It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of small children must be in want of advice.
“Excuse me,” said the older lady from across the aisle, “This hat is bothering him.”
I nodded at her with a forced smile before focusing, once again, on my wailing son. “I know you wanted to walk onto the bus all by yourself,” I murmured. “Darling, I’m so proud of you for trying to do things on your own, but we couldn’t take our time when there were so many people waiting behind us, now could we?”
For a second, I thought my logical explanation did the trick. But the loud “But I wannnteedd to!” that echoed from behind the aforementioned hat a second later, replete with sniffles and hiccups and large, shiny tears, quickly put paid to this hope.
”Excuse me,” repeated the lady, in a louder, and less sympathetic, voice, even as my son’s tantrum transformed into a no-holds-barred, ear splitting melt down. “This hat is bothering him!”
“Its not the hat…” I tried to say through my child’s gasps and wails, rocking him back and forth and trying to ignore the of the looks and whispers of the other passengers. “He pulls it onto his face when he’s upset, not the other way around…”
“I wanted to get on by mysellllfffff!”
“I know darling, shhh, shh…”
“The hat is bothering him!”
“It’s not the hat, he’ll remove it when he’ll relax!”
“I wanted to get on aloneeee…”
“Just take off his hat! You’re making him cry!”
The woman’s voice rang through the bus, indignant and angry, louder, even, than my child’s cries. The words “hat” and “take it off” echoed on other people’s lips. I could feel their eyes on me, and see myself through their eyes: a mother who can’t console her child, an obstinate girl who can’t even remove a hat.
I held my son tight and hid my face in his neck, gasping for air, whispering a soothing “shhh, shh” for both of our benefits.
Minutes passed. Conversations resumed around us. My son blinked, sniffled one last time, and sat up straight on my lap. He pulled his hat off his face and looked around with curious eyes. I took a deep breath and smiled at him.
“See,” declared the lady across the aisle. “I told you it was the hat!”
Her victorious tone pushed me over the edge, and I burst into tears.
In the years that passed since that bus ride, I indulged myself in imagining all the things I could have said back then. In my fantasies, I never cried or broke down or lost my composure: I was always strong and confident and poised, and I always found the perfect thing to say.
At times, I was blunt-yet-earnest (“You do realize that you’re making me fail as a mother by distracting me from my son right now, yes?”). At others, I was sarcastic (“Oh but of course it was the hat! You’re a genius! You should write parenting books!”). Sometimes I was downright mean (let’s just say it involved name-calling). But in all these imaginary scenarios, my words had the desired effect of proving that I knew what I was about, and the lady from the bus did not.
And then, after years of indulging in fantasies, a woman yelled at me in the street after my daughter fell from her stroller, and all the hidden words I scripted and rescripted tumbled effortlessly off my lips.
I was forceful. I was eloquent. I was everything I imagined being as I played out the old memory over the years.
Everyone who heard me nodded, acknowledging that I was in the right. They all saw me as I wanted to be seen–a capable, knowledgable mother.
But as I watched this second loud critic backing off, angry and (still) yelling, I didn’t feel vindicated or powerful. I felt empty, and somewhat ashamed.
For years, I held on to the memory of that bus ride. I held on to the humiliation I felt when strangers thought I didn’t handle a situation well, and allowed it to fester. But the opinion of those strangers had no power to reflect on me: Why should I care if they thought I mishandled my child’s tantrum? Why should I care what a group of perfect strangers believed of me?
My own behavior, by contrast, does reflect on me. And as I stood in the street, my cutting rebuke echoing in the passersby’s silence, I realized that the way I put the offensive stranger in her place didn’t represent the person I wanted to be.
I want to treat other people with kindness and forbearance. I want my children to see me smiling and speaking politely even when others do not, and do the same. By snapping back at people who offer unsolicited advice, I was straying from the path I want to walk. If I always snapped back, I would allow these strangers to influence the kind of person I am—in a far more intimate way than if I were to accept or at least ignore their judgment and advice every time.
After that day in the street, I let the memory of the bus ride go. Strangers still offer me unsolicited advice, but now that I’ve stopped nurturing my sensitivity to such comments, I can see the good intentions behind them, respond with a simple “thank you,” and go on to do as I please. I still get upset at times, but by letting go of my need to be perceived as a capable parent who’s in control of the situation, I regained control over my equilibrium, and my inner sense of worth.