I was walking up and down the aisles of my hometown Wal*Mart, looking for a few last-minute things to make Easter fun for my daughter. She’d be arriving at my mom’s in time for our big family dinner after spending the week with her dad, and I wanted to have something special ready for her when she got there. I was searching for plastic eggs and some little prizes for a hunt when I turned my head down a long corridor and saw a little girl crying with a flushed face, her cheeks stained with bloppy tears. Her family was standing around her, so I assumed she’d settle down shortly and did that thing we onlookers do when we accidentally run into something we feel we shouldn’t be a part of. I scrunched my face up as if to say “oops” and ducked away into the next row of junky merchandise.
But the child’s cries didn’t stop, and I didn’t hear anyone in her family trying to console her, either. That’s not to say there’s anything particularly alarming about that kind of response. After all, experts suggest that ignoring a tantrum can help a child calm down, so I didn’t want to jump to conclusions. But something, too, told me to kind of hang around, not in a nosy, judgmental way, but because I might be able to help. I might need to help.
As this little girl’s wailing kept getting worse, I could feel the tension build in the air. Bearing my history as a baby whisperer in mind, I decided I’d walk down the aisle just to see if a little distraction would do the trick and calm her down.
“Hey!” I said to the cherubic 4-year-old, her skin splotchy and her nose all snotty. “You okay?,” I asked. Before I could connect with the woman who I assume was her mother and the girls that seemed to be her older sisters to wink at them and let them know I was there as an ally, not a threat, the child took in a quick breath of pleased relief at the sight of me and immediately exhaled the story of what got her so worked up.
“She held me upside down and I hit my head on the cart!,” she cried, gesturing to her oldest sister, a young teen. I knew right away the type of family dynamic I was dealing with, because it’s the same dynamic I grew up in. I could tell instantly that this little girl wasn’t wailing because this accidental thing happened this one time, she was wailing because somebody hurt her again and was ignoring her pain again and never said sorry – again. Which isn’t to imply that I was sure I had walked in on a child dealing with horrific abuse, but that I was sure I had walked in on a family like so many families in the rural area I grew up in where the wounded/wounding dynamic is so commonplace, it’s taken as a given. “We all treat each other like this. If you don’t like it, too bad. That makes you a pussy, you big pussy.”
The teen fixed her gaze on the child and said, “I put you upside down because you wouldn’t sit.” This is a common reaction in families where there’s no clear understanding of age-appropriate behavior in children and no one has been taught the coping skills they need to deal with said behavior. The rationale, childish though it is, is “I did something bad because you were being bad.” And round-and-round we go. Knowing I didn’t want the teenage sister to get defensive, I softly asked, understanding how frustrating little kids can be, “Well, did you apologize? I’m sure you didn’t mean to hurt her, but maybe you could apologize anyway.”
This, of course, is what mothers (and fathers) do, right? We facilitate communication and guide emotional encounters in a calm and clear way, because we are the mature ones in the family. To many of you this may seem obvious. But to those of you who grew up in a dysfunctional family, you know the main problem in a dysfunctional family is that the parents are psychologically and emotionally children themselves, because they were raised in dysfunctional families and never given the support they needed. And, boom. That’s why they call it a cycle.
The teen, gaze firmly fixed on her little sister, said, “I’m. Sorry.” with a lot of edge in her voice. It wasn’t a sincere apology by any means, but it’s awfully hard to admit wrong-doing when you’re constantly defending yourself against accusations that you’re wrong, as most kids trapped in the cycle are, and it was enough to calm the baby down so that I could continue to make her feel better.
“Is the Easter Bunny gonna come to your house?” I asked her.
“Yeah, we’re gonna have an egg hunt,” she said, mustering some excitement but still choking a bit on her sobs.
“I am, too, see? I’m collecting eggs right now. Do you feel better? Can you stop crying?” I nudged.
“Yeah, because everyone in Wal*Mart is looking at us,” the teen gently hissed. I heard the terrified iciness in her voice, and I had so much sympathy for the years of pressure I could tell had been put upon her, causing her to worry that if her family appeared to have fallen one step out of line there would be some serious repercussions. Folks raised to believe that needing help means you’re weak tend to get stiff when they fear the fact that they might need help is showing. At least that’s what I’ve discerned looking back on my childhood in a rural/small town area where authoritarian parenting is still pervasive and news hasn’t spread yet that it’s okay to admit you might want to change or try something different. That you have bottomed out on what doesn’t work.
I wanted to try – in my own humble way – to subtly offer these girls a window into the world of something different. A world that meets them with compassion, understanding and kindness, where people get the benefit of the doubt. Where you are not expected to be perfect, to obey at all costs. The weight of expectation placed on people who are told they must obey and never fuck up is – ironically enough, Oh Hilarious Universe That Keeps On Giving – what causes people to fuck up.
“No one’s looking at you,” I said, in a light and loving tone. “I just want everyone to feel better.” So far, thankfully, my tactics had worked and my intentions hadn’t come into question. I returned my attention to the little girl who’d been crying and I said, “Do you want me to tell you a secret?” I knew she would want me to tell her a secret, because no one can resist the juicy candy of a delicious secret. She nodded. “When you get upset like that, you can always take some cleansing breaths and then you’ll feel better, okay?”
We took some deep breaths in and out. She bobbed her head up and down to let me know the gift of oxygen had made a difference and I wanted to give her a hug. I wanted to hug them all and say, “Guys, I get you. I am you. Come with me to the other side of this pain that defines your world. There is life beyond these Wal*Mart walls! Beyond the racetrack and the beer cans and the oppression of the underclasses!” But of course I didn’t. I mean, ain’t nobody got time for that! I did touch the little girl’s arm lightly and say, “I take cleansing breaths all the time!,” and then I laughed, clearing the air and making room for my exit. I gave the little girl a reassuring look one more time before I walked away and said again, “Okay?,” then without a word from anyone else, our time together came to end. I wanted her to know, “I see you, baby! I gotchu. You are not alone.” But in the end, I was just some lady in the Wal*Mart aisle, who did or didn’t make an impact.
I met back up with my sister, who I’d come to the store with, in the parking lot. When we got in the car, I told her what happened. The first thing she asked was, “Where was the mother?,” and I said, “Right there.” “She didn’t say anything to you?,” she replied, incredulously. “Nope,” I said. “Not a word.” When we got to my mother’s house and she heard the story, she asked the same thing.
My sister and my mother expected an indignant response from the mother in the story because that type of response typically goes hand-in-hand with a fearful, defensive person being offered help, right? “What do you know, lady? I don’t need help from you to raise my kids!” Because if I needed help, that would make me weak, and any signs of weakness are signs of failure, and I’m not a failure, so fuck you for accusing me of being one! I realize my intentions could have been perceived that way, and I think most bystanders in similar situations ARE worried about being perceived that way, which is why so many people don’t make the effort to offer a helping hand when they witness this kind of dynamic in public. They’re afraid to be told what’s going on is none of their business. They’re afraid to be mischaracterized as a do-gooder know-it-all threat when they really are there simply to be a stranger friend.
I know I’m sharing what may seem like rudimentary ideas to some of you (like of course you innocently make sure other people are okay – duh – that’s what life’s about), but I also know based on the shame and pain I swallowed my entire young life that to so many of us who dealt with constant stress as children these ideas are revolutionary. The thought that you don’t have to walk on eggshells, that the whole world won’t fall apart if one person just comes clean and tries to do something pure and good. That asserting yourself or taking a risk can reap positive results and loving rewards. That your intentions – if and when they are good, as – hey, they probably usually are – might actually be seen for what they are and not distorted and maybe make an enormous difference.
Part of me wishes that I didn’t have enough traumatic life experience to understand this simple act of curious kindness to be so totally brave, and then another part of me is incredibly grateful that I get to get what a huge deal the type of psychic/spiritual/emotional awakening I’ve had is. I get to get it, and I can never not know now what I didn’t know then. It’s the most satisfying feeling in the world, and I had no clue it was even possible. (If this paragraph makes no sense to you, you’re lucky. And if you’re going “mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm,” call me – let’s have drinks and hug.)
Children who are growing up in families trapped in the cycle of dysfunction need to know that they are not alone and that someone sees them. And parents who are stuck raising their children with only the sub-par coping skills they gleaned from their own dysfunctional childhoods need to know that – as my college acting mentor liked to say – “every breath is a new chance to live.” We have to somehow convey to people – and this is extremely important – that coming clean and asking for help in learning better coping skills is not going to result in more punishment and is nothing to be ashamed of. That is the only way to break the cycle of dysfunction and free future generations from corrosive toxicity and shame. That offer of freedom from dysfunction and dependency entices addicts to go to 12-step programs. We need to start offering people relationship/parenting rehab, too, no questions asked, just come heal yourself.
So it was a brave thing, I guess, to walk up to a little girl crying in a Wal*Mart and ask if she was okay. And scary, too. But I did it. And I’m glad. And I hope you’ll do it, too. Because you never know when the curious kindness of a stranger friend might turn the whole thing around for a person in pain. And it’ll make you feel proud, too.