Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Thin Line

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.

12 comments:

L said...

Whoa. Life is hard, isn't it?

Christy said...

I think you did the right thing today. At least, I hope you did...I would have done what you did, I think. I have never seen anyone get hit (in real life) but I've arrived on the scene shortly thereafter and it's just the worst. Hope your evening/day is better...

Kate Coveny Hood said...

This is incredible. And you are so right - it's hard to know when your intervention will help or hurt. You'll have to tell me more about this at lunch!

mgheadley said...

First things first... I have always loved my sister. I am so thankful that she is a recovering alcoholic... 3 years sober now. There is no brief way to describe my whole journey from discovering to enabling to tattling to letting God do the work.

I wanted to call CPS, but I was not a witness to any specific event. I looked up phone numbers of the preschools and schools. I gathered numbers of her neighbors. Ready to beg people to turn her in. I didn't call CPS because the research shows that CPS frequently disregards calls from family members. Why? Because it is not uncommon for family members to fabricate details - as a means of retribution or gaining power. The calls they take more seriously are those calls from people who are likely to be objective. I was states away, but I knew that signs of trouble were apparent. I was desperate for anything to force her to recognize the situation or give me the legal grounds to intervene.

In my most desperate hour, I heard a sermon about the difference between participating in a miracle and manipulating a miracle. I talked to my pastor. I prayed every day for years. CPS did play a role... although I dont remember who eventually called them in. I never made those phone calls. She didn't lose her children... not even for a night. But the potential of losing them was a motivating factor in her recovery.

There is no clear answer here... Would you have been participating or manipulating? But someone may have been praying for that call. Sometimes I am pretty sure that my sister wishes she would have been called in sooner.

Cynthia said...

poignant & painful.

Shana said...

I hate to say this, but you need to be careful when you choose to be helpful. I put myself and my children in a horribly scary situation once, trying to stop and do the right thing. As much as we want to stop and lend a helping hand, this world is full of bad guys and you never know where they lurk.

I feel like a big dooms-day sad sack to point this out. But it's true.

anymommy said...

A haunting post, you said it all. I go through these thought patterns every single time I hear a story about a scene someone 'saw' with a child in a public place. Such a brief snapshot of the situation, the relationship, the parenting. I think there is a much finer line than most people would care to admit.

Great parents have terrible moments. And children in true trouble need protection. It's an impossible balance, people will forever be needlessly hurt on both sides of the line.

EatPlayLove said...

gosh what an intense moment to happen upon. I would have their faces reeling in my mind over and over again.

Jbhat said...

Wow, so this is the first post that I comment on? Just reading that was an intense experience. I don't know what I would have done if I had been living it as you were. I think I am afraid to get involved, and want to hope for the best. Your thoughts about their situation, the girl's at the school, and your own children were so eloquently expressed.

During those moments when I my child is reeling out of control and I feel myself doing the same, I try to make myself step outside of the situation and just give him a big squeezy hug. That protective circle helps us both.

jbhat

Heidi said...

I am really moved by this post. It's hard to know what to do. It's like you said - we have no idea of the circumstances surrounding this or what happened just prior. I think it's great that you stopped. Maybe you came by at the perfect time - just before it really escalated. Most people would have just kept going.
Thank you for this.

Debbie said...

It is such a hard call. I'm sure you did the right thing.

Texan Mama @ Who Put Me In Charge said...

I can only imagine how hard it was for you to drive away and do nothing. But, sometimes doing nothing IS doing something. I know it must have been weighing on your heart. Every life experience gives us persepective, so be sure to keep this one in your heart for guidance.