I’m a lover of words fair and foul, so swearing doesn’t usually bother me. But the vitriol in this one jarred me. My older daughter had just finished her violin lesson; she and I and my younger daughter were walking down the sidewalk to our car when heard the blasphemous expression. Her lesson is on a street corner with traffic that can drive bad decisions, so I expected to witness a collision in the aftermath of the shout. But when I looked up, all I saw was a row of cars waiting for a red light and a couple of pedestrians on the opposite sidewalk.
“Shit!” It was the man walking down the street. He turned around and started yelling at the person walking at least ten feet behind him. I looked more closely and realized it was a little girl about my own daughter’s age. He was yelling at his kid.
My girls looked at me, eyes wide. They are not strangers to yelling, I’m slightly ashamed to say. Almost daily in our house we practice this routine:
“Girls, can you do XYZ, please?”
[5 minutes of silence]
“Girls, I asked you to XYZ.”
“In a minute,” calls one from amongst her toys.
“Okay, just let me finish this page,” says the other from the couch.
Ten minutes later and a little bit louder, “Hey, I’ve asked you like three times to XYZ, now let’s do it.”
“Alright, alright, in a minute….”
So shouting isn’t shocking in our house, but the public screaming we witnessed today had as much venom as volume. Still, my own shortcomings when it comes to shouting made me try not to judge. I tried to imagine what the girl might have done to elicit such a response. Dropped his wallet down a sidewalk drain? Gotten in trouble at the Boys & Girls Club, requiring him to take unpaid leave from work to come pick her up early? As his outbursts moved closer to us I recalled the same sort of frustrated anger toward my daughter just last week; she did something so infuriating I just couldn’t let it go and had to chew her out every time I thought about it. I can’t remember what it was, now.
Just before we turned the corner he stopped again as the little girl caught up to him.
“Knock it off right now!” They were out of sight, but I could still see the image of the furious older white man in his beige t-shirt shouting at the pudgy little black girl with a pink backpack.
That last sentence changed the story for you, didn’t it?
As a parent by transracial adoption myself, I am aware that my parenting is on display. When you don’t match your kid, people wonder how you fit together, and subpar behavior from either me or my kids makes them wonder whether we ought to be together at all. Sometimes I shock people with my frankness about the downsides of parenting. I think, “Hey, you don’t know what I’ve been through.” It’s a glib response, but it’s partly true; parenting is really, really hard, and adoptive parenting requires a whole extra set of skills on top of the normal stuff. Adoptive parents are expected to be more “into” parenting than everyone else, but really, people ought to cut us extra slack.
When we were finally out of earshot, my oldest daughter said, “I’ve heard of bad parents before,” as if we’d just spotted a chupacabra.
I don’t know if he was a bad dad, or if he was just having a [very] bad day. I remember parenting days when it felt like I couldn’t get my head above water and I was sure I was going to drown; I know what that guy is up against.
But what sticks with me is that image of the little girl, standing rigid on the sidewalk, dwarfed by his anger. Life is tough even when you’re big and strong. And the world is really not a very nice place at all if you’re small and weak.