I didn't realize, at first, that having kids meant changing my place in the world. Not because I suddenly became "a mother," subject to some elusive and ever-shifting social standard, but because I have come to rely on the public — strangers — in an entirely different way. One might say that I've understood the notion of community.
A typical day out with my children involves near constant interaction with strangers at the store, the YMCA, the gas station, the school, and the playground. My toddler smiles and flirts with people regardless of their age or interest, and they do their best to admire her back. My older child tells people just about anything, from discussing our cat at home — he bites — to her underwear that day — Hello Kitty — to asking strangers about that mark on their face. She finds time to tell people in the checkout line entire tales, some true, like the time her sister pooped on her floor. She might embellish with a line about how we didn't have any diapers that day. Once, she told me that her school bus broke down — true — and that they all proceeded to ride bicycles to school.
On any given day, many words travel out of these children. They are expressed in a manner of total trust, both to me and to the world at large. My kids are extremely talkative, but I probably only think so because I am more reserved, especially in public. It has taken me a few years to get used to the fact that when I am out with them, we are engaged in the world, engaged with people we don't know. Most of this is not embarrassing; it is endearing. It has also made me rethink how I should encounter the faces around us.
I grew up in the age of kids' photos on our school milk cartons, which basically said to everyone that strangers are kidnappers. We were repeatedly told not to talk to strangers by the adults in our lives. In retrospect, this seems somewhat silly. Not to belittle kidnapping or victims, but studies have shown that children are most likely to be endangered or abused by people they know and already trust. In addition, I lived in a town in which we rarely walked anywhere outside our neighborhood. I was driven or rode a bus everywhere. The windows of potential danger were extremely small.
Now I live with my children in a city neighborhood where we know most of the neighbors on our street, and we walk repeatedly to the store and the park. Some of the faces are faces we see every day. But in a city, most of your daily interaction is with people whose names you definitely do not know.
Recently, when my toddler had a seizure in a parking lot, I panicked. We were leaving the doctor's. I had my older child with me, the car was already running, and I did not know how to move quickly. I flagged down a nurse who was leaving — a stranger, basically — while I ran back into the doctor's office. This person turned off my car and walked my older child calmly back into the clinic and occupied her while the baby was treated. I felt so grateful for the medical staff and their calm and professional help; they were doing their jobs, of course.
But for weeks I thought about what I would have done if we were driving or in a random store. It would have been different, but much the same — trying to ask for or call for medical help while relying on strangers to assist us. It was a terrifying thought to me, except when I began to think about our daily lives. Who is it that helps us when we drop a pacifier or any number of kid articles while out walking? A stranger. Who offers to give us a quicker place in the long grocery store line? A stranger. Who holds doors open for strollers or helps you carry them up and down city steps? A stranger.
If you think about the worst emergencies, say your child gets hit by a car, you will likely be handling that event dependent on the strangers around you. In many emergencies, using your cell phone to reach a spouse is not going to cut it. This doesn't actually frighten me, but it does make me think that I should expect more of myself when interacting with the public and, yes, probably place more trust in that group of people. I think I should practice seeing them more, instead of acting like they barely exist.
Maybe we should redefine "the stranger" as someone you see each day, or every day, and who your safety, and your child's safety, might depend upon. Embrace the notion that as a parent, your children need strangers. You are part of the people around you.