The Kindness of Strangers

“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers”

Blanche DuBois – A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams)

When we’re eating out, I often think it would actually be easier if Dan and I physically sat on the children. On one particular occasion we were trying to keep them relatively immobile at the table with a game of ‘Star Wars Twenty Questions’ – the trickiest part of which was trying to string out enough questions for Scarlett to answer before we ‘guessed’ that she was Princess Leia. Again.

Anyway, it seems our efforts weren’t in vain. As he was leaving, a man of about fifty came over and said “it’s so nice to see a family so obviously enjoying each other’s company.’ Fighting the urge to burst into tears and then kiss him, I settled for thanking him profusely and telling him that we were worried they were making too much noise. “Not at all,” he said, “I remember those days, mine are teenagers now. Make the most of this age.” And then he smiled and left.

I was on a high for the rest of the evening. Every time I felt myself about to snap at the children, I took a deep breath and tried to be the parent that man thought I was. Suddenly, we weren’t the shrieking family from hell but rather a happy band of rascals; loud but loving.

It’s happened before. Once an old lady told William he was a “very kind brother” because he helped Scarlett to reach something. Another time, a shop assistant commented on Scarlett’s lovely manners. When you feel like the parenting equivalent of Sisyphus rolling a very large rock up a mountain each day, these words are like honey for the soul.

It works in less pleasurable circumstances too. When the end of your tether is so far out of sight, you need a telescope to find it, a smile from another mum makes you realise you’re not alone. Just a few days ago, on holiday, I had to clamp a screaming Scarlett to my body as she screamed, “I don’t want to go to bed!” A grandmother patted me on the shoulder kindly, “They never want to give in, do they?”

I wonder if these people know what a difference they made to me in that moment? Parenting in public can be a lonely voyage, you sometimes feel surrounded by a sea of judgment and the roar of tuts of annoyance and disapproving glances. A fellow voyager reaching out in solidarity feels like a life raft.

Therefore, I’m resolved to start paying it forward. Ready to tell that exhausted mum, rocking a screaming newborn, “mine were like that too.” To smile at the dad unpeeling his son’s stubborn hands from the railings so they can leave the park. To knowingly nod at the mother bargaining with her toddler to please just eat her sandwich.

And one day it will be my turn to tell a noisy family in a restaurant how happy they look. Because, thanks to the kind gentleman who spoke to us, I know just how it will make those parents feel.


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