I’m writing to you from the comfort of my room, where a gentle light illuminates my haven. My bed is soft, my tea is hot, and the day is almost over. All three kids are asleep, papa is gently snoring, and mama’s hour has begun. I have my earphones in; I’m listening to The Civil Wars, and I take a deep breath. Today was exhausting, and the backs of my eyes have hurt since 3pm.
When you read this, my today will be your yesterday, and to be honest, I am ready for today to be tomorrow.
“What happened?” You may ask. Well this is actually how I feel most nights, but today I am especially exhausted. It was a rushed morning where I had to pack everyone up, drop off baby V, and meet a friend at the park. I’ve had several busy days in a row, and although I would have liked to just stay home, the twins needed to get out.
I recently found this very quiet park, the same one referenced in Potty Training – The Poopocalypse, and it’s specifically for small children. I really enjoyed this because I didn’t have to worry about my kids running into a swinging child or one of my girls trying to eat another kid’s snack. I think busier environments provide wonderful opportunities for growth and boundary learning, but I just wanted an easy morning.
We were at the park about 30 minutes when a man approached us from the street. He looked unkempt in his misaligned clothing layers, smudged Dickie shorts, uneven socks, and worn out shoes. He wore a cap that he kept adjusting: a seemingly nervous tick for a nervous mind. When he smiled, I could see at least two broken front teeth. He reached out his arm and advanced towards my children, “I have a flower for your beautiful daughter.” I approached him carefully, unsure why a man in his 40s or 50s, would be at a park without a child in tow.
I was using all of my therapeutic training to assess the man in front of me, in an attempt to understand why he made me feel so uncomfortable. I also needed to determine if he was an actual threat. It was a perfect example of a human classifying the unfamiliar to feel empowered by establishing a sense of control and order. So I began to examine his attire, hygiene appearance, and general demeanor. My first instinct was that he may be intoxicated or homeless, which does not make him a threat per se, but I wanted to ascertain if he was in a coherent, reliable state. Was he simply a kind, childlike man offering my girls a pretty flower? As our conversation continued, I noticed he wasn’t slurring his words; he was steady on his feet, and his clothes appeared to be in better shape than they had presented from a distance.
Although my instincts were on edge, I decided he was not an immediate threat. I accepted the flower, with a quick “Thank you,” and turned away trying to end the conversation with my body language. I let the girls look at the flower, as I thought it was for both of them.
“Give it to that one,” I heard behind me. He was pointing at R. Most people notice that I have twins, but his intense interest in only one of my girls was slightly alarming. Why was he singling out one of my children for his attention? And there was just something about his gaze. It was piercing and unsettling; I didn’t like the way he was looking at my daughter.
Unsure of how to handle the situation, I gave R the flower. He asked me her name and tried to engage us in conversation. I gave short answers and kept my body language closed off. He just had the feeling of someone unaware of social cues, but as things progressed, he seemed like someone who also didn’t care.
He began to drift down towards the street, but he kept staring at us and talking. He would pause as if done, and then continue with another question. Each time, I repeated myself saying, “Thank you. Have a good day.” The girls simply stared at him the entire time, and they didn’t say a word, which is odd for them. The are gregarious and smiley by nature. And although he was still not technically a threat, he wasn’t leaving. I finally just fully turned my back to him, and looked at my friend with wide eyes. What are we going to do?
He raised his voice behind me, “Am I making you uncomfortable?” I could feel my body tensing up. He was beginning to escalate. I took a deep breath and turned around, using my most patient, calming voice, “Actually yes. I’m feeling uncomfortable.”
He began to walk toward me, growing taller as he brought his hands to his chest and then raising them above his head. His voice became louder, “Why are you scared of me??”
“I’m not scared. I’m feeling uncomfortable because you’re a stranger.”
He threw up his hands in exasperation “No. I live right over there.” He jabbed the air at a house across the street. “A lot of people are scared of me.”
Keeping my voice soft, kind, but firm, “Well, we don’t know you. You’re a stranger to us.”
At this point, I was making different escape plans in my head because he felt unstable and possibly volatile. He continued to make comments about how people are always scared of him. Now if I had had him in a therapy room as a client, I’m sure my sense of alarm would have been significantly lower; however, I had my 2 year old twins with me, and any exit strategy I came up with would be difficult to execute. This was especially true because he was positioned in between us and our car, and there was no one around to help us, if he became threatening.
Thankfully, he began strolling down towards the street, and I exhaled the breath I’d been holding. I relaxed my shoulders and hung my head.
“Jacque, he’s staring at us.”
I looked up at my friend, “What?”
She nodded her head discretely toward the street. He had sat down on the sidewalk, pulled out a cigarette, and locked his eyes on us. “Should we leave?” my friend whispered.
“Yes. I want to leave, but he’s right by our cars.” I also did not want to provoke him further by making a hurried exit or giving him another opportunity to engage us in conversation. So I said calmly to the girls, “Let’s go finish our snack on the bench over there.” Once we got to the bench, I asked my friend to keep an eye on him, while I turned my back and called my husband, Yev, to come meet us at the park. I kept my voice low, so the man couldn’t hear us, and calm, so the girls would stay relaxed.
While waiting for Yev, we took our time finishing snacks (to keep the girls occupied) and quickly packed up the bag (to be ready for a speedy exit). Once done with his cigarette, we saw the man stand up and head towards the aforementioned house. He appeared to be gardening or interacting with the flowers and bushes in some way, and then before Yev got there, he was gone. I did not see him enter a house. He simply disappeared.
I was pretty shaken after the incident, and although nothing really happened, a lot could have happened. A parent’s fear lives in the “What if?” I had experienced my first moment of near panic for my children’s safety. Maybe he was a child predator, mentally ill, or inebriated, but upon reflection, I would describe him as lonely and wounded. He turned out to be relatively harmless, but I didn’t know that in the moment. We were alone, without a single person around us if we needed help. I experienced the heart pounding, stomach dropping, breath restricting encounter that every mom dreads. There are few visceral reactions quite like a mother protecting her child, and it is not a feeling I wish to experience again.
Next time, I’ll be going to a slightly busier park where there is enough traffic to call for aid, and I will always have someone with me, at least until my children are older. Having a friend brought comfort and confidence that we could handle anything that came our way.