush on that I even tried putting my face in the water (I was 3 1/2). After that, you couldn’t keep me out of the pool. I think sometimes kids just need to find their own motivation for certain things. He’ll get there. 🙂

        • I refused to put my face under water as a kid and um – I still won’t haha. It hasn’t ruined my life in any way though, so it’s all right 😀

          • Me too! All I have to say though, is not to force it. My parents thought the solution was to drag me underwater by my foot at every opportunity during swimming to make me “get used to it”. Yeah, that totally backfired, and I refused to go near a pool or beach for years.

  7. I just want to reach through the computer and give you a hug! This is wonderful. As a parent of a delightfully spirited and occasionally very naughty 4 year old, MAN this article sang to my heart.

  8. i don’t even pay attention or notice anymore about how i am viewed in public. i am just thankful i got through what ever i am going through with my kids. i have six kids. my oldest has autism and suffers from sensory issues. he started crying the first day out of the hospital at the grocery store and hasn’t quit since. screaming, yelling, head banging, fits, running away, hiding… you name it where ever we are at (he has grown out of it in the last few years THANKFULLY, but he is now 14). after that you learn to let caring about what other people think GO! who cares anyway??? really. isn’t just trying to get through where ever you are at and out the door with your kids enough??? my second kids were twins. they pretty much were terrible in public since early on. they hated the cart and they hated shopping and they didn’t have two seated carts back then so either they were walking or standing in the cart. so i had my crying screaming son and crying screaming twins. then i had a step daughter that had has ADHD really bad along with a whole slew of other psychological problems that was one year older than the twins and she was terrible in stores. then i had two more babies after that. i am just happy to get through the store and i don’t care what perception my kids give to other people… fits, temper tantrums, screaming, rambunctious, hyper, fighting… who cares. people can judge and it doesn’t bother. I JUST WANT TO GET THE HELL THROUGH THE STORE. if i manage to get through the store or the place we are at in one piece i consider the day golden and an amazing accomplishment. for mothers that do worry, stop. who cares. you have so many other things to worry about. people will always judge. you can’t please everyone. why stress. kids will be kids, expect that and accept that.

    • I think you’re right, it’s best not to worry and to remember that kids will be kids–and after a while, that becomes much easier to do. For new moms it can be really hard, though. It’s such a shift from only worrying about yourself.

      You obviously have a lot of experience (and your hands full!). Thanks for the comment.


  9. I had a good laugh imagining you trying to get your son to look you in the eyes in the bulk foods–mostly because I can remember that gut dropping feeling that happens right when you catch your kiddo doing something they are not supposed to do; in public. Kudos to you for blocking out those other people who always watch and shake their heads at how we are or aren’t disciplining our children.
    I once carried my screaming and kicking 1 and a half year old under my arm like a football all the way through the most fancy shopping mall in Atlanta, GA. Three long escalators, and the echoing…We stopped everybody in their tracks. He screamed through the stores, the parking lot, into the car, and then it was quiet when I tossed him gently in the back seat and shut the door. I leaned on the outside of the car trying to calm myself down when I heard someone clapping. A little old lady came over and smiled gently. She said “Not bad momma.” and patted my arm.
    She made me feel like I could do anything. And that I was a good parent.
    Don’t doubt yourself, Susie! You sound like a fantastic mom.

  10. I really enjoyed this article – very well done! I often worry about my public persona, but I have two very difficult very challenging kiddos so they test every limit. I try, though fall flat on my face often times, not to ever judge another parent. My oldest, is diagnosised with a Non verbal learning disability and is in a specialized school. Her peer group is autistic kids and when I go out with those mom’s in public I realize quickly how awful society is in judging other’s in their parenting. I spend a lot of time explaining away the kids awful behavior with autism – bc I feel bad for the parents and how people look at them. Recently, I brought my daughters BFF to the pool with his mom. When he started acting up, yelling, swearing at anyone around him, I noticed people rolling their eyes and whispering. I made it a point to tell one frustrated woman that the child she is so upset with has autism. That same woman followed me out of the pool to apologize repeatedly, saying she had no idea and she used to be a special ed teacher. Really, I do it bc of my own anxiety too- that people will judge me too – and I hate it. But I am guilty of yelling at my kids in public, quite frankly wanting to smack them at times (my youngest has OCD and is relentless). As an LICSW, I know that to be wrong, or not at all a helpful response, and it is just a thought, not an action. Parenting is hard – I love them dearly and wouldn’t change it, but it is hard. Great read!

    • I’m so glad you added this perspective, Sheilah, thanks. I know that this worry about what people think is compounded if you have a kid who people perceive as “different” and who challenges you in so many ways. Just for the record, I too am guilty of yelling at my kid–in public, in private. I try not to but it happens.

  11. When I was pregnant, I think I already had a feeling that the judgment of other mothers would be a bigger deal to me than a lot of the normal challenges involved in actual parenting. Thinking about it now, I think partly it was what I had heard from other friends who were already parents, but I also think some part of that was because *I* had been guilty of judging other moms whose kids were misbehaving in public, or who were yelling at their kids. It’s pretty terrible to realize that about yourself, but it was definitely true for me before I had a kid.

    I think that it’s no coincidence that it’s usually moms being judged though, and moms who worry about being judged. My spouse has told me outright that he doesn’t even give a thought to what other people think when our kid acts up in public — not because he’s made a conscious effort to ignore them, but because it sincerely doesn’t enter his brain to even consider them when the task at hand is to parent the toddler.

    Reflecting on this, and all the energy I’ve spent in my life worrying about this, and before that, making those judgments, I think it’s probably tied in to the (warning: feminist theory time!) inward turning of the male gaze that women do to themselves and other women. I walk down the street by myself, and it’s impossible for me not to reflect, however quickly, on how I probably look to others, be it sloppy, confident, sexy, etc. I think it flows into being a parent, where I cannot think about a scenario in which my kid and I enter a room with other moms where they won’t be looking at me and doing some judging. And for me, I think I’m so used to being judged as an individual adult woman, that it’s normal to me. But being judged as a mom, and then the even more uncontrollable aspect of having my impulsive toddler judged… it can be overwhelming.

    At the same time, at some point (I probably reached it when my kid TOTALLY LOST IT at a restaurant, to the point of “I know you haven’t brought my food yet, but can you just make it to-go and bring it outside, here’s my credit card”), you realize that you can’t control your image, you can’t control the judging, if it’s even happening (hell, maybe it’s all in my head!), and it’s actually really really freeing. I can’t ever totally stop myself from suspecting that other moms are sizing up my parenting, but I can make a conscious decision to acknowledge, and then let go.

    • Right on, sister. A while back I was judging myself horribly in front of a friend who doesn’t have kids, and she said “F-that–do you think your husband would be sitting here for one minute thinking about what a bad father he is?” I think it’s true that as women we have really internalized this belief that we have to be perfect. Having a kid is an amazing exercise in learning that we can’t be.

  12. While I’m not a parent, I’ve spent many years working as a nanny for families, including watching varius rambunctious children that have exhibited their fair share of tantrums, fights, sulking, and general “bad behavior.” It’s certainly much easier to discipline them at home, but it is decidedly harder in public, particularly as the nanny or babysitter (that is very clearly not the their mother, especially if the child shouts “you’re not my mom and I don’t have to listen to anything you say! You’re just a dumb babysitter!!! I hate you, you’re the worst babysitter EVAAAARRRR” aka the public pool meltdown of 2008).

    I find that keeping my calm as much as I possibly can (outwardly, at least) and being firm but respectful is the key to handling these situations. It’s also hard for me, at times, to balance my own personal preferences for discipline as a childcare provider with what my employers (the parent/s) typically do in those situations. I try to establish ground rules with the parents before I start working with their family about what their own rules for discipline are (time out vs. lost privileges, warning systems, key words/phrases) and if they’re universal for siblings (this can be particularly important if you’re working with children that have special needs or vastly different ages).

    However, all of this planning can still go out the window if you didn’t cover “what do you do when they start throwing a tantrum at the park” and have to make a snap decision! I find I do get quite a few looks, especially if its clear I’m not the parent and “just the nanny,” but I’ve learned to get a thick skin about it. I have to communicate the incident and my response to the parent/s at the end of the day, anyway, so I’m owning up to my response either way!

    • I love this angle. I think caregivers often do a much better job of dealing with challenging situations than parents because they’re not as emotionally enmeshed, or something (not that you, too, don’t love the kids you’re taking care of). When things are challenging with my son and I have no idea what to do, I often ask his preschool teacher. She’s a miracle worker. She seems to always know what approach to take. Calm and respectful is the key, and kudos to you for working towards it.

  13. My dad has tourettes, so my daughter has learned a LOT of curse words in her five years of life (as did I!). I’ve explained to her that there is a time and a place for these words (not with my ex’s parents, not at school), and she adheres to that, but she likes to use them because she’s 5 and it makes people laugh outside of her restrictions.

    So it’s not uncommon for us to be at the grocery store and her to pick up a strange fruit and say “what the fuck is this?” I answer her like she didn’t curse. I’ve had people try to tear me to shreds about her cursing. My options when she was younger was to keep her away from an incredible grandfather or keep her away from curse words… I’m okay with her knowing certain words and using them appropriately.

    Being a parent is a lot of questioning your parenting. Know that your parenting, if you believe is right (barring abuse, which is clearly not the case here), it’s right for you and your family.

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