Over by the docks was a little spot where I saw someone soaking their feet. “Let’s play in the water, kids!” I said.
Claire opted to stay back in the main square to chat with a new friend, so I brought the boys down to the water. They took off their socks and shoes and joyously splashed around. I snapped a few photos and then went to sit on a bench. I watched them cautiously at first, but then relaxed a bit. Wow, I thought, my feet really hurt.
After a few minutes, a man walked up to the bench, looked at my boys and then sat down facing the other direction. I could tell he was hot and tired as well. He grumbled about a few things to the person sitting next to him. “Well, at least we’re not with that tour group,” he said, gesturing to my tour guide. “They have way too many little kids with them.” At this point, he actually looked over his shoulder at my boys and grunted a little bit.
I was taken aback. Was he actually upset about my kids splashing in the sea? I mean, really?
He continued, “And the parents!” he said, again gesturing, this time at the square where some of our group was waiting, “they are all much too aloof to control their kids.”
I turned around to get a good look at the man, and I realized he had been on our boat ride over. So he wasn’t just upset about my boys splashing in the water. He had probably also hated when they screamed with joy when the boat went over some pretty intense waves. And I’m sure he was annoyed when Tommy wanted a better look and went from his seat in the front of the boat to a viewpoint in the back of the boat three different times. I bet he hated that I let Austin and Claire roam the boat alone because I had to make sure Tommy didn’t go overboard.
I didn’t get a chance to say anything to him. Just then, Tommy started screaming and I had to go attend to him. But later, as we waited to get gelato with the group, I started thinking, “God, even strangers think I can’t control my kids.”
It got me down. I mean, all I want is for people to think I’m a good parent – especially now that I’m doing it alone – and I was clearly failing in the mind of this guy.
Maybe I wasn’t actually doing such a great job. Maybe this trip had been a bad idea. Maybe my kids were too young. Maybe it was too much to attempt alone.
These are the places my mind can go even when I logically know things are not that bad. But the confidence I once had about my parenting is so easily shattered these days. I was not always such a delicate flower. I used to be so confident back when I had a partner I could turn to who would say, “that guy’s an asshole. We’re great parents.”
The only good thing about the situation at the sea that day was that my children still demanded so much of me that I wasn’t able to sulk for long. Claire wanted to make sure her gelato contained no nuts and Tommy needed to be picked up, again. Austin was trying to convince me to buy a pirate boat replica (I actually caved on this, so, yes, we now own this amazing souvenier.) I was distracted for a bit from my feelings of self-pity, but as soon as the kids had what they needed, those emotions returned.
I sat apart from the group. I watched all the fathers interact with their kids. Were mine acting worse than the others? Did everyone feel annoyed by us, or worse, sorry for us? Was I giving my children the right amount of discipline and freedom?
After a while, one of the fathers came up to me and we started chatting. “I’m pretty exhausted,” I admitted.
“I bet,” he said. We watched the kids eat their gelato and lick it off their fingers afterwards, laughing at how sticky they’d become. Then, out of nowhere, he said, “you know, you’re doing a great job.”
“Oh, thank you,” I said.
“I mean, I’m sure it’s really hard,” he said, “but I can tell you have good kids. While you were with Tommy on the boat, I was with Claire. She was playing a card game with the other kids and she was such a good sport, even when they played by different rules than she was used to. I didn’t get to interact with the boys that much, but I can tell all three of your kids are doing great today.”
I almost started crying. Instead, I thanked him and walked off, pretending to help Tommy with something.
I don’t know how he knew that I needed to hear that. Maybe he was exhausted as well, and he realized how much worse it would have been without his spouse there. Maybe he saw my face after I overheard the other man on the bench. Maybe he just watched me sitting alone and thought it was a good time to say something kind.
Two comments. One from a man who didn’t know me at all, who judged me because of my apparent lack of active parenting. Another from a man who knew just a small sliver of my story, but who saw someone who was trying her best. One comment that almost ruined an otherwise amazing experience. Another comment that made the day retain its magic.
Different viewpoints, and thus different perspectives.
Judgment from one man.
Compassion from another.