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I don’t usually think of myself as a jerk. In fact, I think I’m too nice most of the time. I give strangers the benefit of the doubt too often. Someone cuts in line at the grocery store, why say something? They must really need that frozen burrito. But in the last few months, I’ve caused several people to accuse me of being an asshole in fairly benign settings (like at the library’s return desk). And now I can add the thrift store to that list.
A few weeks ago, The Toddler and I went to the local thrift store, Value Village. Value Village is an accurate name for this store: value is accurate since you can usually find some bargains; village works too because the place is large, the linoleum is so brown and dusty that it feels like a dirt floor, and it has its share of idiots. And luckily for me, some of these idiots want to give me parenting advice.
This recent trip started out better than some of my prior trips there. Once when the Toddler was 17-months-old, she managed to take off one shoe and throw it out of the cart while I was looking at pants. She had been doing this regularly at the time, and since The Bife wouldn’t let me conveniently duct tape the shoes to her legs, I actually had to pay attention that she had both shoes on. But this time, the plethora of fine pants at the VV distracted me, and I didn’t notice the missing shoe until I was buckling her into her car seat.
Does anyone see a missing baby shoe on the ground?
Does anyone see a missing baby shoe on the ground?
We went back in to look up and down the aisles for the missing footwear. I gave up, though, after an hour, dejected, frustrated, and, above all, confused. Why would someone take just one baby shoe? Did they have a peg-legged baby at home that just happened to need a left shoe to complete an outfit? Are one-legged babies that common? And if so, are they predisposed to become pirates?
On this most recent trip, The Toddler still had both shoes on, so already I had made progress in my parenting skills. That is until we got to the books. Suddenly, the sweet, happy, and illiterate child became an angry, monomaniacal book hoarder throwing armfuls of them into the cart. When I asked her to stop grabbing books, her face slumped and the tears indicating a meltdown is imminent came.
Tears became loud sobs, followed by screaming, yelling, and de-boning herself. Like most of her peers, The Toddler has a talent for going limp, making her impossible to carry, as she times her kicking and arm waving for maximum velocity. Since I refuse to negotiate with terrorists, I put her down and started looking at the bookshelves, while keeping one eye on her. She kept watching me, yelling she wanted her books, and eventually pulling a Richie Tenenbaum: she had taken off both her shoes and one of her socks (what is it about the VV and her shoes?)
Evidently, when I approached the end of the aisle that we were in, a “concerned bystander” (an Old English term for “nosy bitch”) approached me.
“I don’t feel comfortable with this at all!” she said from behind me.
I turned to look at her. She seemed to be in her thirties, with an empty cart. My first thought was she just walked around the VV like some sad superhero whose power was giving strangers unsolicited advice. The Amazing Adventures of Busybody Woman!
“What are you uncomfortable with?” I asked her.
“You abandoning your child like this.”
“She’s just having a meltdown. I’m not abandoning her when I’m right here in the aisle watching her. She’ll calm down eventually.”
“No, this is not okay. You need to watch her. She doesn’t even have shoes on! You need to do something or I will!”
This flustered me. I know I shouldn’t have let it since I know my child and this was just a garden variety tantrum, but it did. I had a visceral reaction that I wanted to be away from this woman immediately. I picked up The Toddler who started crying harder.
“Can I go home?” I asked Busybody Woman. “Is that okay with you? Do I have your permission?”
With all the smugness that an ignorant asshole can muster, she said, “If you can’t control your children, you shouldn’t have them in the first place.”
I didn’t dignify that with a response, and we left the cart in the middle of the aisle without buying anything. And while I wasn’t called an asshole this time (which is a first), I could tell that Busybody thought it. Looking back on it, I should have just started yelling, “Why are you staring at my child! Pervert! Pervert! Don’t touch her!” That would have shown her what being uncomfortable truly felt like.
All ridiculousness aside, being judged a bad parent hurt, even by someone who I later realized probably had no children herself: no parent (even the most sanctimonious jerk) would say something as asinine as you should “control” your child. Most parents know you can’t control a child at all times any more than you can push a rope. Still, for her to take my toddler’s meltdown as proof that I am a horrible parent hurts, even if it’s as ridiculous as saying that a dog’s peeing on a tree as proof that her owner is a bad one and shouldn’t have pets.
Trying to be empathetic, I realized that perhaps this lady was irritated at me because she wants kids and doesn’t/couldn’t have them, while here I was ignoring my own precious child. Or maybe she does have kids and feels bad about how she handles them, making her snap at me out of self-annoyance. Whatever the case, instead of helping, she made the situation all about herself: instead of asking how she could help or empathizing with me, she decided to tell me how my actions with my daughter made her feel. As though I have an imperative to live my life so that I make other people feel good. Sorry, lady, I can only do what’s best for my family in a given situation.
Sure I should be kind and considerate, but I’m not going to let making strangers feel good about themselves to guide my parenting. And realizing that almost made the trip worthwhile.
Although I left the VV without buying anything that morning, abandoned our full cart in the middle of a book aisle, and was told I was such a terrible parent that I shouldn’t have kids, The Toddler still had both her shoes. To me, that makes it a moral victory.