When mum cracks

Posted September 30, 2013

When mum cracks

What do you do when you see a mum break down in front of her small children? Do you look away and give her time to regain her composure? Or ask her if she’s alright? 

I was sitting in the car, in the Waitrose car park, waiting for my husband (he’d nipped back for something we’d missed off our shopping list). A woman appeared at the car that was parked in front of me. With her were two small children, a boy and a girl. The boy was bawling at the top of his lungs. The mum opened the back door and calmly instructed him to get in. 

“You’ve behaved like a baby today, so you’re going to sit in the baby chair.”

The boy stamped his feet and bawled even louder; he was clearly not happy about being relegated to baby status. I was glad to see the mum take control and mete out an appropriate punishment for his tantrum. Firm but fair.

I went back to checking the messages on my phone. The next time I glanced up the mother was bent over the steering wheel, sobbing uncontrollably. I couldn’t imagine what had been so distressing about shopping in Waitrose. Had they run out of venison burgers or, worse still, Heston’s chocolate sauce? As her sobbing got worse, the children grew quieter.  Things began to feel awkward. I glanced away, hoping that she hadn’t seen me. 

After a while the mother got out to remonstrate with the children who were both now strapped into the back seat. What caught my attention was the stark switch in the nature of the conversation. It had gone from ‘adult to child’ to ‘adult to adult’. It was a disconcerting twist - not least for the children.

“I’m just trying to be nice to you,” she said. “Why can’t you see that?”

 The children looked as if they’d been stunned with a taser. The mum then got back into the front. I thought she was about to drive away but, once again, she slumped over the steering wheel and began to cry. This was now beyond awkward. 

I wondered if I should get out and ask if there was anything I could do to help? I don’t have kids of my own but I reasoned that it’s probably not uncommon for a mum to ‘crack’ every now and then. But I didn’t want to embarrass her on top of everything else. Actually, I was really hoping that she’d move on, thereby solving the dilemma for me.  She did eventually drive off after a few more bouts of crying - at speed! I’ve been fretting about my decision to do nothing ever since.

I did quick straw poll of my friends, those with children and those without, to find out what they would have done in the same situation. They all concluded that they wouldn’t have intervened. Interestingly, the clincher was whether the mother was inside her car or outside. To go over and tap the window, when she was in the car, would have been intrusive: it was her private space. If, however, she was standing outside the car then perhaps they would have approached her. My husband was a little less sensitive. He says he would have asked her to stop crying before she totally ruined the feel good element of the Waitrose shopping experience. I think he was joking. 

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