We’re up in the air when the baby starts to get fussy. I try to nurse her without elbowing my fellow airplane passengers. I make her laugh with a game of owl. I hand her a Biscoff cookie. I manage to entertain her for a few minutes, but then her crumb-covered face melts into a frown. She cries. She’s beyond tired.
The woman next to me is so kind. “I’m sorry,” I say to her, between my gentle shushing. “She’s fine,” she says. “I have twins. Believe me. I understand.” And I know she does.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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But others do not — like the women sitting across from us. She’s trying to read her paperback, and when the baby’s cries reach a crescendo, she snaps the book shut and glares in our direction. I smile apologetically for the soundtrack we’re providing and hope my look will win some mercy.
It doesn’t work. She glowers icily as if I willed my baby into crying, just to disturb her peace — as if my baby’s inconsolable tears do not disturb my peace as well.
Airports and airplanes seem to bring out the worst in people. I see adults behaving badly everywhere: pushing, edgy tones, impatience. And yet we put up with it, or we look the other way — mostly, we simply get on with our day. But then a child begins to whine, and we have no tolerance. Instead of considering that when children behave badly it’s often not because they are bad, but because they are tired, hungry, and yes, human, we write them off as hopelessly spoiled brats with clueless parents.
There are a lot of people who seem to have forgotten what it’s like to be a growing child. Perhaps they’re pro-life, but they’re not pro-child. Then there are some pro-perfect-child people out there: Your kid’s fine, so long as he keeps his mouth shut and behaves. Worse, there are a few who see kids as cretins or, at the very least, inconveniences that ought to be managed better by their parents. The pint-sized chatterbox in seat 31B irritate them to no end, and they show no mercy — only impatience with the tears (or even the belly laughs) of a child.
Children are works in progress. They need molding. They need sleep and healthy, regular meals. They need routine and rhythm to their day. They need boundaries — and yes, discipline, too. But most of all they need patience and love, especially when they’re small and thrown into the adult world and expected to act like adults, or even better than adults: silent, happy, agreeable things that find no fault in the long lines, the disgruntled passengers around them, or the ridiculously small package of pretzels a stewardess hands them after she bumps the serving cart into their knee.
I have no such expectations. Children are not small adults. They’re certainly not little mirrors of perfection. Neither am I. How can I — or anyone — expect these little people (who have much to learn) never to stumble, when I stumble all of the time?
Early on in my mothering career, I was at weekday Mass when my toddler started “whispering” (which, for a toddler, means loudly talking in a raspy voice). I did my best to keep my children quiet and stood in the back, as there was nowhere to escape. Most of the people turned and smiled; after Mass, three women even thanked me for bringing my children to Mass.
But there was one man who turned around, met my eyes, and shot daggers at my kids and me. I grabbed my toddler’s arm and squeezed a bit too tightly in response. I told myself I was going to stay away from weekday Mass for awhile — until, say, my baby was 20.
But when we were preparing to receive Communion, and I heard myself saying, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed,” I was reminded that I was there not to get accolades for my exceptional parenting or my perfectly behaved children but to receive God’s graces and to be healed.
None of us is ever worthy to receive Christ. None of us is perfectly well-behaved all the time. God doesn’t expect us to be. So we certainly shouldn’t expect our children to be perfect, either.
It’s taken traveling, sitting in airports, meltdowns, and tantrums in public places — even sideways glances at church, where I always felt children would be welcome — to humble me and allow me to look past my own vanity, my need to appear like an uber-parent of uber-children.
I still don’t like the reproachful looks or the general anti-child mentality some people have. But I refuse to let others’ aggravation with my children wound me, make me obsessively micromanage their behavior, or cause me to potentially damage my relationship with my kids or God in an effort to appease the masses.
I’ve made another promise, too. Even when my kids are grown up, I promise I won’t forget what it means to be little. I promise to make children feel welcome and loved — even when they’re not acting very lovable. I promise to show mercy to other parents when their child is screeching, to offer encouraging words, and to say a prayer for the moms and dads and the works in progress God has entrusted to their care. I promise to be pro-life, pro-child, and to see everyone as worthy of my kindness.