This week, all of your friends’ Facebooks exploded over a mini-melee at Marcy’s Diner, a tiny restaurant in Portland, Maine. Accounts differ as to what exactly transpired during what shall henceforth be known as Brunchghazi, but all parties agree: A toddler became unruly in a restaurant during a long wait for pancakes, the parents didn’t remove her, Words Were Exchanged between owner Darla Neugebauer and the family (which included Neugebauer yelling at the child); the family paid, left, and later posted an irate review on the diner’s Facebook page; Neugebauer responded in a manner substantially more irate; the Internet detonated.
Affronted parents responded predictably. Children are human beings! That child has PTSD now! A diner is not a midnight showing of Magic Mike XXL! These were met in kind by the equally predictable onslaught of child-free individuals and grandparents. If you can’t control your environmentally destructive hobby spawn, you should at least have the decency not to show your faces in the out-of-doors! I have 17 grown children, and from 1-month-old on, they knew that a step out of line meant sleeping under the porch!
The mother, marketing manager Tara Carson, attempted to control the damage with a brief account on a Washington Post blog. It went poorly. The post is approaching 8,000 comments, most of them rancorous. This is an unwinnable, interminable “conversation,” because both parties were correct and incorrect. The parents were correct because you shouldn’t yell at a baby. (The parents were also correct because pancakes are generally assumed to be yay big, and not 14 inches across and an inch tall and requiring 40 minutes to prepare, which is inexcusable.) But the parents are also incorrect, because in any diner-related situation, you give that baby some goddamned Cheerios. The owner of the diner was correct, because if someone is causing a kerfuffle in your establishment, you have every right to implore that party to vacate the premises. But she is also incorrect, because if you can’t make three pancakes in 10 minutes, why are you a diner? But please, let’s argue about it some more.
Every member of the mob of commenters that always descend upon any story about children misbehaving in public (and there are too many to count) is also, technically, correct. Aggrieved kid-havers have a right to feel attacked, because nobody understands the private hell of navigating the behavior of a particular small child except for the family of that particular small child. Kid-haters are also correct, because they did not choose to live in a dystopian nightmare where children are now, if not welcome per se, at least present in bars, high-end restaurants, and other places I would never even think to take my child.
Everyone in the interminable debate about children in public is right enough—everyone except the Internet. For every parent who lets the kid jump up and down on ketchup packets and shove recently-shorn fish skin into unsuspecting diners’ faces (this happened to me when I was seven months pregnant, and boy did I judge), there are 10 who are really and sincerely doing their goddamned best. But the Internet doesn’t care. The Internet, and everyone on it (myself included), wants to pounce on teeny-tiny tyrants and their torrents of terror, and then use those moments—arguably low points in the lives of everyone involved—to invoke yet another dumb conversation that has no détente and goes on for time immemorial.
My own mother was a beleaguered parent doing her best in the summer of 1983 when, on a road trip through the barren California desert, the family was refused use of the restroom at the only gas station within a 50-mile radius. “But she’s going to have an accident!” begged my dad, as he pointed at 7-year-old me (I was mortified). “Not my problem,” replied the lady behind the counter. My dad proceeded to buy a box of Kleenex, and my mom calmly took my 3-year-old brother and me behind the building, and implored us to relieve ourselves directly onto the dusty ground. The proprietor, as you can imagine, was apoplectic—but alas, her shrieks were left to haunt Schuman family lore, and that was that. (Well, now they’re on the Internet. But I’m trying to make a point!)
If this little escapade had gone down in 2015, the Not My Problem Lady would have had a smartphone, and the whole thing—her refusal, my quivering little butt obeying its orders in the breeze—would have been live-tweeted, Facebooked, Instagrammed, Vined, and Snapchatted. Everyone and her middle-school orchestra teacher would have had a say about my mother’s parenting. Sanctimonious moms would have descended on the establishment and voided en masse in its parking lot. We’d have ended up on Good Morning America. Sharon Schuman, Ph.D.—beloved English professor, accomplished concert violinist—would be known only and forevermore as Pee Mom.
So thanks a buttload, Internet. Because utterly mundane child-related shenanigans now become national news on a regular basis, this already-anxious parent is abjectly terrified to take her daughter literally anywhere in public. She’s 6 months old, and accordingly spends half her time being an illegally adorable cherub and the other half as a 2-foot-tall asshole. Like most first-time parents, I am convinced that I’m terrible at it, and that fear is compounded by the very real possibility that something bad might happen when I’m out with her: a breast-feeding creep-shot, a mistimed diaper blowout in an establishment without a changing table, an overtired meltdown.
You might argue that the Internet makes everyone look bad indiscriminately, and that’s just what the Internet is for. To that I parry back with approximately 9 million cat videos and occasional stories of hero cats—those hero cats are heroes, yes, but are they representative of cats as a larger species? I love cats, but cats are aloof and recalcitrant and, unlike most small children, their frequent episodes of vomiting and defecation are often intentionally aimed out of spite at their minders’ most cherished possessions. Why does the Internet bathe cats in a rosy, whiskered glow but children—most of whom eventually grow into reasonably conscientious adults—are cause for heated national debate?
Here’s a revolutionary proposition: If you’re a parent and you get mistreated in an establishment, write a strongly worded private missive to that establishment, or have a terse private word with the proprietor. More often than not, you will get a profuse apology and a bunch of free stuff. If, on the other hand, you witness a misbehaving child, make a bon mot under your breath about crating that thing like a civilized person, and then go on with your damn day.
Every parent makes a decision under duress that is probably FUBAR to outside observers. Every adult gets impatient with children once in awhile. All of it is banal, and none of it deserves widespread infamy.
In three weeks, my daughter and I will make our first journey on an airplane. I already want to die. I’m not afraid of the judgmental stares or grumbling I am sure to get. What I’m afraid of is that my inevitable display of poor parenting will end up online forever—subject to ignominy, incessant debate, and posterity.