I was at the park when I began to feel unwell. Just me, the conscientious preschooler and the toddler who can best be described as a berserk, raccoon-human hybrid. We were in the middle of a perfect day, laying under a big tree on a blanket, reading books. Then suddenly ... Mama is sick. Mama needs to find the restroom stat. My internal monologue started to whir:

“What to do with the kids? I definitely can’t leave them under the tree. The two-year-old will be halfway to St. Louis by the time I come back. Besides, I don’t trust all the adults we meet at the park. Likewise, I can’t bring them into the restroom with me. He’ll touch and possibly taste every bathroom fixture in there and still flee to St. Louis before I can be done puking. I definitely cannot be sick right here behind a tree. The parks department would frown on that. I could leave them in the car... doors locked, engine running, the air conditioner on full blast, strapped tightly into their car seats, with my cell phone in conscientious kid’s hands, reading their books and munching on fruit snacks.”

“No. I can’t.”

This is the stuff of mom horror stories.

Police were summoned to 1234 Maple St. today for a report of child endangerment and abandonment. Children in an unattended vehicle appeared slightly chilled and/or hungry. After breaking the window to free them, mother was located doubled over in the adjacent restroom, booked, and taken to the pokey. Bail is set at three trillion dollars. May God have mercy on her soul.”

That’s a joke, but these are not.

“Mom Facing Jail Time After Letting Son, 3, Pee in Public.”

“Mom Investigated by Child Services for Letting Kids Play in the Backyard.”

“Another Maryland Mom Arrested: She Let Daughter, 10, Wait in Car with Baby Sister for 10 Mins”

On that day at the park, I realized I was in an impossible situation. Every place in town I could go, everywhere within reach, fell into one of two categories:

1.    I cannot bring my kids here. Either the environment or the people are patently unsafe.

2.    This place is reasonably safe for my kids. But not really, because they could be intercepted by someone nosy. Either someone who genuinely means well (this category is small), someone with a savior complex (this category is medium-sized) or someone who would like to punish our family for transgressing social norms (this category is large.)

We should have just stayed home, right?

Families, and especially mothers with small children, are increasingly being forced out of the public square. They are restricted to the most tightly confined and controlled  environments, subject to the most hostile judgments, and encouraged not to show themselves at all in one of a million public places. If you’re not perfect—if your kids are loud, rough-and-tumble, “too independent” or have special needs — stay home. If you get in a bind or have an emergency, forget about it. If you make a mistake, get ready to be punished, either by society or the law. It happens at restaurants, at the park, at the store, even at church. I have heard the criticisms come from men, women, old, young, even other mothers. All over. Even in our county.

Our society’s children are safer now than they’ve ever been, in the land of supervised play dates and child leashes and mothers who never leave their kids, not even for a second, not even to be sick. But at what cost? What does it mean to tell a mother she should not be in public with her children unless they all achieve social perfection and absolute safety? What happens when parents lose their identities in their children and children lose their identities in their parents? What kind of a future do we create when children are never alone, when parents are never alone, when noise and wild play are forbidden, when perfect childhood is a nuisance and imperfect motherhood is a crime?

I don’t know where the lines are, what the answers are, or how we fix it. But the next time you see a struggling mother with a screaming child, or a kid who appears to be unsupervised for a short time, stop and think before you act:

“What kind of world do I want to create for all of us?”

Contributing Columnist

Liz Schleicher is a wife, stay-at-home-mother, writer and rare cancer survivor.

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