The last few weeks have been jam packed with errands. Boring ones like the grocery store, hardware store, bank. Before the kids started school they tagged along. For the most part they are fairly well behaved and they always hold out hope that there will be lollipops at the bank.
Mae has a shorter fuse than her brothers and at least once during these days of vaguely tedious drudgery she will completely lose it. Before I met Mae, I used to believe that when children fell apart it was because they were hungry or tired or there was some other situation a parent could have influenced or predicted. Public tantrums were some indication to me that a parent was asleep at the wheel.
Sometimes Mae’s tantrums are that, but most of the time they are like flash storms. They start up out of nowhere, rip through the peace of the day and leave us both spent and a little shell shocked. The older and bigger she gets the harder they are to defuse, especially in public. As she hurls her body around, screaming and crying, biting her finger or banging her head it’s all I can do to keep her from hurting herself.
Inevitably, as soon as one of these colossal expressions of displeasure begins, a “helpful stranger” appears. They are typically older than I am and female. Usually they spend a few minutes assessing the situation and then they offer advice or commentary like: “she needs more sleep,” or “maybe she is hungry?” Or a personal favorite: “my children never behaved that way.”
The “helpful stranger” has been on every airplane with us, in every grocery store, bank, even at the play- ground. She is masking her displeasure at my child’s behavior in the form of some sort of parenting tip, as if I were enjoying the sight of my red-faced screaming child and restraining her was some sort of hot new arm workout.
I have never been nasty to the helpful stranger. It wouldn’t solve anything, and I am usually too focused on Mae to do anything else. Occasionally, I will make eye contact and say loudly enough for the other people around to hear, “she is autistic.” Just the statement of the fact hangs in the air and is mortifying enough to shut the helpful stranger up without me doing or saying anything that I would regret.
Last week, we were in Safeway and my cart was a mountain of groceries. I could barely push it. As we reached the checkout line Mae’s goodwill came to an end and a tantrum ensued. It was a doozy; arms and legs were flying everywhere. The helpful stranger was right in front of us in line. I could feel her watching us. I could feel her getting ready to offer me some parenting tips. I could also feel myself fragile and exhausted, getting ready to take my frustrations out on her. If Mae was having an external meltdown I was as close as I get to an internal one, and the helpful stranger was going to bear the brunt of it if she opened her mouth.
When she had finished paying she turned to look at us, me with one hand emptying the cart, the other arm holding Mae on my hip and trying to prevent her from throwing herself to the floor. She said “my grandson is autistic, I am so sorry it looks like she is having a hard day. I hope tomorrow is better.” That was it, then she walked away. It took a minute for me to register her kindness. I was so prepared for the false concern of the helpful stranger. Real kindness is without judgment, it is simply an acknowledgement that you see someone. It is the difference between eye contact with a stranger behind a counter or looking away. Real kindness is about connection.
I know that sometimes I can be the helpful stranger, jumping in to tell the woman with the screaming newborn to try the football hold or maybe bounce up and down a little… I won’t do that anymore, it doesn’t help. It’s about me and not about her. I will remember what real kindness feels like, and just hope for her that tomorrow is a better day.