Children of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley play in the sea with boats nearby
What Not to Say

The View in Portofino

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.


  • Melissa

    I’m so glad that father made an encouraging comment to you after you were subjected to the disparaging one from that curmudgeon. (Okay, asshole. I miss being able to say that to my husband too!) People can be too quick to judge when they don’t understand the whole story. I know my perspective changed because of my grandson who’s on the autism spectrum. Now, when I see a child having a meltdown, I’m more likely to feel empathy for the parents and not judgment about their parenting skills because I know how daunting it can be to be in public with a child who’s easily overwhelmed by sensory overload. Just the fact that you’re on this trip by yourself with the kids is awesome to me. Don’t let the assholes get you down. 🙂

    • Melissa

      Okay, that didn’t quite come out the way I meant it to. 🙂 What I meant was, like you, I miss being able to turn to my husband and complain about someone’s assholery and have him wholeheartedly agree with me. It was nice knowing he would always have my back.

  • Anne

    I think I survived those first few years without a husband by putting myself in a bubble and blocking out what other people thought of me as a parent or their expectations of how I should be acting(apparently more public crying, struggle and anguish is what they wanted to see!). Unless you have experienced parenting alone, you can’t really understand the unique challenges.

    We just returned from a two week trip to Japan, very enjoyable! I was recounting the trip to my neighbor and she reminded me of my first solo trip with the kids 10 yrs ago. We went on a 2 hour drive to pick cherries and lavender! And she reminded me how proud I was of making it back alive. She complimented me on another successful trip but this time, it didn’t really mean anything to me. It felt “normal” and how it should be. I was just on a trip with my kids, no special feat, no reason to feel proud we made it home alive, just how life is…

    • Marjorie

      Wow – it’s amazing to think how much things can change in 10 years. Yes, I can imagine thinking that – someday – it would be totally normal that we went traveling just the 4 of us, and came home thinking it was just a normal trip. I’m so glad you enjoyed your trip to Japan….it’s one of the most interesting places in the world (and where Shawn and I met!)

  • JustDad

    I’ve enjoyed your dispatches from the field, and you radiate as someone who’s aware of and in control of what’s important and doesn’t sweat the details. When I’m out in the wild, solo-parenting my kids, the only audiences I care about are enlightened adults and invested parents. Man #1 was neither while man #2 was both. The neithers aren’t worth my time, while acknowledgment from the eithers or boths is priceless. The four of us leave for a similar trip in August, making our way from Lisbon to Rome over a few weeks. We’ll be putting our toes wherever we damn well please and looking for those who can smile along with us.

    • Marjorie

      I love this. And yes – put your toes wherever you damn well please!! I am not sure I’m always aware of what’s important (and I know I often sweat too many details!) but I appreciate that you see that I’m trying my best. Good luck with your trip!

  • Laura

    In so sorry that you were made to listen to that comment !! And so pleased to hear the second. However really does either matter! They’re as you said viewpoints and when it comes to you and your kids only two viewpoints matter, yours and theirs! You know that you took the kids on the trio because it was an amazing experience ! They learnt about different places, culture and you spent quality time together!! That is NEVER a bad idea ! You know that running around on the boat or paddling in the sea let them “shriek with delight ” and smile, have fun, be kids !! And they know that they have the best mum!! , the one who lets them have that fun and allows them to form those smiles !! The only views that matter !! Where was man 1’s smile, fun, appreciation of the beauty around him ?! If he doesnt have those things, how can his view ever matter !

    • Marjorie

      Totally. I mean, there are always going to be distractions and annoyances in life, and we can choose to focus on them, or see kids shriek in delight and say, “that’s awesome!” Miss you my friend.

  • Henry

    You may have felt you needed to hear what man #2 had to say, but I don’t think compassion was what motivated him. My hypothesis is slightly different. He appreciated appropriate parenting – striking a balance between giving the kids freedom to enjoy themselves, but being available for Tommy as needed. Exploring a boat is highly appropriate behavior for kids. So is screaming for joy when the boat hits rough seas. I think he was really enjoying seeing your family in action – he clearly was observant – and just wanted to comment about it. Don’t sell yourself short; you were doing a great job.

    • Marjorie

      I love this – and thank you for saying it! As a parent, I don’t often appreciate other parents enough…and I love the idea that he was appreciating me. Either way, if it was compassion or appreciation, I appreciated it!

  • Erin

    There are so many things I love and admire about you M – but being the most incredible mom is at the very top of the list. Who else would I have left my newborn with to have my first date night? (With a beautiful note you wrote upon our return that I keep in his baby book). I have always admired the mother you are – kind, loving and raising such thoughtful and compassionate children. ❤️

    • Marjorie

      Oh, mama, I remember that night well! Your little boy was perfect and I kept texting you that everything was okay. Is there anything else better than knowing your kids are safe? There’s not. I so appreciate your love and support throughout the past 18 months. It’s been amazing.

      And you, sweet friend, may remember that it was you who watched Claire and Austin the day Shawn and I had a date to decide whether or not to have Tommy. I’m glad we decided on yes!