The only place I can really get to on my own, with twins and a toddler, without someone meeting me at the other end is the park up the road. It’s literally across the street. I can time it to avoid breastfeeding and nappy changes and still get maximum time outside. The babies nap in the pram and the bigger one can have her morning tea and play for at least a couple of hours. I feel safe there. I’m not anxious about taking heaps of time to pack and unpack the car or fulfil the kids’ needs away from home and I know if anything happens I don’t have far to go to be back in the comfort and security of home.
Sometimes though, I come home feeling disappointed and cranky that I even bothered and it’s not because of anything my kids have done. It’s other people. Don’t get me wrong. The majority of the time I meet absolutely beautiful strangers. Mums, sometimes with twins themselves or children close together who understand the chaos my life entails, often connect with me in the moment. We don’t even get each other’s names. We just learn the ages of our children and chat quickly about what we are experiencing most recently. We share a little bit of the anguish we feel, but by instinctively trying to buoy each other’s spirits, end up finding the positivity and humour in our own situations. It’s what keeps me going back to the park. That and watching my toddler roll around in the sand, run in the grass and sunshine, climb, swing and try to befriend other children. She forages for leaves and sticks and collects rocks. She watches insects and points out birds; she lights up when she sees dogs. She giggles at the wonder of smaller children and idolises the older ones; following them around and copying their bravery.
The disappointment and frustration I feel escapes her. She isn’t aware of what I am aware of. She doesn’t see the flaws and dysfunction like I do. I myself know that these moments are insignificant in the scheme of things and won’t prevent me from going out, but they are important enough for me to think them through and dwell on them. Probably more than I should, but I feel they deserve enough attention to be addressed and to extract some sort of learning from them. At the very least I need to make sense of these incidents within myself so that they don’t bother me next time, because I know I will come across the same stuff again and again.
Some mothers are not friendly. They don’t make eye contact. They don’t return your smiles or acknowledgment. Their children are the same. When my child approaches them, they turn her away or turn away from her. It’s no big deal. You never know what someone is going through or how they are feeling. Their hostility is just my interpretation and for all I know they could be in a world of fatigue, pain, depression, fear, anxiety that I know nothing about. They don’t owe me anything. They don’t have to say hello or smile. They’re not there for me. It would be nice if we could all put aside our personal feelings and experiences when we are out in public so as to connect with other human beings and allow that human interaction to soothe us and to temporarily fulfil us, give us joy and maybe heal our ills, but there is no obligation. It’s an unwritten social contract that a nice community, a civilised society is reliant on people being courteous to each other.
I can handle being ignored or watching my child being ignored, what irks me is actual hostility. The adults are subtle. They’ll just ignore you, maybe scowl imperceptibly or do inconsiderate things like litter, park their cars selfishly, bump into you, get in your way and pretend they don’t see you, but generally they don’t tell you to fuck off even if they’re thinking it – sometimes they do though. But kids do, they innocently verbalise their discontent.
The other day my daughter approached two older boys at the park smiling and giggling. She has no fear or shyness about other children. She’s a bit of a busy body. She spends a lot of time alone with just me and her baby sisters because she doesn’t go to kindy yet. She’s only two and she’s quite content at home at this age and while I’m home looking after her, there is no rush to institutionalise her too early, there’ll be plenty of time for her to be out in the world. In my experience, children that do attend day care or some sort of formal establishment with other children, don’t necessarily socialise any better at that age. I’ve found they’re sometimes less willing to engage with others because they get enough of it and want to be left alone at every opportunity. Neither is any more or less right or beneficial in my opinion. She’s the opposite. She wants to know what other kids are up to, what they have and if she can join in. I’m trying to guide her to know how to do this with respect and without being a pest, but she’s two and all she knows is that if there are other kids around, she wants to play with them. As soon as she approached, one of the boys stood up to her, he was taller, bigger and said “No. We don’t want to play with you because you’re a girl.”
My heart skipped a beat. She didn’t flinch. She probably didn’t even understand what he was saying, but to me it was the start of a social script that she was going to internalise. Over and over again, if she hears it enough and feels it enough, she is going to think that she can’t because she is a girl. My feminist brain exploded, but I kept my distance (she was in the sand and I was on the path with the twins in the pram) and didn’t get involved. I watched them continuously turning away from her, walking away, taking their toys and her innocently thinking it was a game and following them. I intervened only by trying to get her attention and diverting it to something else. I led her to another area next to children and a lovely mum who were willing to play with her. It’s not the boys’ fault. They’re babies themselves. Wanting to play uninterrupted, not wanting to share their bikes and having no obligation to do so, but they were unkind and incidentally, there was no one around to correct them and encourage them to be nicer. Their mums were sitting away from them, not paying any attention to them whatsoever, deep in their own conversations. Again, they have every right to….sort of. Maybe they really needed a deep and meaningful. Us mothers rely on our connection with other mothers, but perspective, priorities. Make time and space for those connections to happen, but if you take your kids to the park, maybe supervise their behaviour. Not only for their own safety, but so we can all as parents, encourage our children to play nice. To practice kindness to one another without compromising their own needs or being martyrs. They don’t have to play with each other, they don’t have to share their toys if they don’t want to or if they are busy playing with them. They don’t always have to be inclusive, especially if they are deep in a game and some stranger expects to be included. But be kind. Say kind words. Be conscientious of other people’s feelings. Children need help to do this and if the adults don’t know how or can’t be bothered to negotiate civilised human interaction, what hope do the kids have.
You don’t have to be a helicopter parent to observe children in their play, leave them to their own devices, but at the same time know when to intervene to guide them to be kind and prevent and avoid conflict. It is also ok to make sure your children are safe at the park or out in public generally. It’s ok to demand a safe and secure space for children to play and mothers to occupy without having to compromise that experience to share the space with people who don’t belong there or don’t know how to behave appropriately there.
I hate it when older kids from the high school up the road come to hang out on the play equipment at the park. They run up the stairs, run down the slide, swing roughly, throw sand or rocks, shout. I know they have a right to go wherever they want, but how about knowing your place. How about showing some respect and maturity and understanding that if there are small children and babies around, it’s not the place to be boisterous and behave like lunatics. You might not only injure a child, you’re being a shitty example and a nuisance.
I also hate it when some adults invade that space inappropriately. I recently confronted an incident and was shot down by most people and while I totally saw their point and knew the risk I was taking, I didn’t give a shit and felt I did the right thing and was happy to look like a bloody idiot, but take the precaution.
I was at the park with a friend. The twins were in the pram and she and I were swinging our toddlers. A man with tripods and camera equipment turned up to the park and asked us, (rhetorically, he wasn’t anticipating us to say no and I wish I had), if we minded if he took some photos of the area. He said he wouldn’t photograph our children directly, but we may be in some of the photos. He was middle aged and well dressed; he looked like an intelligent person. He knew full well that it was something that could be misconstrued or that it may make us uncomfortable, but he didn’t give a shit and he didn’t approach anyone else at the park for permission, just us, tokenistically. I didn’t immediately say yes. I asked him what it was for. He said it was for real estate purposes around the area. I didn’t make a big thing. He didn’t show me any identification and I didn’t quiz him further. I acquiesced. I didn’t have much choice without making a scene. And that’s exactly what he knew would happen. He didn’t give a shit how uncomfortable it made us or how suspicious it looked; he had zero respect for our feelings or the security of that space where mums and kids come to play with some level of privacy and safety. He carried on fulfilling his own needs.
I gave him the benefit of the doubt and we ignored him. I did openly take my phone out and photographed him just in case and he didn’t seem to care. Later that afternoon I went home to read about a recent incident nearby where a man was caught photographing children suspiciously at a local school. Alarm bells rang and I panicked a bit. So I went to social media where I think you can be as open and expressive as you want and get messages and information out quickly. I knew the risk I was taking, that I was potentially unnecessarily vilifying someone, but I thought it through. My intentions were good. I wanted to put it out there just in case and used closed community groups to do it in. I wasn’t accusing him of anything, I just wanted people to know what happened, to see his picture and maybe identify him and speak for him (nobody that knew him personally did) and to eliminate the possibility that the two incidents were connected and that there was anything sinister going on.
That didn’t happen. What I feared would happen happened. People lost their fucking minds and accused me of being a stalker, a monster, out to destroy an innocent man’s reputation. I argued weakly that it wasn’t what I was trying to do at all and that I just wanted to make sure it was ok. That if he felt ok to photograph us and use the pictures for whatever purpose he wanted that he didn’t mind being identified and discussed by the community. I genuinely did it without any malice at all. I just wanted to make sure. The posts were removed from social media. I was called names. Some people suggested I report it to the police. So I did.
When I rang the police it was like the woman that answered was expecting my call. If she was a local who was on social media, she probably was. She said they’d send someone around and about half an hour later two cops turned up. One was a hostile looking young woman. She came in thinking I was a trouble maker. She left with a little more sympathy and understanding I think. It was obvious I wasn’t a psychopath. I told her and her partner, a giant of a young man who was very serious, as he should have been, that they would have to follow me around and we couldn’t sit down to talk because I was on a schedule and had two babies I had to get down for their nap. We discussed what happened. I told them to excuse my nervousness, but I was genuinely breathless with anxiety that I had two fully armed police officers in my home and how my toddler would interpret this. Like with most things I fret about affecting her, she was oblivious.
I told them what happened and that I hoped I was making a total idiot of myself and was completely wrong and that I felt that being personally attacked and placing myself in the position of a fool if I was wrong was worth it if I was circulating information that was useful if my suspicions were founded. The male officer said a couple of things to me that made me think that not only was he very young and a little bit socially unaware, he was also a bit naïve. He asked me if the man was bothered when I photographed him back and when I said no, he implied that that was enough to show he wasn’t up to anything. He also said to me that if he was well dressed, he must have been ok too. These two things annoyed me. Just because he didn’t care if I took a photo of him and that he was well dressed didn’t mean a thing. I argued that he knew he was making us uncomfortable. He knew that enough to half heartedly ask for our permission. I mean what did he think it would look like? A middle aged man, turning up to a playground taking photos of the area around children. If he was doing it for work, why not wait until the playground was empty or cordon off an area. If he needed photos showing high traffic or people frequenting the park, provide those people or by all means use us, but show us some information. Introduce yourself properly, give us your card, make us feel at ease that you aren’t up to anything. Don’t mothers and their kids deserve at least that courtesy? At the very least it’s lazy and unethical, just to save a buck and some time.
When I expressed all this to the cops in between wrapping and tucking in my babies and ushering my toddler out to the lounge room I think they saw that it was clear that I didn’t have time for this bullshit. I wasn’t some bored sociopath wanting to start drama or out to get someone. I was genuinely concerned that something untoward had happened. It made me uncomfortable and had I not read about the other incident I would have just lived with my discomfort and carried on.
I don’t regret it and I’d do it again. This time I’d go straight to the cops first, but there is nothing legally to stop me from utilising social media and despite placing myself at the mercy of other people’s indiscriminate abuse, I’d post his photo up again.
It’s hard being a positive and kind person and parent when you are socially aware of the risks society can pose to your children and at the same time knowing the potential there is to raise kind and strong individuals who see the world as a safe and enriching place full of people genuinely wanting to do good things and have positive connections. I know I fret more than I should and that bringing this stuff to my children’s attention risks creating a problem in the first place, one that if I just let things slide they’ll not really notice exists and can just go on being blissfully unaware, but prevention is better than cure and I’m getting involved. I can’t help myself. We should all be engaging. It’s a fine line between naivety and resilience.