The Art of Mommy War

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, January 23, 2007 | ,

While making our way across the country last August, we stopped in Salt Lake City for a couple of days. From the baby-changing facilities everywhere we went to the quality of the playgrounds, it quickly became evident that the residents of the Utah territory consider baby-rearing a serious enterprise. At a particularly huge park with an amazing playground, we pushed Juniper on a cool swing like we had never seen in swinging San Francisco. A few swings down from us, a comely young Molly was was pushing her 4-year-old daughter. She couldn't have been a day over 23. Suddenly a little girl ran right in front of the swings. Wood dove and grabbed our swing, narrowly preventing a major collision. Molly's much-larger daughter, however, was already near the end of her downward arc and her feet struck the other little girl directly in her head, and the other little girl went flying. Both started screaming. The mother of the girl who had been struck ran over to her daughter. Like the prim mother who was already comforting her daughter on the swing, this woman was young, blond, and attractive, but she had multiple facial piercings and distinctly bare shoulders. We'll call her Apostate Mama.

While they comforted their children, Molly said to her daughter in a voice loud enough for Apostate Mama to hear: "You'll be okay Oleatha, it's not your fault. That other mother wasn't watching where her little girl was running." Apostate Mama, with her arms around her own sobbing daughter, then said in a voice loud enough for Molly to hear: "Shhhh, I know, I know, Shalee, you're okay. That girl's mama wasn't watching where her daughter was swinging."

I really don't like talking to other parents at the playground. I just don't want to get involved in the Machiavellian politics of whose child is best or whose child hit who. I suppose I come off as standoffish with my anti-social playground attitude, but I really don't care. Luckily, in Detroit, Juniper and I are usually the only people at the playground. We spend a lot of time alone at the huge playground on Belle Isle, which Juniper calls "Playground Island." Sometimes there are some black parents at whatever playground we go to, but they and their kids are usually so busy treating us like we are a rare species of migrating birds that we never get into any of the bullshit. Occasionally, when the playgrounds are completely empty, I think Juniper might like to play with some other kids, and I take her to a public playgroup in a close suburb where a bunch of white people just let their kids loose on a room full of broken and mismatched toys. I usually bring a book. It's the only time I get to read. Have I ever mentioned how much I miss having the time and space to concentrate on a book? Juniper usually sits playing quietly a few feet away from me, so I can get a lot of reading done there, plus it exposes Juniper to white kids. Diversity, they say, is important.

Yesterday, Juniper was feeding a baby doll in a little plastic high chair when some boy about two years older than her came up and punched her right in gut. Juniper did not cry or scream, she just looked up at me with a face that seemed to say, "Father, what cruelty is this? What kind of world did you usher me into, where a lad can just walk right up and punch you in the gut?" I gave her a look back that said, "Welcome to the real world, kid." But then she started crying ferociously, and I comforted her. By then the kid who hit her was already on the other side of the room whacking some other kid on the head with a toy broomstick. A few minutes later I looked up from my book to see the perpetrator barreling towards us, pushing one of those wheeled toys designed for kids three years younger than he was. He rammed it right against the high chair where Juniper's baby doll was enjoying a quiet meal of Salisbury Steak and pickles. The Salisbury Steak went flying, the baby doll was vertical for a few seconds, and Juniper landed right on her butt. It was at this point that I employed the glare.

I have this really nasty glare I give people who cross me. It belies a certain degree of physical toughness that I certainly lack. Case in point: while walking past a San Francisco housing project several years ago, I gave the glare to a bunch of teenagers who were yelling nasty things at me. I subsequently found myself on the ground getting the shit kicked out of me. Nonetheless, I was comfortable enough that I wouldn't face a similar fate from a four-year-old bully, so I gave him a nice strong glare, 5 or 6 seconds of serious eye contact, after which he ran to his mother, crying. "Mama, Mama, that man made a mean face at me."

His mother responded in a voice I could hear from the other side of the room, despite the conversation some of the other parents were having about their favorite menu items at Panera Bread ("I like the turkey and artichoke sandwich!"): "I saw him, Otto. I don't know why he made that mean face at you. Maybe because he was reading and you bothered him by playing around him. Sometimes people who are reading don't like to be bothered by little kids." I nearly said something to her right then, but I remembered my Sun Tzu: "If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him." If I said something to this woman, I would be falling right into her trap. I said nothing.

Later, on the drive home, I realized that the rules of this type of combat are simple. "Never directly engage the parent of the kid who just punched your baby in the gut. Just tell your baby in a voice loud enough for her to hear what a little shit her kid is."

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