We initially chose a preschool near my office for practical reasons—it had a playground and windows and cooking classes, unlike the tiny ones near our home, which I couldn’t reliably reach by closing time, anyway. We were thrilled about the school, but I wasn’t exactly excited about the commute: two subways and eight city blocks each way. It is a trip that takes me 45 minutes alone, but can stretch to an hour and beyond with my 2–year-old in tow. When we signed our contract, I browsed Pinterest, looking up ideas for games and busy bags and ways to stock my purse like some sort of frenetic Mary Poppins.
After a few trips, I quickly realized that the less I brought with me, the better, and we settled on a small book and a matchbox car, which my son drives on the subway walls on the good days, and across my face on the bad days. He “sits” on my lap on the crowded train, which is more like using me as a human jungle gym, with his face inches from mine for most of the trip. We laugh and play and I get plenty of kisses, but unsurprisingly for a toddler, some days his favorite activities include snatching my glasses and attempting to fling them across the subway car, and crying because I won’t let him stand alone and hold onto the pole.
The challenges are even harder to manage when I’m juggling two overstuffed bags, our winter coats, a baby carrier, snacks, and a water bottle at 6 p.m. when I’m sharing a train with half of Manhattan who would rather be anywhere else. My husband and I try to avoid yelling and indiscriminate “no’s.” We’re the crazy people who actually believe in reasoning with a toddler, and it often works. But when we’re exhausted, or get poked in the eye for the 10th time, or have half our hair ripped out by a tiny overtired maniac, it’s hard to not respond in kind. On the subway, though, things are different. When we’re less than arm’s length from 10 other people, all of whom are watching my kid because they have nothing better to do, it’s like parenting on a public stage.
I feel like it’s a dirty secret, but it’s a lot easier to be the parent I want to be while everyone is watching. I have more patience when the businessman standing in front of us is listening to my every word. I can be gentler when I think back on how the grandmotherly woman next to me complimented my son’s smile just seconds before his latest attempts to rip off my necklace. I listen to what I’m saying to him with the critical ear of a stranger, make more eye contact, and do a better job of picking my battles. Of course, I think my son is wonderful when no one is reminding me, but being repeatedly told that he’s so well behaved and such a good listener makes the difficult moments easier to handle.
I’ve heard from friends and internet strangers who are afraid to take their toddlers to the grocery store, or Target, or on an airplane, in case of some sort of grand tantrum that leaves all the surrounding non-parents-of-toddlers staring with mouths agape, clacking their tongues and shaking their heads. But what I’ve learned from the hours on the subway with my son is that public parenting isn’t anything to be afraid of—it’s the best rehearsal for the parenting you want to do when no one is looking.