Yesterday Susan and I were on a flight from St. Louis to Milwaukee in a miserable little airplane, the kind with two (very hard) seats on one side of the aisle and one seat on the other. The row ahead of us was occupied by a mother and her two children. The younger one, a boy of perhaps three, sat with his mother, while her five-year-old daughter, Madison, occupied the solo seat across the aisle. I know that her name was Madison because her mother screamed it a lot.
Madison had one arm in a soft cast, the result of a mild fracture she had suffered earlier in the week. Madison wanted to chat with her mother, but mother had her hands full with the younger child. Madison kept dangling her legs over the side of the seat, prompting her mother to yell at her to put them where they belonged lest they be amputated by a passing cart. Madison wanted to watch a movie on the portable DVD player until the movie started, at which point she didn’t want to watch it anymore. Madison wanted a cup of ice cubes to suck on and then promptly spilled the ice all over the floor. Madison, in other words, was behaving precisely the way even the nicest five-year-olds behave. Mom was progressively losing it, and she was not using her “inside voice.” Her behavior was escalating towards verbal abuse.
My first response was one of acute embarrassment for the mother, who was melting down in a manner that no-one around her could miss. It is a socially awkward situation. Do you pretend that it is not happening, or do you try to help in some way? Where is fine line between butting in and being helpful? I could see other passengers squirming as they wrestled with the same question.
Bit by bit, those of us seated nearby coalesced into a community. A grandmotherly African-American woman seated in front of Madison began chatting with the mother in a soft and soothing voice. I engaged Madison in conversation about how she got her owie. The flight attendant stopped by several times to ask if they needed anything. No one criticized her; everyone spoke in a kindly manner. Bit by bit, the situation was defused.
When we landed, I chatted a bit with the mom. They had been visiting one set of grandparents in St. Louis (where Madison fractured her arm at a theme park) and were on their way to Pittsburgh to see the other set. Given the huge diamond she was wearing on her finger, I assumed she had a husband, presumably too busy earning the money that paid for that rock to accompany them. She was clearly exhausted, physically and emotionally.
Later, Susan and I reflected on whether we were seeing a good mom having a bad day or a woman who will always struggle with parenting. Our guess is that the role of mother does not come naturally or easily to her, and that if she was at the end of her rope that day it was because her rope was not all that long to begin with. I will hold her, and her children, in prayer.
But I am always grateful when I see strangers come together as a supportive community. Hillary Clinton famously commented that it takes a village to raise a child. A village, and sometimes an airplane.
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