I Watched A Mother Hit Her Child And I Did Nothing

Photo: Octa corp / Shutterstock
mother and son in waiting room

Yesterday, in the early evening, I took my eleven-year-old daughter to a vaccination site in Times Square. I had already scheduled an appointment for the following afternoon at a nearby pharmacy, but then she would not be eligible to receive the city’s gift of a $100 debit card.

She is terrified of getting shots, working herself into a tearful frenzy at every annual physical. I distracted her on the subway by telling her that the $100 would be hers to spend however she liked. She rattled on about wanting new batches of slime and the joy of buying make-up at Sephora, exposing the child-to-teen she was in the process of becoming, slime to squish in one hand, a fall palette of eyeshadow in the other.

We entered a fluorescently-lit lobby manned by two security guards who wordlessly pointed to a row of children and their mothers lined up against the wall in black chairs. The chairs faced the two elevators: one for anyone over the age of twelve, who did not have to wait to go upstairs, and one for the kids, who were to be brought up in small groups.

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We sat. The mood was grim, so unlike the celebratory atmosphere of the site where I had my own first shot seven months earlier. We had waited — impatiently and expectantly — for this day to come, but now that it was here, the reality of the situation had settled in: there would be this shot and in three weeks another shot, and then…well, then what?

Not much in her day-to-day life would change the way we had originally expected when we dreamed of the vaccine. She would still wear a mask to school, still sit socially distanced from her friends in the cafeteria, still get swabs shoved up her nose for in-school testing once a week, and still listen to me and her grandmother anxiously discuss variants and vaccination rates.

She agreed with me that the biggest thing we must feel today was gratitude, but the actuality of how it would change her life was too abstract to bring the joy I felt when I first got mine and thought the pandemic would soon be fully behind us.

The elevator opened and expelled a family of four: a baby in a small collapsible stroller, a pudgy boy who pulled down his mask and walked uncomfortably close to me and my daughter to say hi, a father in black sneakers that looked comically large on his feet, a young harried mother. The mother berated the father for not having stopped upstairs to change the baby’s diaper and the father cursed at her.

They seemed unaware that they had just entered a stage in front of a line of bored, anxious children and their mothers. They walked to the front end of the row where a lone empty black chair sat. The mother yelled at the father to take the baby out and put him on his lap and change the diaper.

The baby was big, a toddler almost, and did not easily fit onto his father’s legs. The young boy bounced around in a pattern, weaving his way around his mother and the stroller and the baby’s flailing legs.

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Suddenly, the mother wheeled around and grabbed the boy by his arm, her fingers pressing into his doughy flesh, holding him still so that she could whack him once, twice, three times on the bottom, each time pulling her arm back further to get more leverage before making contact with him.

There was a collective intake of breath and looks of horror on the faces of the audience. The boy started to cry and the mother turned back to instructing the father on how to get the task of diaper changing accomplished.

My daughter turned to me looking as if she herself had just been slapped.

“What do we do?” she whispered urgently, and I was ashamed because I did not have an answer. I was terrified for this child. If his mother was willing to unleash on him in such a sudden and violent manner in a public place, what might she be capable of in the privacy of her own home? But what could we do?

“Should we call children’s services?” she whispered, and I sheepishly shook my head no. I did not know how to begin to explain that while what we saw was wrong, there were layers upon layers to this situation and not ours, at this moment, to solve.

The elevator door opened and seemed to eject its inhabitant: a man — tall, strong, dressed in a suit, a lanyard with a business ID dangling from his neck; he looked authoritative.

I saw my daughter’s face become hopeful. Was this man coming to help? Had he been sent downstairs by the two security guards in the lobby, who had not so much as bat an eye at the scene unfolding in the corner? But why was he wheeling out a scooter if he had been sent to help?

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“Can you move out of the way?” he barked at the mother, dramatically sweeping his arm in front of himself, aggrieved that she was blocking his path.

The woman, who had just released her son’s arm, compliantly stepped aside, muttering under her breath. The man had long legs and made great strides across the lobby with a mere handful of steps. He stopped so abruptly that it appeared as if he had just walked into a wall, rearing his head back and staring at her with angry, protruding eyes.

“What did you just say?” he demanded.

“Because you’re white,” she hissed at him.

“That’s racist,” he shouted, his eyes bulging.

The father, with the baby lying prone in his lap, yelled at the man with the scooter, “You’re nasty, man; you could’ve said excuse me.” The row of mothers and children looked coldly at the man wielding the scooter. Our alliances were shifting. 

The woman had seemed a monster to us mere seconds ago, but this man had been undeniably rude to her. Who deserved our allegiance? All eyes were on the man now, who stood still, seeming to consider his options before doing an about-face and storming out of the lobby.

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The mother yelled at the father, frustrated by the pace of his diaper changing.

“I want to get out of here,” she yelled, stomping her foot on the ground. The father, with surprising tenderness, lifted the baby and pulled his sweatpants back up, returning him to his stroller. The baby arched his back, pressing against the harness the father was clasping, and the father handed him a bottle of milk. Then the family of four walked back out into the night, quickly disappearing into the crowd.

The security guard strolled over, beckoning to the line of mothers and children to board the elevator as it was now our turn for the vaccine.

We did so silently, grateful to be moving away from the remains of this sordid scene. We had come here to protect our children from disease, to fortify our communities, but we had witnessed a child who was not safe in his own home, a man whose rage at the smallest inconvenience was alarming to behold. We did not, any of us, make eye contact in the elevator, where again the children started to whimper about the shots and we gently soothed.

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Laura Friedman Williams is the author of AVAILABLE: A Very Honest Account of Life After Divorce. She is a mom of three, and a New Yorker.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.