Today as I was driving to pick up the kids I saw a jeep with a cracked windshield on the side of the road. I could see a woman and a teenage girl inside. As I passed them and looked in my rearview mirror, I could see them slapping and grabbing each other. I pulled over, reached for my cell phone and walked back to their car. I’m not sure what kind of accident they were in. It didn’t look like a collision, b/c there was no other car around. Did someone’s head hit the windshield?
When I got to their car, there was no blood in sight. They were both crying, breathing heavily, spent. I asked them if they were all right. The mom said “No, but the police are on the way.” I asked if they thought it was safe for me to leave the two of them together, and they both said yes and thanked me, so I reluctantly went back to my car. I did not call 911.
I don’t know what happened the moments before I got there, but I imagine the anger and frustration they were experiencing went way beyond a broken windshield and that terrible moment. I didn’t judge or lecture, just tried to make sure the violence had stopped, and then I drove away. On my way back home, about 10 minutes later, they were still in their car, apparently calm.
I think back to my days as a high school teacher. I was young, just a few years older than the students themselves, and I thought I knew it all. I grew up in a home free of any violence or even corporal punishment, and I couldn’t imagine why a parent would ever lash out at a child or vice versa. I mean, I lashed out at my parents, but it consisted only of snipey comments, theatrical tears and much door slamming.
So, as a young teacher, I was setting up my classroom early one morning when I heard arguing in the hall. A mom and daughter were there, having just come from a teacher conference of some sort. The mom reached out and slapped the girl, Christy, right across the face. It was the first time in my 25 short years that I had ever seen a real live slap. I was aghast.
I knew Christy, and knew that she was a pill. She was an adorable “golden child,” with lots of potential who had started hanging around a new group of kids. She started talking tough. Her grades were slipping, she was dirty, and her attitude stunk. I was appalled that her mom would slap her, and I wondered if I should call Child Protective Services. I knew spanking was allowed by law, but what about slapping? I tried hard to imagine what could lead to such a rift between mother and child, but I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it.
As a mom, it’s easier for me to understand these situations. I have never even spanked either of my kids, but I have experienced a scary, white-hot anger flare up in me as a mother that I had never experienced before.
I think of the tired, end of my rope anger of almost 8 years ago when my baby would not sleep. I felt hopeless and couldn’t imagine ever sleeping more than 2 hours straight for the rest of my life. I remember leaving my baby safely on the bed but picking up her car seat and throwing it against the wall. Hard.
I remember how I felt as my son rode his bike in the cul de sac, showing off, deliberately not looking both ways. A car came to a halt. I was furious at him and became even more so as the other moms stepped in to let me know that he was being a poor role model for the younger kids.
I was angrier about his stubbornness and the damage to my image as a mother than I was about his almost being hit by slow moving car. Back in the house I gripped his arm way too tightly as I yelled at him. I cried, and he cried. If I had been a hitter, I know I would have done it then.
I think of my daughter, only a preschooler at the time, refusing to stay in time-out after numerous offenses. It looked like a "before"scene out of Super Nanny. She raged and screamed at me, spitting, pulling the door open with a strength that belied her age, as I pulled equally hard to keep it shut.
If she had managed to get it open, what would I have done? Would my anger have stretched beyond that one difficult day? Would I have lashed out against her while really furious at the grueling relentlessness of stay-at-home mothering?
So, I think about this afternoon, and wonder if I should have done more. Should I have come back after pick-up with my kids and waited until the police came? Probably. If this is an abusive situation, the mom and daughter won’t mention it to the police, and I could have done that. I recently read a poignant post about a teacher alerting CPS about a parent. One of the readers commented how she wished someone had done the same for her many years before, instead of idly standing by.
But, if this is a case of a relationship hanging by a thread, torn apart by the unhealthy confluence of teenage rebellion and menopause, coupled with the financial reality that a car repair bill just wasn’t in the plan this month…
If this is the angry realization of a mother that her daughter is flunking school or having sex or dropping the f-bomb or just generally not turning out the way she envisioned as she held her newborn 17 years ago…
If the mom is shell-shocked, wondering how her little girl is brazen enough to beat her own mother in public at 3 in the afternoon.
If the daughter is wondering if this is the time she has finally gone too far and pushed her mother beyond the limits of love…
Then I wonder whether getting the authorities involved would help at all or rip the tenuous thread that still hung there between them as they sat weeping in the car, their anger spent.