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The Journey of Tears: A Commuter’s Reflection on Parenthood and Perspective

As I was standing on the J train platform at Delancey-Essex station this afternoon, a piercing cry nearly ruptured my eardrum.  It was a frequency only an infant could reach.  Sure enough, to my left was a toddler, crying as her mom carried her up the stairs to the platform.  Immediately, I was intrigued; thankful to be a bystander to the drama.  I resolved to eavesdrop and discern why the baby was so disturbed.  

The little girl, her long hair in two messy pigtails and her winter coat slouching off her shoulders, was screaming that she didn’t want to go upstairs!  Her mother, clearly accustomed and numb to the routine, continued carrying her up the stairs without a sliver of compassion.  At the top of the stairs, the mother plopped her daughter down onto the platform floor as the sobbing grew more impassioned.  

I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why is she so scared of being upstairs?” Lots of children love to respond to every single remark with “Why?”, and I developed a similar line of questioning when it came to this girl’s behavior.  Soon, as began to decipher her gibberish wails, it became clear that her beef was not with the literal act of climbing stairs, but with the idea of boarding a big, scary subway train.  That’s a completely understandable fear.  But, what confused me was, rather than begging to leave the train station, she was pleading her mom to let her take the 2 train instead of the J train!  Again, I couldn’t help but wonder why!  Could the J train lead to a destination she dreads, while the 2 train is her vehicle towards more enjoyable spaces?  Could it be that the J train’s above-ground tracks triggered her fear of heights? Did the 2 train’s vintage orange seats seem more inviting to her?  Whatever her reason was, she was queerly fixated on this 2 train fantasy.  Her mom didn’t say a word during this tantrum, not that her daughter left any room to speak. 

After 8 long minutes of this soliloquy, the Brooklyn-bound J train finally pulled into the station.  I have no shame admitting that I hurried myself towards the same door that the mother, daughter back up in her arms, was moving towards.  I was too enticed to abandon the eavesdrop.  Naturally, the tantrum grew in magnitude as the pair entered the car.  This child seemed as though she was being led to her death.  Everybody on the train turned towards the source of her shrill cries, hearing them loud and clear through their soundproof headphones.  Either this girl was unaware of the people around her, or she was perfectly fine including their eardrums in the collateral damage of her rampage.  As I stood, leaning against the pole closest to the seat they’d rooted down in, I turned my body 90 degrees to avoid staring.  I couldn’t help but smile.  If adults were this shameless, the world would be a far more chaotic place, but it might make every commute much more entertaining!  

The mother was far less entertained than me, her face still deadpan.  I think she was disassociating.  I can’t imagine the embarrassment she was feeling as everybody else on the train car resisted the urge to tell her how to be a better parent.  Even I was thinking, “There’s no way my child would act this way.  If I was in this woman’s shoes, I would at least turn this fit into a dialogue, trying to get to the bottom of why my daughter is so troubled!  Maybe if I asked her to explain her feelings, validating and comforting her, she would calm down!  It baffles me that she’s so silent and complacent in this public disturbance!”  Then again, I’m only 22 and cannot begin to imagine the burden upon this mother.  Clearly this is a routine occurrence for the family.  I was tempted to step in and talk to the child, but I resisted.  I didn’t want to make matters worse than they already were.  

Around 16 minutes after I came within earshot of this tantrum, the little girl started begging for chocolate in between her yearnings for the 2 train.  I couldn’t blame her: it seemed like an intuitive remedy to her terror.  Her blatant demand for sweets made me think about the pleasure-pain balance of every human’s dopamine pathways.  Every tantrum-free adult would confess to bandaging up their trauma with the warm comfort of their favorite instant gratification, but they wouldn’t proclaim it unprompted in a public forum like this girl.  Silently, I thanked her for her candid vulnerability.  

Restlessly, the little girl squirmed around her seat as she screamed, climbing up and down her mother’s body, as the people in the seats next to them tried to pretend everything was fine.  At some point during these gymnastics, our tragic hero’s shoe fell off her small foot and onto the floor of the train.  I bent down, picked up the shoe, and handed it back to the mother gently.  I thought, “If I’m enjoying the show, I might as well leave a tip.”  The woman thanked me and received the shoe, but before she could attempt to put it back on her daughter’s foot, the livid girl snatched her shoe back and locked eyes with me as she lifted her arm and prepared to angrily throw the shoe back down on the ground.  Politely and empathetically, I shook my head at her.  In our paralyzing eye contact, she stopped crying for one still moment.  Eventually, the spell was broken and she reevaluated the subject of her wails: she proclaimed that she wanted to throw her shoe, waving it about in the air, but she never actually threw it! I was proud of her self control. 

Only once these threats to throw the shoe came did the mother lazily intervene, calmly explaining to her daughter that she cannot throw her shoe. The woman stared off into space as she said this, her voice soulless. As I snuck a glance at her spirit’s empty shell, I had a vision of her infancy. At one time, she was her daughter’s age. Was she as dramatic and misbehaved?  Did her parents also fail to give enough attention to ease their daughter’s pain, creating a generational cycle? Perhaps she never had a stable parental unit to look up to. I saw how the mother and daughter before me were one, embodying different manifestations of the same conditions. I bet the mother was just as miserable to be riding the J train, if not more! The embarrassment she was facing would make anyone want to curl up and hide from the world. The only difference between mother and daughter is that infants aren’t yet conditioned to internalize these feelings and bottle them up. All of this mother’s energy was going towards keeping a tight cap on her emotions, rendering her appearance fatigued and apathetic. 

When they inevitably disembarked, everybody on the train heaved a sigh of relief. The little girl’s frequency continued ringing in my ears. Still, I missed them. Just by observing, I’d learned so much. I wish them all the best. 

I am exactly halfway between the respective ages of the mother and daughter. I’m grateful that I have the freedom and vocabulary to express my feelings without shouting and disturbing others. I have an infant and a parent within me at all times, and I honor their differing perspectives. I really can’t wait to have children and teach them how to live in the world. 

One day soon I’ll need to take a ride on the 2 train. I want to see what all the hype is about. 

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