Be the Village

At the mall a few days ago, while walking with my daughter, we were talking about what our favorite things were, and she was wondering if she wanted to get something for her little brother…we decided on a balloon, and went hunting for the balloon man. Turning the corner, we spotted him down by the entrance to the mall, with a huge bunch of colorful helium balloons; Spiderman, Minions, Butterflies, Masha, Footballs, Unicorns, Airplanes, Barbie and so many more. My daughters eyes lit up at the sight and I won’t pretend to be cool and say the sight wasn’t pretty amazing. That’s the thing with balloons, they’re literally bags of air but they make us happy, so why not….she chose one for herself and one for her little brother, and as I paid the man the 20 Riyals another mother came up alongside with a baby girl about 3 years old in a stroller. They oohed and aahed over the balloons and the little girl chose a small unicorn balloon, but when the mother came to check her purse for cash she found out she didn’t have the 10 riyals she needed for it, and offered to pay with a card. The man shook his head and she said ok I’ll go to the cash machine. As she started to move away with the stroller the baby girl started to cry, not understanding what was happening, and proceeded to yell in protest. The mother stopped and went to kneel by her side and explain to her she needed to go get money, pointing to the ATM nearby, but the girl was beyond listening and reason, and the situation was quickly developing into a scene.

So I gave the man 10 riyals, took the balloon and went over to hand it to the mother. I stood a little way behind the stroller and waited until she raised her head, looking around with a sense of desperation I was very familiar with, because I’ve been that so many times before. I knew in that moment she was frustrated, embarrassed, tired, angry, resentful and ashamed that she wasn’t able to handle it. With the baby screaming, I saw the look in her eyes and saw myself reflected in them, wondering in that instant what on earth possessed me to have children when I wasn’t mom enough to take it. When we locked eyes I smiled and raised my eyebrows conspiratorially and held out the balloon slightly, making sure the girl couldn’t see it until her mom agreed to take it.

I knew in that first instant her instinctual reaction was going to try to refuse my offer, because we have been wired that way, to feel shamed that we are so obviously in need, to reject any offers of help, to want to seem in control, to deny our weaknesses, to pretend to be able to manage everything motherhood throws at us, to deny we need support. We have become unable to trust anyone, to admit our deepest human needs, become paralyzed when it comes to receiving help. At first she shook her head no and waved me off, but I spoke and said quickly: “listen, I’m a mom just like you, take the balloon and then pay me for it if you want after the tantrum is over, whatever it’s no big deal it’s only 10 riyals, save your sanity”.

Now I know some of you are thinking we don’t reward tantrums by giving treats, or if the child/baby is at that age you should be able to reason with them, and I’ll say here, from my perspective and my own personal experience, I pick my battles sometimes. I don’t follow parenting rule books all the time. Sometimes I go with my gut. Sometimes my sanity and well-being will trump being right all the time, and I don’t think breaking a rule like that once or twice is going to turn any child into a self-righteous brat or a criminal. Giving the child a balloon to make them happy is fine. But that’s why I indicated the balloon to the mother rather than just handing it to her in front of the child, because its’ her child, not mine and I don’t get to make that call. If she’d said thank you but no thank you I’d have taken the third balloon home for myself and that would have been that.

It was an instant, an instinct that I try not to quash these days as much as I used to. If I see a mother who needs help, I’m going to try to be that person. I’ve been that mother who was on the floor trying to make it work and failing miserably. I’ve been that mother whose throat closed and felt the tears welling up and trying not to cry because my kids had wound me up so badly. I’ve been that mother who held her phone in her hand and didn’t know who to call. I’ve been that mother who hated those moments, when things just seem to be too much, and you feel alone and overwhelmed. So if there’s a way for me to be a village, or an oasis for another mother, then yes I’ll do it with an open heart and an open mind.

There’s no judgement in this anywhere, or any reflections on anyone’s ability to mother their children. And it wasn’t charity, I’m sure she could afford it, and it was clear I wasn’t trying to offend her. I’m not an expert, I have my own good days and bad days with my kids. I know that the bad days can get pretty ugly fast, and maybe my stepping in, even in a tiny way like that can make a difference for a mother, can make her feel stronger, less alone, to connect to that idea of the village, that we are all collectively mothers together…and maybe that feeling will spread, and she will do the same for someone else sometime, and remember me with a thought or a prayer.

For the record, she took the balloon. 🙂

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