Without question, Evan and I are currently walking through our most challenging parenting stage. Truly, neither the 3 a.m. feedings nor the chronic ear infections had anything on life with a three year old. I recently told someone it’s as though we are parenting a completely different child than we had for the first two years of his life. What’s more is I can pinpoint the almost exact moment when everything seemed to change: on a Southwest Airlines flight from Tampa to Grand Rapids.
Flying alone with two children is not for the faint of heart, but I wasn’t too concerned. I was a little worried about the logistics of it all—getting through security, keeping Ian by my side while I folded up the stroller, and what changing a diaper would look like in those teeny, tiny airplane bathrooms. But truthfully—Ian’s behavior hadn’t even occurred to me. He’d been pretty docile and cooperative on every other flight we’d taken, and I was well-prepared with a stash of fruit snacks and episodes of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
Well, as always happens, the flight attendants instructed us to put our tray tables in the “full upright and locked position,” and Ian was not too pleased at that suggestion. He then decided he hated the seatbelt and started to hit his brother, while steadily increasing the volume of his screams and cries. And then he started kicking the seat in front of him.
Guys. When I am on an airplane, there is nothing I try to more careful about than NOT bumping the seat in front of me. Because we have all been that person, right? In the movie theater or on the plane, the person behind us keeps kicking or jostling our seat back. It’s so annoying! And here I was, trying to convince him to stop kicking the seat with the full force of his toddler body.
In this situation, I was not above guilting him into cooperate, and I said, “Ian, you are going to make the man in front of you very angry. You are kicking his seat. That is going to annoy him and hurt him.”
Ian, of course, could NOT have cared less.
I kept repeating myself desperately, but nothing—not even endless fruit snacks—was getting through to him. “Ian, stop! You are going to make that man angry.”
That’s when the man in front of Ian turned around and offered me a gift I will remember and be grateful for for the rest of my parenting life.
He peeked into the gap between his seat and his neighbor’s, looked right at me and said, “Hey now, don’t make me the bad guy! You can blame Santa Claus if you want. But don’t blame me.” He smiled as if to say, “It’s ok. It’s fine. I will deal.”
Our interaction ended there.
I wish I could tell you that Ian calmed down and the rest of our trip was smooth, but the truth is, that day remains the low-point of my parenting journey. (I’ll have to save my stories about luggage carts and Chicago-Midway public restrooms and leaky diapers and apple juice debacles for another day.)
But after that one reassuring sentence from my fellow-passenger, I cried tears of relief. He offered me one little moment of grace, and it took a heavy load off my shoulders. I still needed Ian to stop hitting Leo, and I kept trying to convince him to lower his voice, but I didn’t bother telling him to stop kicking the seats.
We all have these times—especially as parents—when we are having a moment, and we are in public, and everyone can see. The car accident is our fault. We spill the fountain drink all over the restaurant floor. We hold up the line at the DMV because we don’t seem to have the correct paperwork even though we swear we’re doing exactly what the web site said. Our toddler melts down beyond reason.
And we’ve all been there when the person on the other side of the interaction doesn’t respond gracefully. The person we rear-ended is angry and belligerent, the waiter huffs and puffs as they mop up your spill, the clerk behind the counter doesn’t handle your questions with patience. Or the other parents nearby send nothing by judgmental glances your way.
When Jesus scribbled in the sand while a woman’s accusers waited for an answer, and when he called Zaccheus down from the tree, it seemed to be his way of acknowledging he saw them, understood their struggle, and want them to take a deep breath and know that all is well.
Often, my perfectionism manifests itself as an extreme concern over the feelings and opinions of other people. When Ian was melting town on that plane, I was less concerned with a peaceful flight for myself or helping him manage his emotions. I was almost entirely consumed by worrying about what the other passengers thought and believed about my son and my parenting. While I know not everyone wrestles with this the same way I do, I think I’m not alone in that.
This is one surprising gift my perfectionism has given me: I find myself a little more compassionate toward others in the same boat. My own perfectionism and fear of judgement can make these situations all the more painful and difficult; I hate to think another person is feeling that same way.
So, whenever it is within my power to do, I want to be like the man on the airplane. I want to offer a little encouragement, a little kindness, a little grace. It’s a matter of giving the gift I most want to receive.