Practicing the art of empathy as I send my kid off into the world

By Gillian Steinberg

The screaming child in the coffee shop torments me. I am here for quiet, to edit a client’s article and enjoy ambient noise and indie background music. But this miserable, irritating child insists on being unbuckled from his stroller. As soon as she unbuckles him, he insists on being buckled. His shrill screeching fills the space. She buys him a doughnut and a chocolate milk, and I sigh inwardly. The child is already so plump and not even two years old. “Probably coming down from his last sugar high,” I think to myself, recalling my own efforts to feed my children healthily, avoiding processed foods and added sugar.

I refocus, hearing him calm as he eats the doughnut. “Yummy,” he says, “yummy!” And I can feel her exhale shakily in the seat behind me.

But the respite is brief, and he is soon screaming again. “No! No, no, no!” She pours the chocolate milk into his sippy cup as quickly as she can while he swipes at it. My jaw clenches, and I think, “Go home. Let this place be quiet.”

I picture my own home, piles of clothing and toiletries on my son’s floor, ready to be put in shipping boxes headed to the dorm’s mailroom. I envision him at his desk, puzzling over his freshman calculus placement test, and I remember, 16 years ago, turning that same chair away from me where he sat, small and flailing, so I could avoid being kicked during a tantrum. Praying that he would fall asleep at night without hours of crying. Begging him to eat one more bite of avocado while he pushed the spoon so hard the avocado flung against the wall. Fighting with him to keep his socks on in the frigid winter. Crying. Sitting on the floor, as incompetent and useless as I have ever been, and crying for the life of professional contentment I had left behind – so willingly, and with such excitement at the prospect of raising these new beings – and that I thought I would never have again.

I remember the judging eyes of women in coffee shops who wished I would take him home so they could work quietly. The ones who sometimes didn’t judge only with their eyes but with their mouths too: “he’s too big for that stroller.” “Where are his mittens? Don’t you know it’s cold outside?” “Don’t give him raisins; he’ll choke!”

I think several more uncharitable thoughts about her parenting as the sippy cup thuds under the table, dripping chocolate milk on the floor, and her boy runs towards the napkin dispenser, grabbing handfuls. She looks at him, at the cup, at me, at the resentful shop employee, and she slumps for a moment in her chair before starting the triage: napkins for the floor, and the mess of boy and doughnut and chocolate milk deposited and then held firmly in his stroller, his back arched, trying to prevent the belt from stretching around his furious body.

Last week, a writing client lamented that the last few weeks of August are so hard; camp is over, and there’s no childcare. Her in-laws couldn’t stay to help, and the academic expectations pile up as she neglects them, knowing that, somehow, she’s neglecting her family too. I say, “Soon, they won’t need you this way at the end of August.” 

I mean that things get so much easier as they grow. You can be yourself again, I mean, and your passion for work can be your focus. You can be a parent without having to be one at every moment; you can have that other part of yourself back. She sighs, resigned. “I know, I should appreciate this time while I can.” 

After our meeting, I realize what she thought she heard me say, and I write to clarify: “When I said that your kids won’t be little forever, I DID NOT mean some cheesy ‘appreciate every moment’ crap. I meant that soon they’ll be able to take care of themselves at the end of August.” I feel palpably that lack of childcare from a decade ago and the terrible knowledge that I was neglecting both of the things that mattered most, the work and the family. There was never enough of me, and wanting work more than wanting to raise my children diminished me more than any cruel professor or catty colleague ever had.

“Oh,” she writes, “thank you for clarifying. It’s always the cheesy crap, so really refreshing to hear an alternative.” 

The judgment of others is – has always been – eclipsed only by the self-judgment. I practice telling myself that it’s fine not to want to be a full-time mother; I’m a better mother when I have other outlets. At work, I can be my best self, which allows me to be a better parent and a better person. I have been telling myself these things for 18 years. I know they’re true, but I only sometimes believe them.

He’s strapped back in now, and she heads past my table to the door. Unexpectedly, I hear my own voice. “Excuse me,” I say, and she steels herself for the critique. “You’re doing a good job. It’s really hard.” Her shoulders relax and her lip quivers as she says, “Thank you. You don’t know what that means.” Outside the shop, I see her – really! – wipe away a tear. 

Next week, when we drop off that beloved boy, the one who has inhabited our home like the air we breathe for eighteen years, I’ll have more time for the professional life I love and crave. As we walk away from the dorm, I’ll say those words about motherhood to myself again and again. It’s really hard. You’re doing a good job. 

I hope I’ll believe it.

Gillian Steinberg teaches English at SAR High School in the Bronx and is a writing coach for academics. She and her husband have two teenage sons, and she does almost all of her writing at coffee shops even though she only drinks tea. Her website is

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