I went incognito the other day. I left the house in a non-breastfeeding-friendly top and without any children cluttering up my personage. I arrived at the train station and was able to grab a latte without worrying about how to push a buggy with one hand. And, when I went through the ticket barrier, you know I went through the motherfucking regular gate and not the extra-wide one.
Reader, it felt good.
In actuality, I was just getting a commuter train, on an unremarkable weekday morning, for a medical appointment. A spa day it wasn’t, but somehow – post-kids – it felt like one. Because I wasn’t trying to jam two kids and a wheeled contraption on to a packed train while fielding questions about why the sky is and being tutted at by business-persons. It was just little old me and a latte. I felt so free. No one even knew I was a mum.
However, without any nappies to change or heads to bang together, I felt at a bit of a loss. So, I decided to watch the people around me and, you know, judge them. There was the stunning, self-conscious young woman who kept checking her perfect, Instagram-HD brows in her phone. The teenagers having a conversation about their, like, philosophies? The man whose 9am latte was, in fact, a beer.
And then I saw her. A well-dressed woman rummaging through her bag in the ticket queue, with her primary school-aged son beside her, tracing patterns with the toe of his shoe. Presently, he took a single step out of the queue and the woman’s head instantly snapped round.
“DO you want to go to London?” she exploded, in the stage whisper to end all stage whispers. “DO you? WHAT the hell do you think you’re playing at?”
“Mumble, mumble,” her son said into his collar, as his mother (presumably) grabbed his arm and pulled him aside.
“DO NOT TEST ME,” she hissed. “I WILL take you home.”
“But I –” the boy began.
“No!” The woman replied. “DO NOT START! IF YOU SAY ONE MORE WORD, WE’RE GOING STRAIGHT HOME! I AM NOT JOKING!”
Everything went very quiet for a moment. Then I thought, “Blimey.” “There’s no need to bite his head off, love,” I found myself thinking, even though I’ve never in my life called anyone "love". “If you go from nought to 60, you’ll have no leverage if your kid does something really wrong.”
“I wonder if she knows that,” I thought.
“Perhaps I should tell her,” I thought.
You may be pleased to hear that I came to my senses.
Maybe the woman had just had some bad news, or bad sushi, and was fucking knackered and not looking forward to a day at the Natural History Museum, or whatever
Because of course she knew what she was doing. It looked like she’d been a parent longer than me. And maybe she wasn’t going from nought to 60 at all. It was 9am on a weekday at the end of the summer holidays. Maybe she was frazzled from 11 weeks of holiday clubs, and shouting at everyone to get up in the morning, and picking up socks, and monitoring screen time, and hiding the wi-fi password; of trawling every possible idea for wholesome family activities; and the mad, end-of-summer dash for uniforms and pencil cases.
Perhaps, that morning even, she’d been up at three dealing with a wet bed; or her son had fucked up his new shoes; or taken a rolling jump out of the car for kicks; or maybe the woman had just had some bad news, or bad sushi, and was fucking knackered and not looking forward to a day at the Natural History Museum, or whatever.
How would my saying ANYTHING help, here? For a millisecond, I played out that potential scenario in my head – me, just some smug bastard stranger with a latte, strolling up to a clearly stressed-out woman and asking her if she’d ever considered changing her parenting style to, you know, better.
One day, not so long ago, I was out with my own kids. My three-year-old had insisted on coming out with his bike, and promised me he definitely wasn’t sleepy. He even made up a song about it. It was called “Mummy, I am not sleepy and I want to ride on my bike” and, honestly, I give it an eight out of 10. However, on a difficult hill he asked to sit on the buggy-board and promptly dozed off. So, I had to push everyone – baby, buggy, three-year-old and bike – two miles home up a fucking vertical hill (as I remember, I desperately needed a wee, the baby was crying, and rain and lightning were lashing the ground, but my mind might be inventing that for atmosphere). And, as I struggled with it all, some kind passer-by pointed at my sleeping three-year-old and said, “You should have put him down for a nap, you know.”
I saw stars. I saw red. I had no energy to physically decapitate that man, so I just did it in my head, over and over, and bloodily. And, because I am a total fucking folk hero, when I got home, I composed a snippy little tweet about people judging parents.
I would be insane to judge this train-station woman or her parenting. She was clearly doing her best; I had no idea what her life was like, and it was absolutely none of my business. So, instead of judging her parenting, I caught her eye and gave her a little smile. “You got this,” my smile said. “I know how it is.”
But she looked through me and away. She didn’t return the smile. She didn’t even acknowledge it.
So, instead, I judged her for that.