I’m in Iowa filming TV. Tonight, the editorial team and several of our guests went out to dinner.
Halfway through the day, I began to feel poorly due to my excavated intestines. I therefore didn’t eat much and had the opportunity to visit the ladies’ room at the restaurant several times over the course of our dinner. On one of those visits, something awful happened.
I was in the furthest stall from the entrance when I heard the door open. Laid out in a kind of “L” shape, I’m sure the bathroom appeared empty. Ambient noise from the restaurant slipped in and then faded as the door gently closed. The moment that it had, I heard the unmistakable sound of someone being slapped across the face.
A brief pause. Then an intake of air, and a child’s wail came high, high off the mountain and down into a deep, anguished sob. Confusion and shock and pain came crashing down in a tidal wave in a bathroom in Des Moines, IA.
“What is wrong with you?!” a woman’s voice hissed. And there was a tussle, a shake.
My rage came up fast from my legs to the very bottom of my throat. It stopped at my throat because I was speechless with horror and disgust for the slapper and an almost frantic need to console the child and take her into my arms.
I burst out of the stall the moment the two were going into the first. Their door shut. As I passed them, slowly, I could see the child now sitting on the toilet with the mother standing over her. Her scuffed up sneakers were dangling off the side of the toilet. Even now, I can see their little velcro straps.
My jaw was clenched so tight I might’ve shattered all my teeth.
“Where did you learn to make faces like that at Mommy?” the woman asked, now with a sticky, simpering tone in her voice. She screwed up, see. She thought the bathroom was empty. Now that she knew someone was there and had heard her hit her kid in the face, she was a little nicer.
The child wept. Plaintive, pathetic weeping. She was trapped. I stood at the sink and looked through my reflection in the mirror. I had to do something. I had to.
Once again I find myself, a single woman with no children, opining about parenting. I realize there’s a lot I don’t know about raisin’ up a chile; most ideals and proclamations about how I’ll do it someday are so much talking. But the argument that I know zero about childrearing because I presently have no children goes only so far. I am a human, and children are humans, so I’m qualified to take a position. You can’t be angry when you punish a kid, goddamnit. You calm yourself down, you get a hold of yourself, and then you figure out the negative consequences for that kid’s bad behavior. Never, ever punish out of anger. Is this not true? Is this not a stance I can take now, as a woman who has yet to hold her own baby?
So I’m standing at the sink in the bathroom, mentally eviscerating this kid-hitting woman four feet from me, and I remember a story my friend Lisa told about a similar situation she found herself in. She was on the subway in New York and this guy was roughing up his girlfriend. Really talking menacingly to her and smacking her around. Lisa was enraged. She was panicking. She needed to stop it, to say something to the guy. But she didn’t. Ultimately, she didn’t because, as she had to so horribly reason out, it might’ve made it worse for the woman later. The monster on the subway was maybe at 60%; at home, after an altercation on the train, would he hit 79%? 90% monster? What will monsters do at full capacity? Lisa burned and was quiet and told the story to me later, as upset at the time of telling me as she was that day on the train.
No, I wouldn’t speak. I wouldn’t make it worse for that little girl when she got to the comfort — the comfort — of her own home. But then I did do something. Something else that took me as much by surprise as I hope it took the monster.
Alone with them there in the bathroom, I smacked my right hand against my left. Loud. I made perfect contact with the one hand on the other: a loud crack sounded in the bathroom, bouncing off the tile and the linoleum. The talking in the first stall stopped. The sniffling ceased. I could almost see the confusion on the woman’s face and the “Wha?” on the kid’s.
I waited for total silence and then I did it again: crack! A crisp, violent sound.
In that moment, I might as well have been a professional sound effects person, paid thousands to come into a recording studio to capture the exact sound of someone being smacked across the face. Luck was on my side; if I tried to make that sound just so, right now, I might not be able to do it. But tonight, it was exactly what I needed it to be.
The slap hung in the air like a gun had been shot. I could tell no one in that first stall was breathing. The mother was surely, totally weirded out. The daughter, I don’t know, but at least for that moment her nasty mother wasn’t in charge. Of anything. I sent a silent, psychic message of love and hope to the little girl and then left the bathroom.
I had to run this story past my mom. Until I did, I wasn’t sure if my slap sounds were completely insane or if they were effective in breaking the evil spell that had entered the ladies’ room. Mom, who cried with me when I told her about hearing that little girl get hit, said she thought it was a great move. So there you go. We have an actual parent weighing in on how to do these things.
Don’t hit your kid in the face. That’s just a suggestion. But here’s another one: if you choose to hit your kid in the face in a public place, you are in my world. And my world might be kinda weird, but your kid is safer with me than she is with you.