Stranger Anxiety

“Ooooh, anxiety! You win!”
– Mel Brooks, “High Anxiety”

Parents of babies and young toddlers know all about the inevitable phase of social awkwardness known as stranger anxiety. Your little one may be fine one moment but bursts into tears when a well-meaning stranger walks by and says hi. Then comes the flustered explanations and frantic attempts to calm your baby down. Some people are nonplussed by such reactions from babies, but most are usually understanding and do not take it personally.

This post, however, isn’t about your baby’s sudden penchant for familiarity. It’s actually about you and your anxiety about strangers when taking your little one into a public space.

All the World’s a Stage
I’ve been reading a lot of articles– both on normal news websites and parenting websites– about young children in public spaces. Out of habit, I read the comments, too. I know the Internet tends to bring out the garrulous gab-monster even in the shyest of people. But what I read absolutely mortified me. Here are some examples:
– “I hate it when a kid starts crying in a restaurant. Be a REAL parent and stay home. Or get a babysitter. Leave the kid at home.”
– “Parents need to do some actual parenting when their kids act up. If they were real parents, their kids wouldn’t be acting up.”
– “It really bothers me when I hear a parent trying to chastise their kid. I mean, really? You’re in a public place! And I hate it when people don’t do anything when their kid starts crying or acting out.”
– “I’m here to enjoy myself. Just because you have a kid doesn’t mean we all have to suffer through it with you. Not all of us think your kid is cute. You’re encroaching on my life and my time.”

That’s quite enough. As much as people love to insert the argument that you and your child have permanently damaged the zen of their individual lives, they will not hesitate to watch you and then comment on your life, what you’re doing and how you’re going about it. Parents often find themselves between a rock and a hard place of opposing opinions. Some people frown on parents when they attempt to chastise their children, while others think that if a parent hasn’t quieted a baby in two seconds, then they obviously aren’t doing enough. One thing many people seem to agree on, however, is the assumption that parents are in complete and utter control of their child, like there’s a button you press to just shut children down when they begin to “malfunction.” There’s also the common assumption that parents are no longer human beings in need of fresh air, human contact and social activities. Parents are “bad” if they want to go out to eat and, perhaps, help the little one socialize a little.

Humans tend to be voyeuristic by nature. The proliferation of reality shows is proof enough. And don’t get me started on rubberneckers on the freeway. People just like watching things (especially something with the potential for drama) happen to other people. Moreover, people feel entitled to give you their judgment based on what they see– much like if they were discussing last week’s episode of Jersey Shore. Well-meaning bystanders do exist: those who catch the vibe that something’s up and want to offer what help or constructive, actionable advice they can. But they’re usually also not the ones sitting back and browsing through people, thinking, “What will they do next?!” and mentally weighing their victim on the Parent-O-Meter.

Going out with a baby can be daunting enough with making sure the diaper bag is fully stocked and prepared for any baby-related incident, plus making sure you keep in line with your baby’s schedule. Add an audience who may or may not lack inhibitions and/or scruples, the sheer terror is enough to make any former social butterfly throw the locks on their cocoon.

Take It Outside
When our daughter acted up in public for the first time, my husband and I had no ideas on how to handle the situation, our brains locked up with embarrassment. I think we eventually just asked for take-out boxes and the check then bolted. We joked about it with our friends on World of Warcraft later that night and gained some incredibly helpful insight from them. This is the magic of gaming and befriending people who also happen to be parents of young children or remember what it was like being the parent of a young child.

They all agreed on one thing: Remove yourself and your child away from the environment. Although they never overtly said it, this also means escaping the prying eyes and minds of everyone else who might be in the vicinity. This gives your child a chance to focus on you and for you to focus solely on your child. One couple swears by taking their preschool son to the bathroom for serious talking-to’s, the epitome of a private space in a public scene. If that’s not an option or the weather permits, go outside. Being indoors (and being stuck indoors) can be stifling, causing minor attacks of claustrophobia and may actually be what’s bothering your kidlet. Sometimes the lack of walls and a ceiling and actual fresh air might do the trick.

Especially with babies and younger toddlers (ones who don’t fully comprehend speech and reason yet), crowds and close spaces can be bothersome to the absorbent but low-capacity baby brain. You’d think that with so many people talking in a restaurant, the amount of white noise would actually be comforting to a baby. Not so. Imagine that you’re programmed to hone in on every spoken word you hear. Now imagine doing that in a place where there’s forty or more people, all talking at once. That’s why the change of scenery by itself can be comforting. And sometimes, a change of scenery means seeing something new. Your baby might get distracted with a new sight and completely forget what she was upset about altogether.

And for you, the anxious and befuddled, troubleshooting parent? Just getting away from everything else is probably enough for you to begin thinking clearly again. Take a couple of deep breaths if you can. Without anyone meddling (or the potential of anyone meddling), the pressure is off of you to get the situation under control in two seconds or less. If your baby is in need of a “scream and cry and rough it out” venting session, the bathroom mirror or parking lot won’t terribly mind that you haven’t gotten her to quiet down yet– even after five minutes.

Pushing the Ignore Button
The most important thing is for you, dear parent, to be confident. Gird yourself with the assurance that you will probably not have to see the majority of these naysayers ever again. Therefore, their words mean little or nothing. In the virtual world, that equates to putting someone on ignore. It’s easier said than done but it must be done. You cannot go through life dreading every public situation you might come across. And there’s absolutely no way you can predict what your baby will do next.

You know what you’re doing. You know what’s best for you and your baby. And, most importantly, you can only control what you are doing and can do. The other people will take care of themselves.

This past Mother’s Day, we went out for breakfast during the golden time between the baby’s breakfast and lunch times, fresh from a good night’s sleep and everything. Near the end of the meal, my daughter started to fuss– suddenly not liking any food that was given to her, looking anxious. And then she screeched. A single, piercing note held for two seconds. We felt the entire restaurant turn their heads, swiveling around to see what caused such an animal noise. In the split second pause between the screech and the start of tears, we had unbuckled her from her highchair and my husband whisked her away to the parking lot. After five to ten minutes, they came back in, seemingly becalmed and happy. But the moment they sat down again, the baby whined and revved up for another scream. So I took my turn and went out to the parking lot with her and stayed out there watching cars and birds while my husband finished tying up loose ends. Aside from a few sympathetic, “I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there before. Don’t give up,” looks, no one paid much additional attention to us or the human ticking time bomb.

Situation defused. Mission accomplished.


About Toriah the Mom

Mom, quasi-librarian, gamer, writer
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