The Mommy Vortex: Why Do We Have To Be So Mean?
For reasons I cannot fully explain, I’ve wanted to believe that cruelty and mean behavior magically evaporate after high school graduation. I’m wrong. Adults can also be pretty mean—and our kids are watching our every step. How can we expect our children to be kind when we, as adults, sometimes choose not to be?
It was a typical busy weekday when I decided to squeeze in one more errand before returning home. I had already picked up my kids from school after work, and both were chattering happily in the backseat when we found ourselves in an unexpected traffic jam. As I approached the entrance to the shopping center, I noticed that oncoming traffic was coming to a stop due to a red light.
As I was about to make a left into the shopping center, a young woman traveling in the opposite direction pulled her car in front of the parking lot entrance and blocked the driveway to all cars trying to enter, including mine. I briefly wondered if she didn’t realize she blocked the entrance—the light was red, after all, and she couldn’t move anyway—when she proceeded to open her window and flash her middle finger to all of us sitting in traffic.
Of course, I became flushed with anger, and I was outraged by her insensitive and cruel behavior. Why would someone deliberately make another person’s life harder for no apparent reason?
Then I noticed her toddler sucking her thumb in her car seat, and before I uttered any regrettable words, I remembered my own two sitting behind me in their seats. My older one saw what this woman did. After I dodged his questions as to what the gesture meant, he astutely asked me, “Mom, why do you think she’s acting so mean?”
It was a good question. I had no idea what her day was like, even what her life was like. Not that anything should justify such behavior—but sometimes bad news or a stressful situation explains this type of behavior even if it doesn’t entirely excuse it. And yet, all I could think about was that toddler in the backseat who, like my own children, was witnessing calculated, nasty behavior.
How would that child grow up to treat other people kindly if she herself didn’t witness kindness or experience it in some way? Worse, would the child ever learn or understand which behaviors were actually cruel? And how could she ever analyze the difference?
I told two friends of mine about this incident, and they reminded me from their own recent experiences that many adults—especially other women—are still quite mean to each other, long after the days of high school cliques are over. And I had to agree with them: I still witness unkind behavior on an almost daily basis.
I watch the moms at my kids’ school, how some talk in a small group circle, literally physically excluding other moms from their conversation. I hear others gossiping unkindly about their “friends.” I watch as adults push each other on the street or in the supermarket to get somewhere faster. And I myself have been guilty of not inviting others to a group event, which is inexcusable.
This type of behavior makes me angry in the same way it made me angry in grammar and high school. And it makes me wonder if we adults are more culpable in creating bullies and mean kids than we actually think we are.
Children learn from their parents and from other adults around them. They notice when we speak unkindly about another person; they notice our body language and our demeanor when we are reticent to include someone in our conversation or dinner plans. They notice if we don’t hold a door for someone behind us and if we cut someone off on the road. They notice it all. And if we adults are not kind to one another, how can we really expect our kids to be kind to their peers?
I didn’t react (outwardly, anyway) to that mean woman who deliberately blocked the shopping center’s entrance and punctuated her mean behavior with a foul hand gesture. I did not want to give credibility to her actions. Instead, I explained to my son that some people aren’t nice—for reasons we’ll never understand—but that we should always try to be kind to others. He said he didn’t think that was fair . . . and to some extent, he’s right.
But at that moment, I refused to be one more adult giving children an example of unkind behavior, justified or not. As my blood boiled inwardly, I took the high road and uttered a prayer for that toddler in the woman’s car. Hopefully one day, that child—and my own children—will choose to be kind more often than not. Maybe these kids will even stand up for others. My hope is that if my children continually witness acts of kindness, they will realize that even one small, kind action can change a bad day or a bad situation, or maybe even save a life.
I carefully reminded my son that kindness is not to be equated with weakness. It is actually empowering. And we adults, by our words, actions, and examples have the power to teach the next generation that kindness matters.
Rosemarie Coppola-Baldwin is a practicing attorney and a dedicated mother of a two children. A Georgetown University graduate, Rosemarie has practiced law at a major New York City law firm and for the City of New York. Rosemarie has been a guest lecturer on women’s civil rights and related legal issues at St. John’s University (New York), and offers pro bono legal services to a variety of entities.