By Stacy Lewis
The teacher is describing boxes—heart-shaped, circle, and square. She explains how to cut the clay, flatten it, shape and assemble it, and how to put on the finishing touches. She talks about slabs, scoring, coils, and slip. I keep my eyes on her while helping Orlando manipulate his own little clay clump. He is showing his work to his friend Ellery, whisper-yelling questions to me, and ignoring the teacher.
This is the first day of our family clay class. My son Orlando is four and a half. I notice that the older kids do most of the work themselves while the younger kids tend to assist and embellish the work of their parents. Orlando is making clay flowers, and I am rolling out the sides of our heart-shaped box when our attention, and everyone else’s, turns to the little boy and the mother sitting to our right.
“The teacher said that it would be too difficult to make a star!” The mother slams down her rolling pin.
Tears spring into her son’s eyes. “But I want to make a star.”
I go back to my own rolling pin and listen to the mother and the teacher suggest putting star shapes on a square box or creating hanging stars or cutting out star shapes from the box or anything but a star box. But by now the boy wants nothing but a star box.
The mother stands up and starts push-pulling her son to the back corner of the studio. He shuffles his six-year-old self in front of her with his head down and his feet dragging, and eventually they disappear around the corner. We hear him continue to tearfully plead his case. We hear the mother hissing at him to stop insisting on a star, to stop whining, to stop being difficult, to just stop.
When they come back, they proceed to make a star-shaped box. The mother is making the template and with each mistake either of them makes, she says things like, “See, I told you it wouldn’t work! Now you’re messing it up. We don’t have enough time! Get your hands off, stop touching it, I’ll do it!”
Everyone can hear her and everyone, including the teacher—everyone, including me—looks away.
* * *
A few days later, I talk with Ellery’s mom, Heidi, about the other mother. Heidi had been in a previous session with the mother and her son, and she had felt terribly anxious around them. We both felt disturbed by how she berated him, and saddened to see the boy alternately apathetic, agitated, crestfallen. We wanted to help him. The mother didn’t seem to realize how she sounded. Should we talk directly to her about it? Bring it up with the teacher? What if we made her angrier, and she took her anger out on her son?
In the midst of our indignation over the mother’s behavior, however, another thought crept in. I admitted to Heidi that I, too, had lost my temper over spilled paints, squished figs, or one too many stray Legos. I had, much to my shame, used my words in ways that diminished both my dignity and my son’s. Heidi insisted I was a good mother. But, I ventured, what if the other mother was stressed, and the class was bringing out the worst in her? What if we could help her? We decided that we would try it—to connect with the child and the mother.
At the next class, I introduced myself to the other mother and asked, “What was your name again?” She breathed out a soft “Thank you” and gave me her name. I asked her son his name, too, and made comments on his work—”Wow, what great ears your dragon has!”—or smiled at him when he caught my eye.
After that class, the other mother made efforts to connect with me and Orlando, by sharing tools and sitting next to us. And yet, her angry actions continued—she bossed her son, sighed with exasperation over his slowness, grabbed tools from his hands—and I shrank away. I didn’t have the guts to do it. Maybe Heidi was right. How could I really make a difference in their lives? I decided it would be best to stay out of it.
Then, toward the end of one class, I went straight into it—but not as I had expected to. Orlando wanted to play with his friend Ellery, but she was still absorbed in her project. He was doing anything and everything to get her attention, though Ellery and her mom and I kept explaining that she didn’t want to play. Yet neither of us grown-ups stopped what we were doing to help redirect or stop him.
Finally, Orlando took his wet, goopy paint brush and plopped it into her hair. And that was it.
I stood up and took Orlando around the corner. I squatted down in front of him, pulled him toward me by the shoulders, and whisper-threatened:
“We will never come back to class if you don’t leave Ellery alone.” The embarrassment I had felt about his behavior had already rocketed into shame—my own. He shifted his shoulders and kept his eyes down. I tugged at him again. “You are making it impossible to get anything done in this class!” He turned away from me, and I grabbed him, “You aren’t listening!” I felt a sudden hot drive to stamp out the source of my stress—all of my energy was concentrated on obliterating my discomfort, and I could see myself, just as I could see that other mother, aiming herself at her child.
And then I saw my child, standing before me, small and sound with a contained anger of his own.
I let go.
I closed my eyes, turned my head away, and exhaled. How had shame railroaded me into acting even more shamefully? When I opened my eyes, I was startled to see someone from another class standing nearby. I quickly stood up, leaving behind those hot, uncomfortable moments, and blindly turned Orlando back toward the class. I don’t know if that person, or anybody else, heard or saw me. I didn’t make eye contact as I walked back to our table.
It seems almost everyone turns a blind eye.
* * *
At a doctor’s office once, a receptionist came over and leaned down to help me when I was clearly becoming impatient and frustrated by my over-tired toddler’s attempts to explore the contents of the garbage can. She made a joke—”It’s always the garbage!”—gave me a smile, offered a toy to my son, and sat down right next to us for a minute or two.
Then there was the time someone in the parking lot of the grocery store offered to take my cart back, freeing me to unload my child into the car along with the bags. Her offer was really a small gesture, yet to me at the time it seemed wondrously thoughtful.
There have been times when family members or friends have swooped in to engage Orlando in a new activity when the interaction between us became charged, when I was too tired to deal with cascades of bathwater over the side of the bathtub or was feeling exasperated by his hyperactivity and disregard for decorum.
All these examples have something very basic in common: The people who intervened simply saw that I had my hands full, figuratively and literally, and they acted without judgment.
It had seemed so straightforward when Heidi and I laid out our similar plan: Let’s help ease the tension between the parent and child by connecting with each of them. We would intervene in a way that was helpful rather than critical. Yet the reality proved far more impenetrable. Why had I been at such a loss to offer that other mother and her son a hand? Was it because the other mother seemed so mean? So unaware of her censorious tone and pinched face? Was it because of the taboo against intruding on someone else’s parenting? Or because deep down I wanted nothing to do with her and her pain?
Not long ago, I read an article by psychologist Jeanne Denney that hit home on this topic. In “The Ritual, Tribal Abandonment of Mothers,” she writes:
I have a picture in my mind that will probably never leave until the day I develop dementia. It is a scene from when my children were young. I happened to be in a mall without them. I saw a mother with a baby in a stroller and a two year old in full tantrum running for the escalator. It was one of those scenes full of pathos, wherein a mother just has to “miraculate” some kind of response out of simple desperation. We all saw it. That is when I heard two women in front of me talking. One said: “I remember those days.” And the other one, probably in inner recoil from [the] memory of her own abandonment, coolly responded, “Yeah … I’m glad those days are over.” I remember feeling in that disengaged assessment the perfect expression of the ritual, tribal abandonment of mothers. … [T]here, in public, witnessing hearts did not extend out in compassion. Kind hearts did not listen to a silent plea for understanding, holding, and help. In my mind there is no better way to help children than learning this adult act of silent holding and loving witness for their parents.
I think about when I was squatting down with my own son in the corner of the clay studio, or any of the times I have borne down unfairly on my child, and I can barely stand the thought of someone interrupting us. Like the second mother in Denney’s example, part of me wants to believe that by ignoring the pain, we can make it less painful. Yet another part of me knows there is something powerful and healing about not ignoring. There is something less literal than instructing and more gentle than intruding and it begins with a compassionate gaze.
* * *
After the class in which I pulled Orlando aside, I realized that I was stressed during clay class, and that it was bringing out the worst in me. I was overwhelmed by all the details, clumsy with the clay, experiencing afternoon blood sugar crashes, and bothered by what I saw as Orlando’s inattention. I figured I had a choice: change my response or change the circumstances (or some combination thereof). So my husband, Rom, finished the class with Orlando, and I stayed home with our one-year-old, Mica. No one was getting yelled at, at least not in our family; at least not in our family during clay class.
I didn’t quit because of the other mother, though I have questioned myself about that. I think of her and her son as a window onto my son and me, but I also think of them as their own two people in the world. I think of the connections between all of us that are simultaneously undeniable yet unrealized.
At the time, I thought that I didn’t have the guts to reach her, or that I needed to know all the details of her private constellation of stress before really making a difference. But now I realize that I did know something. I knew that simply asking her name helped her shed some of the stress she was under. Our eyes met, for just that one second, and I saw her clearly.
At the time, it wasn’t enough to push me out of my comfort zone toward a place where I could be of real service. But now I feel compelled to keep going. Now I offer a hand to the pregnant woman with bags of groceries. Now when I see a dad and daughter in excruciating negotiation over a second ice cream cone, with the daughter beginning to screech and the dad beginning to clench, I try not to run away inside. I try to acknowledge that I’ve been there, too. I’ve been there, too.
What if I had persisted in my small gestures of ease and kindness toward the other mother and her son? What if I had continued to stay near, silently telling them, “I see you”? Not in a creepy way, like, I see you, and you better behave. But in this way:, I see you, because I see myself.
What if I had told her: “There is no other mother”?
Author’s Note: I began this piece eighteen months ago, just as I was beginning to come to terms with my own first serious bouts of parental impatience and anger. I had always been drawn to and inspired by respectful parenting and was deeply troubled to find myself talking to my young sons in ways I knew I didn’t believe in.
Being in clay class with the other mother showed me both who I thought I would never be and who I feared I was becoming. It is only now, after a certain amount of my own healing, that I can imagine opening myself to that other mother, and holding her experience alongside my own.
Stacy Lewis lives in Seattle with her husband and children. She is a Hakomi therapist and teacher, a homeschooling mama, a walker of woods and neighborhoods, and a lover of the beach. She has a blog at http://sweetsky.net.
Brain, Child (Summer 2009)