A single mother lived upstairs with her seven-year-old son. I was a guest for the week in my friends’ new second-floor apartment in a sunny three-unit house. They hadn’t seen much of their neighbor, they told me, but they’d heard her. Screams, threats, curses, relentless wrath against her child. They laughed about it. She’d had the baby at seventeen; it was a hard life. A lot of times the son screamed back.
I was reading alone on the balcony, awake before everyone else on a Saturday morning. The shouting came from above, raw and livid like I had never heard from one human being to another. My body tensed, alert, alarmed. Footsteps and screams descended the communal staircase and continued until they were outside, below me on the patio.
“Fuck you! I should never have had you! Wait till I get my hands on you, you fucking brat!”
I was not a mother but I’d been thinking lately about the kind of mother I’d want to be. One who treated her children with respect, who found consensual solutions instead of coercing obedience. One who did not bash her children’s self-esteem until they were grown, when she would suddenly expect them to have some. One who did not treat her children like second-class citizens.
In my plastic balcony chair with my book and my cup of tea, I was possessed by rage. My mind was barely aware what I was doing as my body darted down the stairs.
I found the woman on the patio. In one movement she transfigured from fury to smiling politeness. “Hi,” she said, “how are you?”
I was trembling. My mouth opened and my voice said, “I’m angry.”
“Oh, why’s that?”
“I’m angry that you think you have the right to speak to your child that way.”
Her eyes turned hard. She stared.
“Whatever, lady.” She shooed her son into the car and left.
For half an hour afterward my heart pounded and my whole body shook. I sat down on my friend’s bed and said, “I think we need to call social services. That’s verbal and emotional abuse.”
She was shocked. “I’ve heard her for weeks but I never thought—I’m not saying it’s good parenting, but she loves her son.”
I was rattled for days, not by the mother’s behavior but by mine. I’m not a confrontational person. I go years swallowing back anger and resentment. I’m nice. I’m quiet. I rarely speak to strangers, and I certainly don’t chase them down stairwells to tell them what I think of them.
Had I finally stepped into my power, escaped my nice-girl censor, found my anger and used it justly? Or had I been hot-headed, butted into the life of a stranger whose past and present I knew little of, used fury where compassion might have done more good, incited further anger, complicated my friends’ neighborly relations?
Years later, I’m a mother myself, and I’m still rattled.
I think of the times strangers have intruded into my mothering. The people on the street rushing to rescue my baby every time—every single time—I start tying her onto my back with the mei tai. The elderly ladies who tsk and alert me—me, always me, even if my husband is right there too—to absent hats, unbuckled strollers, a toddler’s overenthusiastic engagement with a dirty sidewalk. The trucker at a gas station at midnight, where I’d stopped during a protracted, mishap-laden journey, narrowing his eyes: “Bit late to be out with your baby, isn’t it?” The way that becoming a parent opens personal choices and failings to public judgment and interference.
I think of the times no one has seen or overheard. The screams, the threats—my screams, my threats—the swearing, the fists into walls. My fists into walls. Our next-door neighbors were friendly when we moved in and seem to have gone distant; did they hear something through open windows, something unintended, something I was regretting even as I spoke (yelled) it?
Because after that confrontation on the patio I went years without expressing anger or even feeling much of it, until I became a mother and discovered rage. The rope’s end, the boiling point instantaneously reached, words coming out of my mouth that I can't believe I’m saying. Powerlessness combined with this strange, unhealthy power. I am here with this child, this irrational, infuriating, tantruming, demanding, needy needy child, and I love her deeply but I have not had time to myself in forever, and I am so depleted, and so overwhelmed, and I am snapping and my child is smaller than me and I am in control of her.
I’m in control and I’m out of control.
And I don’t think that losing my temper is okay, and they are amazing girls who I am honored and awed to have in my life, and we live harmoniously most of the time, and I’m endeavoring every day to treat them with respect and find consensual solutions and listen to them and affirm them and nurture them into strong, secure people who know it’s unacceptable for anyone to bully them, including me.
But I think about that woman still.
Maybe she was an emotional and psychological threat to her son, unfit and doing real damage.
Or maybe she was just a mom, on call alone and unsupported twenty-four hours a day for seven years, really, really needing a break.
Heidi Reimer's short fiction has appeared in Winner’s Circle Nine and Outcrops: Northeastern Ontario Short Stories. She's currently finishing a novel, and blogs about writing and mothering at www.emergencejourney.com. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two daughters.