The waiting room

May 20,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Twice a month I take L., to an appointment about 40 minutes from home. It's a public health service-type of place, connected to a hospital, and we go there because, frankly, it's the only place we've found (the hard way) that helps kids with the mental side of things AND that takes our insurance. Lots of people use that place; I have logged many hours in the waiting room people-watching and being a somewhat reluctant participant in many conversations; I have to admit, too, that I've spent quite a bit of time passing judgment as well. I think we parents--moms in particular--often judge ourselves for passing judgment on others, particularly when it comes to parenting. I used to feel badly about this--about witnessing acts of what I would call "bad parenting" and wincing inside, fighting the urge to stand up and correct the horrors I witnessed. And please let me clarify that by "bad" I mean things like public spanking, downgrading a child in front of others, feeding a two-year old a can of Mountain Dew--such transgressions (and I've seen all of these in that waiting room and more, let me tell you). A friend put it well not long ago, though, when she offered up the idea that by judging others we are reaffirming what we should and shouldn't do as parents--that we are touching base with our own value systems and acknowledging that they are satisfactorily in place. Sometimes we can use the moment to question our own perceptions, too, and this is healthy, and can yield much wisdom. Yesterday I sat in the grubby waiting room, waiting for our excellent doctor--the one who is overworked and ever-patient. I sat with T. and watched her play with some equally grubby dolls that live in a plastic bin (also grubby) in the room. Before long a young boy bounced in, followed by a very old, very bent-over grandmother. She had a pretty pink cardigan on, and sensible shoes, glasses, big silver square earrings, pinkish capri pants and her hair was nicely curled. She seemed refreshingly out of place in that room. I smiled at her. Before long she was sucked into T.'s games, as all people are when they watch her long enough and I fell to watching her playing with T. I saw only a sweet old grandmother, maybe pining away for a granddaughter of her own, or thinking about the days when she had a small, spirited daughter like T. But then, as I observed the woman, the picture shifted. I noticed that on one of her legs there was a large tattoo of Tweety Bird, and those silver earrings? A square bluetooth nestled in the one ear. I wanted to hug the lady. Because I know that behind most of what I witness in waiting rooms like that one--behind short-tempered spankings and ugly tongue lashings and poor attention to a child's needs--is a story, and very sad one at that. There's a story I shirk from wanting to know, even if it's staring me in the face, making me squirm, making me look away and pretend I believe in the power of invisibility to fix all wrongs. But there was definitely a whole other kind of story behind that old woman, and I wanted to know it.