“Goddammit Ethan, just get out of the car, will you?” she shouts, her voice shrill and brittle with shards of exasperation and impatience. It’s 8:58 in the morning, and the woman needs Ethan to get out of the goddamned car and stop dawdling so that they can get into the school by 9:00.
I’m standing next to the open rear passenger door of my car, waiting for my own little dawdler to make his way out of his car seat. I’ve looked up at the woman, drawn to the barking and the fact that it’s been in English. (We live in Spain.) Our eyes meet for an instant, her ears and cheeks incandesce, and she turns her attention back to Ethan.
“Ethan, honey,” she cajoles sweetly, “could you please hurry? We’re in a bit of a rush, sweetheart.”
She’s been busted, and she and I both know it. What she doesn’t know, however, is that I am passing no judgement, laying no blame. I’ve been there.
One particularly memorable moment came when our oldest was around 14 months or so, and I was pushing him through our neighborhood in Budapest in his stroller. I don’t recall exactly what he had been doing that had stretched and then snapped the tenuous strings of my patience – my very psyche – but I do remember throwing up my hands like a character in a Latin-American soap opera and uttering a string of obscenities that would have scorched the ears off the lewdest Honduran bus driver.
When the fuel of my outburst burned itself out and the red mists cleared, I began to see that the figure across the street staring at me in something between shock and amusement was a friend and colleague of my wife’s.
“Hey, Matt,” he says uncertainly, “how’s it, uh, going?”
My mind whirled for moment with options. I could flee. I could attempt to curry sympathy, commiseration, pour my grievances into the lap of this poor unsuspecting acquaintance. Or, I could smile sunnily and say,
“Oh, hey Scott! I was just, we were just, you know, having a little walk and, sometimes we, uuhhmm, so, how’s work?”
Sometimes parents misbehave. We lash out, we screw up, we lose our shit. The reasons are not always immediately clear, but I do know this – I’m a better parent in public than I am in private.
I am more patient, more playful, more, I don’t know, cardboard cutout dad-ish. There are a number of reasons for this.
One, you don’t want strangers, colleagues, friends to necessarily see your parenting, warts and all. You simply don’t want to allow them to witness you lose your temper, bark at your kids, tremble with exasperation. Just as you always attempt to convey an attitude of competent confidence to your boss, it’s uncomfortable to think that the people around you might see that at times THE GREAT AND POWERFUL DAD is just an old dude behind a curtain frantically flipping levers.
Two, when we’re out of the house it’s generally to do something we enjoy. I’m more comfortable outside anyway, but if we’re out and about it also means that I’m not at home trying to fix dinner while being peppered with 128 incessant and often conflicting demands, so I’m (ordinarily) more relaxed.
Three, I’m insufferably vain. I want people to think, “Aww, what a sweet father.” I know it’s shallow, and I know it’s stupid, but there it is. When I’m at the playground running around, climbing on the equipment, playing tag or whatever with my kids, it’s mostly because my emotional development became arrested permanently at right around the age of 12, but also in part because it allows me to look at the dads ensconced on the perimeter benches with heads buried in newspapers and think ‘Ha, I’m the fun dad, I’m the cool dad, I’m the slam-bang wizz-ding wonder-daddy superbadasspapa.’ Pathetically self-satisfied? Well, yes. But since the kids benefit from it and since the applause is all in my head anyway, it seems harmless enough.
So what does this mean on a practical level? Well, I get the kids outdoors as much as possible, both for my sanity and for their own well being. And since I have come to realize this minor truth about myself, that I’m a better dad in public, I use it to analyze my most private parenting moments and adjust my behavior accordingly. I actually pretend, at times, that I have an audience watching me, and imagine what they would be thinking or feeling about my interaction with my kids at that particular moment. I suppose it’s how religious folks feel when they think God is scrutinizing their every move and motivation, weighing up the scales that will ultimately tip them either Heaven-or-Hellward.
Am I alone here? Am I the only one who feels that their public performance of parenting is a better show than their private one? Let me know.
And please, if you’re ever out in public and see a parent teetering on the edge of a toddleresque meltdown (or already in the throes of one), reserve your judgment and your self-satisfaction. See, in fact, if you can lend a hand, and remember that we’ve all been there.
So, have you ever been busted behaving parentally badly in public? If so, please share. I’m always on the lookout for partners in parental crime.