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Sandy Banks

Confessions of Mothers Pushed to the Edge

August 01, 2000|Sandy Banks

My column last week on the Ohio woman videotaped dragging her unruly son through a department store clearly touched a nerve among readers. Most wrote to tell me they were chilled by the image on the newscasts . . . yet saw their own families reflected in the struggle of both captured child and captive mother. The woman was arrested for suspected child abuse after she pulled the preschooler down a store aisle by his shirt, appeared to pull on his ears to lift him from the ground, then carried him upside down from the store.

The videotape, I wrote, portrayed a parent's worst nightmare . . . the end result of the anger and frustration that can build in a parent weary of the struggle to peacefully contain the tyrannical nature of a small child.

In response, dozens of mothers confessed to feeling impatient, inadequate, undone, at times, by the demands of trying to teach their children to conform to behavior required by a public that insists we control our kids but condemns us when it disapproves of our means.

"I am disgusted at the self-righteous, condescending attitudes of the people who so harshly judge this woman . . . people who haven't a clue what it is like to try to remove 50 pounds of writhing, flailing rage from a public place, especially while juggling parcels, diaper bags and/or other children," e-mailed Cynthia Hamilton, a mother of two, including one "who can shatter glass with her screams."

I heard from women who might be considered child-rearing experts by virtue of their credentials, like the mother who once taught parenting classes, but quit "because I have one of those children who seems to keep me feeling lousy about my parenting."

And the professional marriage and family counselor, who has a master's degree in child development, but admitted that "nothing in my life has ever made me see red, lose control, feel so crazy as my children when they were young."

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Back in Ohio, the mother caught on tape has been released from jail while authorities decide whether to pursue the case. The local grand jury--after reviewing the entire videotape, including portions not shown on television--declined to indict her on felony charges, but misdemeanor charges are still a possibility.

The mother's lawyer said she has been stung by the publicity; the tape was shown around the world and media inquiries have come from as far away as Germany. Her son has attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, along with physical problems that affect his behavior, the lawyer said. Viewers are judging her actions without the context necessary to understand them, he said.

Some readers needed no context, contending that parents ought to be able to discipline their children as they see fit. It is our fear of legal sanctions and public disapproval that is producing a generation of violent, disrespectful kids, they said.

"That damn kid should have had his father let loose with a swift kick in the [butt]," e-mailed reader Dave Hall. "I don't say beat the kid to death, but 'no' is a complete sentence. . . . I'll give that mom money for a lawyer if she needs it."

Others were just as fervent in their condemnation of the mother.

"Just for the record, I found your article disgusting," one woman e-mailed. "I have talked with several mothers since this episode, and not one of us 'felt this mother's pain.' " And South Pasadena social worker Gerald Anderson said the mother hardly deserves our sympathy.

"Intentionally inflicting pain on a child is child abuse. . . . When women commit violent acts, there is a never-ending stream of apologists who try to make those acts seem reasonable."

Many readers detailed their own close calls with what some might consider abuse. Their confessions revealed a legion of mothers on the edge.

"I remember tugging one child's hair in line at the grocery store to stop her whining, with a fussy baby on my hip and feeling intense shame at the hard stare I received from the cashier," wrote the mother of "two grown-up, accomplished, well-adjusted daughters" who is often complimented "for doing such a good job raising my children."

She also remembers, "a day I left the baby in the car for five minutes while taking the other into the grocery store bathroom, and returned to find five or six women surrounding the car with concern and admonitions.

"My own shame taught me what I needed to know about poor mothering."

One reader spoke from the perspective of a child on the receiving end of a mother's anger.

"My mom would lose patience, a rage would fill her face and she would become a scary, out-of-control psycho," she e-mailed. "My sisters and I endured many of these episodes . . . I think we would have been happy if she had only dragged us by the shirt or ears.

"Now, as a mother myself, I know how she felt . . . No one can understand or explain it until you have experienced it."

Or, as Shelley Boothby of Los Angeles put it, with a touch a humor, "I am a mother of three and was an excellent mother, before I had children."

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