Her words were so cruel I thought I must have heard wrong.
I was rushing through Target to get some inexpensive flip-flops to wear around the house and had just begun scanning the shoe aisle when I first heard her voice. Her words, dripping with hate, seemed to fall without hesitation from her mouth.
“Shut the f*ck up, you stupid, ugly, retarded ass bitch” she snarled. I froze. Had I heard that right? I looked around, but no one else appeared to notice. Dozens of people seemed totally unfazed and just walked by ignoring the shouting that was coming out of that aisle. I felt anger and disgust well up inside of me.
I had a sinking feeling that this voice was talking to a young child. I looked down the next aisle and there she was, this angry woman towering over this little girl who looked about nine or ten. As she went on spewing these vicious insults, the child stood motionless with a terrified look on her face. Listening to this physically made me sick to my stomach. I felt myself walking in this woman’s direction before I had even figured out what I was going to say, I only knew that I was headed right to her.
She didn’t notice me walk up as she continued her screaming barrage of hateful words until I was right in front of her face. “Excuse me” I said sharply, commanding her attention. She looked up startled and with annoyance, but I kept talking. “I just heard everything that you said to her and what you are doing is verbal abuse and it is absolutely not ok and I am going to report you to Child Protective Services.” She froze. Another woman, her friend, who had been shopping with her, stared at me for a second and than took her shopping cart and quickly walked away. In that moment I hated that other woman for watching this horrible scene and doing nothing. She was as guilty as the abusive mother.
The mother began arguing with me, telling me something that the child did and trying to defend her use of these vile words. I persisted, telling her that her behavior was abusive regardless of what had happened, nothing justified treating a child like that.
Then it got eerily quiet. I pulled out my phone. I knew if I didn’t have her address or name or anything identifying (which she was clearly not going to give to me) then Child Protective Services can’t take a report, but I couldn’t just walk away. We were in a standoff of sorts and we stood silently glaring at one another. At that very second the little girl nervously looked up at me and I will never forget the look on her face. A sad, haunted expression in her dark brown eyes. A look that said “no one has ever stood up for me before.”
I stayed in the aisle for twenty minutes to make sure nothing else happened. If she hit her I could call the police, but she knew I was watching her, she looked at me repeatedly, her eyes boring holes into my back, willing me to leave, but I wouldn’t. We both knew why I was still standing there inspecting those black flip-flops over and over. She finally left, quietly gathering her bags, mumbling “let’s go” to the child. As I watched this young girl disappear through the store exit I looked to see which direction they went. They headed for the Subway entrance, not the parking lot, which meant there was no license plate number that I could write down to make a report and I kept thinking if this mother speaks to her like that in public, what does she do to her at home?
I wanted to run after this little girl and tell her all of the things that she may never hear from her own mother. You matter. You are important. You do not deserve to be spoken to like this.
This was not a tired and exhausted mom just trying to get through Target with her children. I know parenting can be overwhelming at times and we can all have a bad day, but this was a mother speaking to her child with such disdain that she appeared to resent her very existence.
So many people heard this women’s vicious words and stayed clear of that shoe aisle, choosing to remain uninvolved, but as a community if we ignore children being mistreated, it sends the message that this behavior is acceptable and it normalizes the abuse. Some people have said to me “at least she did not hit her” but there is no “at least” with abuse. It comes in all forms and verbal abuse is just as painful. Sometimes even more so.
We may feel reluctant to speak out because it feels intrusive, uncomfortable and we are uncertain of how the other person may react, but imagine what it feels like to be that powerless young child and watch all these adults walk by, as if you are invisible, and have no one stop and say anything while you are being humiliated.
I may not be able to save every child or magically change their situation, but I will not be complicit in this, I will not be another adult who just keeps walking.
As I left Target I thought about the children who live with an abusive parent, who have never known unconditional love or had a caregiver who loves them in a way that lifts up their spirit. All of the children growing up without the every day gestures that show them that they matter; the morning hugs, caring for them when they are sick, helping with homework, a surprise ice cream treat, making their favorite dinner, endless bedtime stories or those extra long days, even when you have a million errands to run, but you stay late playing in the park trying to capture just a little more time with them before dinner.
When I picked up my son that day from school, still feeling devastated by the look in that little girls eyes, I hugged him extra tight, repeatedly whispering “mommy loves you.”
Then we went out for a surprise ice cream cone and played in the park, for that extra hour, until the sun went down.