Sunday, October 21, 2007

The baby on the bus

When I got on the bus the other day I noticed a baby in a buggy. She was somewhere around eighteen months old. Her mum (I will assume as she seemed very much used to the child) was somewhere between sixteen and twenty. I get to see a lot of young mothers on the bus. I try my hardest not to be swayed by Daily Mail prejudices - and often see lots of lovely interaction. I am a baby watcher ever since we had kids of our own. I have a particular fascination with young toddlers. I love the way they are so inquisitive and also how they understand and communicate when they have little, or no, language.

This baby was sitting in a buggy facing me. We have mostly accessible buses now, with lots of space for buggies. Her mum was alongside her, facing me too, and staring out the window. She looked sad. Maybe she wasn’t, maybe she was just thinking, but she did look sad – gloomy. Her baby was just looking around for the start of the journey but after a while she grabbed her shoe and started to fiddle with the Velcro. The bus stopped for a little pause at the garage while the driver nipped out to the loo. She left the engine running but shut the doors. So we all sat there waiting. With a little cry of delight the baby ripped open the Velcro and waved her shoe in the air.

My heart was in my mouth at this point, nervous that her mum would be cross – it was an expensive looking branded trainer. But she wasn’t. She smiled and did a fake gasp of shock – and the baby smiled. The baby was happy for a while then. She tried to fit her shod foot into the other shoe, and found she couldn’t. Then she waved the shoe again and hurled it to the floor of the bus. The mum picked it up and I thought all would be well – a little game to pass the time. I looked out the window to see if the driver was coming. Suddenly there was an outraged scream. I looked back to see the baby, barefoot and furious, writhing in her buggy straps – tears running down her face. Her mum was tucking her two shoes into the top of the buggy.

We were all still waiting for the driver to return and the baby cried on. She pulled at her straps and her mum said:
“No! You’re not getting out.”
Baby screamed all the louder.

After a few minutes the driver came back and the bus went on. The baby’s cries became less angry and more sad – sobbing. She stopped for a moment when someone got up nearby and she watched them get off the bus. She looked over towards me. I was drinking some water from a clear plastic bottle. I held it up in the window, so the sun shone through it – and she watched that for a minute or two and stopped crying. But she was very sad, frustrated and tired too – yawning.

A few minutes later, as she cried on, her mum leaned into her face and said,
“Be quiet! You’re not getting out.”
The baby flung her head back against the buggy.

Then they got off.

I felt miserable, watching them go.

I don’t underestimate the challenges involved in taking your toddler on the bus. We didn’t do it often when P was little - we were nervous that we wouldn’t be able to keep our little mobile creature safe on the bus and she hated being confined. But sometimes we did. And, when Leo was little we went on the bus more often, because we had P and she couldn’t always walk where we needed to go.

Sometimes our little ones did get upset on the bus. If you’re a baby or toddler the bus is littered with tempting things you can’t have – other people’s shopping, dogs or hats. The floor is dirty and dangerous and you can’t crawl or toddle about. There are tempting red buttons on every pole and you mustn’t press them. But we had lots of strategies for managing.

The baby on the bus was clever to find something to do when she was fed up in her buggy. She had nothing in the way of toys, so she played with her shoes. Toddlers love shoes, don’t they? But when our kids were little we always had a bag with things in. When Leo was a similar age to the toddler I saw on the bus, he had an old mobile phone that he loved. He would take any mobile phone he could find (!) so we gave him an old, real one to play with. I can remember him sitting in his buggy, on the bus, pressing buttons and making calls. If all else failed I’d give a grumpy child my keys! Risky, but pretty much foolproof as a distraction. Later on we usually had a book or two. Leo had favourite illustrations that he would happily sit and study for ten minutes – mainly ones involving big teeth!

We also, always, had food and drink with us. I usually do now! But, especially when the kids were pre-verbal I was always aware that they might be hungry or thirsty. If anyone had been crying I always offered them some water. A little pot of chopped, mixed fruit is a fabby distraction. We always had rice cakes in the bag – and sometimes a whole meal worth of food, especially for P who was often too busy to eat at home.

But most of all, we communicated. If the bus was very quiet I might not talk out loud, but I was always communicating – looks and touches. P had quite of a lot of signs. If the child was old enough not to get down and wander off then I’d often stand them on my lap so they could see out the window – without dirtying the seat. I’d give them lots of warning about what was going to happen when we got off the bus. I’ve often seen children hysterical when they’re suddenly plonked back in a buggy and whisked off the bus, with no explanation. I think people often assume that a child who can’t talk can’t understand. I am often amazed at young toddlers who are following every word of what you say though they have maybe only three or four words of speech. Lots of telling about what will happen was great.

Of course, sometimes babies and toddlers will have unavoidable ‘do dahs’ as they are called in our house. I’m not a TCS mummy and there was never any way I was going to let my child crawl about the bus. And sometimes we needed to be on the bus – and that was just the way it was. If I couldn’t make the experience bearable then sometimes it just had to be endured – by all of us.

But the whole baby episode I saw the other day might well have been avoided, or calmed, with a few things done differently. I’m not a great fan of un-solicited advice. I know, full well, that if I’d suggested anything to that mum, in that moment, her likely reaction would have been one of indignation. I got the feeling that her insistence on a negative message to her child, “you’re NOT getting out”, was something that she was pursuing as an active strategy. It was like she had been advised, or had decided for herself, that her baby needed to accept an unexplained “No” from her. I think that a lot of people think that that is part of toddlerhood – that the baby will want things and you must resist those demands and show them that you are unshakeable.

I hate being witness to such interactions. I have sometimes tried smiling at the parent, in an encouraging way, but people tend to think you’re mad if you smile at them on the bus! Equally, I’ve interacted with the child, but that is often unwelcome too – parents can feel undermined. I’ve been told, “ignore him, he’s having a tantrum.” So, I don’t think there’s anything much you can do. What do other people think?


a said...

I think it's horribly hard and very sad.
Depending on my mood, in those situations, I will try and ignore the whole thing or go as far as interacting with the baby/toddler. F will also frequently respond to sad/frustrated babies/toddlers, trying to cheer them up, sometimes succeeding. Sometimes she can get away with it where I might not, as her reaction does not imply criticism of the mother, where mine might seem to.
I have also been there too though - I still don't manage to always have food and drink with me, after all these years. Maybe I should have a big list on the back of the door!

Liza said...

Maybe the mum was having a bad day? Maybe the baby once out of the buggy is a nightmare to get back in? Maybe she did have food/drink but it had been finished and there was none left to offer? Maybe she did have a toy for the baby but couldnt give it? Maybe it had been dropped in a muddy puddle or in dog poo before getting on the bus? Maybe its not fair to judge the mum after seeing her with her child just one time? Maybe its not fair to comment on her young age?

There are parents who are great with their kids at 16. There are also parents who are rubbish with their kids at 40.

I very often do not communicate with my child on the bus - I'm sure to an outsider it looks like I'm ignoring him. But he likes to read on the bus, he does not like to be interrupted while reading so I listen to my mp3.

Add that to the fact that I gave birth at 18. I'm also a moody cow who very often looks "gloomy". Does all of that equal bad mum?

Maybe she is being "horribly hard" But do we all get things perfectly right 100% of the time?

I often lose my temper and shout at mine, do you judge me on those few minutes of bad parenting? For the mistakes I make? For my inability to deal with certain situations?

I agree what you described does not sound nice - but you watched that mum and her child for a few minutes. You dont know how the mum is with her child all of the time.

a said...

I didn't mean the mum was being 'horribly hard' I meant the situation is horribly hard, seeing a child getting upset when it doesn't need to be, but I also said that yes, I had been there too and still forget to take with me the things that will make a journey easier.
Definitely not judging any mum on those few minutes, but thinking more about 'Should I help or ignore? Is there any way to help without annoying the other parent?' really. When people see you with your child, he clearly isn't upset or distressed, as you say he is reading and doesn't like to be interrupted.
I didn't think the point of the post was about judging the mother, so much as thoughts on travelling with kids really.

emma said...

blogging a response...


peri said...

When we were on Shetland there were two little tots on the bus that took us from Lerwick to Sumburgh - they were getting restless. A lady on the bus lent across and gave them each some paper and pens from her bag (she was a college student) the Mums knew her and the rest of the journey the two little uns and the three adults and us were amused at the kids delight to be be drawing on the bus. Ok they were older maybe 2 or 3 but it just shows how a little thought can stop some travel whinges.
I have also resorted to keys and stuff when J was little but normally found cuddles and pointing things out - little chats even when he didn't understand worked wonders - I have even in desperate times sung to him - sod what other people thought - he laughed and we were happy on our travels.

Dani said...

Allie's gone to bed with a migraine, so she can't comment tonight, but I can assure you she is not one to judge a person on a few minutes' observation. I think her original post was careful not to do that, as was Ali's first comment.

I think Allie's bad feeling about this particular situation on the bus was caused by our extreme reluctance, as a society, to properly talk about parenting, in such a way as to really offer each other support. The world seems to be awash with well meaning/bossy/expert advice for parents of babies and young children, but very little in the way of real conversation and understanding of how difficult it can be when your baby is crying on the bus/tantruming in the supermarket/refusing to leave the soft play room, etc etc. We've all been there, and we've all handled it badly in our time and felt judged by the people around us.

I've certainly been on the receiving end of unpleasant assumptions by strangers. Scroll to the end of this blog post for an account of a particularly bizarre incident a couple of years ago. I've also been the one sticking my nose in where it wasn't wanted - I really got my head bitten off the other day when I informed a father - with the very best of intentions - what was making his daughter cry. I thought he hadn't seen her toy buggy roll into the road... Anyway, I got a right earful - clearly, he thought I was judging him.

I think it's a real shame that we can't help each other out a bit more. But I've got no better idea than anyone else about how to do that.

Allie said...

Ok, I'm vertical but may not make much sense.

Liza, certainly the mum might have been having a bad day - we've all been there. I did mention the mum's age but specifically to point out that I often see young mums and babies having a good time. This time, I didn't.

I never said - and never would - that she was a bad mum. That is just the sort of assumption that strikes us all dumb when we might be able to help each other out. The only option left to us is to be silent. I hate the way that that makes me complicit in a child's misery - and an adult's too.

Maybe nothing would help but I do wish that we more relaxed about helping each other out. In other countries adults all play with kids and no-one turns a hair. When Leo was a baby he was once tickled for ages on the tube by an Italian woman. He loved it! Can you imagine anyone in this country feeling relaxed enough to do such a thing?

Frankly, I think we live in a very up tight culture when it comes to children. That was what this post was about - how we can't say or do anything to create a more child positive culture, for fear of being deemed 'interfering'.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Allie. People in this country ARE too uptight. My hubby is a great dad who always has physical contact with our kids when talking to them, even a brush on their head in passing is normal for them. When we're out he's always the one to make a funny face etc at kids on the bus/train. Sometimes he does get funny looks from the parents and that makes him sad. We were in town this weekend, very busy shop, child crying for it's mum. Hubby takes child by the hand to lead her to tills to ask for help. Child's mother intercepts, grabs child calls hubby a pervert and rushes out of shop!! Shop staff were so surprised at the mother's reaction, they'd seen whole scene play out and were disgusted at the mother's behaviour. Needless to say, hubby was gutted and said he felt awful for trying to be kind. Society today SUCKS.

Gill said...

Allie, I thought you were blogging quite kindly about the mum on the bus, FWIW! Different people read things in different ways, I suppose.

Intervening or being helpful as a bystander in other people's family relationships is decidedly dodgy territiry though, isn't it? It is frustrating because as an observer you can often see ways in which things could easily be solved and sometimes people appear to be stuck for want of, perhaps, the very solution you might have to offer.

I've been in the parent-in-question situation though, as well as the observer one (as we all probably have) and my tentative conclusion, on balance, is that unsolicited help would never be a good idea. Erm.. probably! ;-)

I think the chances are that the parent was aware of alternatives but had her reasons that day, at that time, for not employing them. I think that's usually the case - I know it has been for me from time to time. And it's possible to feel a person's judgmental thoughts, isn't it? Even if they don't say anything. You can feel someone watching and you just know, somehow, what they're thinking about your parenting - that you should or could be doing such-and-such and... well, it doesn't help, even though they're probably meaning it in a very helpful and kind way.

I probably would intervene if a child was being physically hurt by its parent though - but even then I'd weigh up the options very carefully, because my intervention might make things worse for the child later.

But yes, I think there's a very good reason that we don't usually feel comfortable about contributing advice when we're in the observer position.

Gill said...

I can spell territory, grrrr!

Allie said...

I am sure that some people do *not* know of/believe in a positive alternative. I guess most people do, and if they don't offer positive input then that's because they can't at that moment, for whatever reason. I've certainly been there myself - just too tired, ill or stressed to do the right thing. That's life, I guess.

But I was once in a parenting group with someone who was, genuinely, clueless about what could be expected from her toddler. She thought that a child of two could just be told something once - and would remember and obey forever. When child endangered herself she 'needed' to be smacked 'so she would remember next time'. That's not about having a bad day with a child, that is just about crazy ideas about children! We had good friends when P was a baby who thought that a child of nine months could 'learn' not to touch the wrapped parcels under the Christmas tree if he was 'tapped on the hand'. Just loopy if you ask me... Judgemental, me??

Gill said...

ROFL! Me too then! Yeah, that's definitely what I call loopy *rolls eyes*

Di said...

It's so hard isn't it. I have definitely been in situations when I *knew* what I should have done was to have had some food/drink/things to entertain with me, but for whatever reason I didn't. I wonder if there's a dynamic that makes these situations much worse in public. When out in public we (parents) tend to be really conscious of being watched, which can make people, especially if they're not confident about their parenting, or aware of being in a group who is likely to be judged ('young mother'?), react to their children in inflexible ways that can make situations worse (like the mother on the bus seemed to do). I don't know what we can do about it ... making it clear that you're observing what's going on can be counter-productive!

emma said...

I was at the park quite recently and there was a boy crying for a drink, with the parent/grandparent/whoever it was saying "we don't have any, and it's not time to go to the cafe yet" or some such. He was so unhappy - crying with thirst - and quite old - maybe as much as 8 or 9. I went over and gave him my water bottle saying "here, it's clean, you need it more than we do". He had several huge gulps, and ran off to play.

That's the sort of intervention one should do. If the carer chooses to look daggers at the implied criticism rather than swoon with gratitude, that's their look out.

Liza said...

I re-read the post this morning and realised I took what you said completely the wrong way, but was rushing out to MMs and didnt have time to reply.
as I said at group, some silly judgemental woman recently gave me her very much unwanted opinion on my sons mood. she doesnt know me or my child at all apart from occasionally seeing us at the bus stop by my house where she regularly comments negatively on our decision to home ed. recently she saw him looking upset at the bus stop and decided he was depressed because of course he never sees any other children. so I think I was a bit over sensitive and jumped to the (wrong) conclusion that you were commenting on the mums parenting skills or lack of. my apologies for my comment. (will read 25 times before posting next time to make sure I have read and understood correctly!)

Allie said...

I reckon Di is right - being watched probably makes it worse. I shall just turn up my mp3 player a notch and look out the window next time! Well, I would if I could find it. I'm having to use an old alternative. Whoever decided that smaller was better never lost anything in our messy house.

a said...

Have a hug Liza, see you Monday with balloons!
Allie - so agree about small things. Can't find my phone at the moment

Sharon said...

When I'm out with my autistic son, I feel that we're being watched and judged sometimes. I may be imagining it, but I do hear the odd tut at times. I can screen strangers out though when I need to, and have a list of handy come-backs in stock, should anyone ever make a rude statement. I've not had to do this yet!
I've also been in the position of watching other mums struggle with their children and not known how to offer support.

Lucy said...

I think it's always really interesting catching a glimpse of someone elses life and most of us can look on with sympathy at a Mum struggling in a situation because however you parent a toddler is still a toddler and still does toddlerish things at the most inconvenient times.

Lucy said...

Oh sorry, I know that should've said parent instead of Mum. I'm really rubbish at remembering stuff that doesn't relate directly to me.

Leo said...

It's a bit sad, but don't dramatise things like this too much. There's so much evil done to children in the world, this is nothing comparing.

I was a Maya Wrap and TCS mummy then, no pushchairs or unwanted bus rides ever. I always had toys and milky boobs and etc.

Leo said...

Emma, that was nice. I really don't get "it's not time for a drink yet." Wtf was that?

I don't like verbal criticism and confrontations with people, but I'm always grateful when someone coaches me for my failures with gestures of kindness for my kid, like offering a snack or borrowing the cellphone with games and etc.

'EF' said...

My heart bled for the mum, the toddler and for Allie reading this. All helpless in the situation, all hostages on a slow bus ride!

Travelling with one kid was an adventure for me and I always had stuff ready to make more of the journey when I could (snacks, books etc). But when I had two kids together it was often so bad on the buses that I would be nearly destroyed by the exeriences. Willow was a great one for screaming his head off and there was really nothing I could do to stop it happening..I think it was claustrophobic for him not only being strapped into a buggy (or onto me) and stationary on a moving bus.

What was so horrendous was the comments and vibes I got off others..sometimes they were just so over the top and I never had the time to explain that my son basically couldn't 'help' it. I was shouted at, insulted and ordered about. I was looked at as a failing mother I am sure (and what was said) and he was looked at as a monster kid.

I am so glad all that is behind me.

I would have been glad of Allie on the bus as side camarade though, what always helped was if someone DID get involved because they liked kids, could see I was totally knackered and wanted to make the journey go better.

I've approached women on the verge of a nervous breakdown with their kids on public transport before now and been told to bugger off, but I'd keep doing it because it's just not worth pretending any kid is always someone else's responsibility..we're in this together...I like to reaffirm that whenever possible, and I appreciate it when I am reassured of that myself.