by Nancy Davis Kho
With no disrespect to the ozone layer, I believe there is a layer of protection to human society whose imminent loss poses an equal risk: the Übermother. This is the segment of society whose collective calls for restraint in situations private and public have kept generations of children under eagle-eyed watch. The Übermother doesn’t have to be a mother, or even a woman; the job simply requires a set of minimum behavioral standards and a willingness to enforce them.
My most memorable Übermother encounter occurred when I was eight. On a lazy summer day, a gaggle of adolescent girls congregated in my backyard to perform gymnastics around the tetherball pole and discuss rules of our nascent Neighborhood Girls Club. (In the end, the only rule was that you arrived for club meetings with the front hem of your shirt tucked over and through the neck of your shirt, thereby fashioning the sort of midriff-baring top now easily purchased from any department store. Girls then had to work so much harder to be skanky then than they do now.)
As we idly discussed the club and performed flips and cartwheels, I made a disparaging remark about my own gymnastics performance, testing out a word I’d never utter in front of my parents. Only then did I notice the garden hat rising slowly from the other side of the hedge that divided our yard from the Fitzsimmons’ next door. Remember the scene in the recent Steven Spielberg remake of “War of the Worlds,” when the terrified citizens watch the alien spacecrafts emerge from under city streets and realize in horror that they’ve been there all along? That’s how it was. Mrs. Fitzsimmons fixed me with her inscrutable eyes and said quietly, “Nancy Davis. Watch your mouth. We do NOT say ‘crappy.’”
Until I typed that sentence, I haven’t used the word because I am pretty sure Mrs. Fitz would have tracked me down and made me eat it.
Fast forward three decades, to a summer day when I was at our pool club in the Oakland hills with my own daughters, an afternoon so hot that you could have crossed the pool on the shoulders and heads of swimmers seeking relief. As I swam with the girls, I caught a blur of fluorescent green out of my peripheral vision, followed a split second later by a tennis ball whizzing a millimeter past my nose and thunking into the water in front of me. Adult swimmers all around gasped and said, “Were you hit?”
I looked up to see the perpetrator, the young son of a casual acquaintance of mine, standing with his hand clapped over his mouth, laughing. I did what seemed right: plucked the ball out of the water and walked it over to his mother. “Hi – your son almost hit me with this and I thought you’d probably want it back,” I said with what I hoped was a commiserating smile. I didn’t intend to make her defensive, but I figured she’d want to know what was going on. “Thanks,” she said brusquely, neither apologizing on her son’s behalf nor calling him over to say he was sorry, and she turned her back on me.
About ten minutes later I was toweling off my kids when I glanced up to see the same boy, the same crowded pool, and the same ball—returned to him by Mom—cocked back for trajectory into the same throng of swimmers. My Übermother response kicked in and I yelled “STOP!” then turned to his mother to say “He’s doing it again!”
This set off a tirade from the mom directed not toward the ball-hurling boy, but toward me. “You do not need to tell my kids what to do. I am watching them!” This was repeated in an ever-climbing screech so that soon everyone at the pool knew I had overstepped my bounds, by trying to prevent her son from injuring someone else. In short she’d given my Übermother the smack-down.
It seems that we can no longer feel comfortable pointing out even obvious deviations from the path of good behavior. And that’s sad, because even though I was sometimes terrified of Mrs. Fitz and her garden hat, I also knew I was never alone. If I had a problem and my parents weren’t around, there were approximately thirty-five other adults on my street who would have stepped in at a moment’s notice. No one ever went too far astray growing up on Branford Road.
If there’s one thing I know about my otherwise perfect daughters, it’s that testing limits is a normal part of their development. And as a parent, I recognize the limits of my sphere of influence. That’s when I depend on my friends, family, and yes, even pool acquaintances, to help set the girls straight.
Of course there have been times when someone else reprimanding my kids has triggered the parental protective impulse. Every parent has the responsibility of defending his child, when the child is unfairly targeted. I’m also not advocating the dog-pile, when a parent has already spoken to his own child yet other adults still chime in with the verbal equivalent of “Yeah, what he said!”
But if I agree in general with what’s being said, I try to stay out of it. What better way to convince my kids that there is, in fact, a set of social norms against which they’ll be measured than to have someone else point them out? Optimistically, I imagine new brain synapses being formed as a child comes to the startling realization that they’re not just Mom and Dad’s rules, but universal rules.
It would be ideal, though probably unrealistic, to quantify a level of obnoxiousness (perhaps measured by decibels or the number of times the tongue is stuck out) past which Übermothers could be given free rein to comment. Perhaps it would be easier to reestablish the general rule that grownups are allowed to remind a child when an missing “please,” “thank you,” and “I’m sorry” are in order.
However I’d settle for a system ensuring that when a child presents an imminent danger to himself or others, then Übermothers go on alert. Perhaps the “Good Samaritan Law,” the one that protects a rescuer from being sued by the person receiving aid, could be extended to encompass people trying to prevent a need for medical assistance in the first place. And if it covered those of us who believe that crappy behavior is just not acceptable in the 21st century, society as a whole might benefit.
I’m waiting for your call, Mrs. Fitzsimmons.
Nancy Davis Kho is a writer in Oakland, California whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, TheRumpus.net, The Morning News, and Skirt! Magazine.
An avid music fan, she blogs about the years between being hip and breaking one at MidlifeMixtape.com. You can find her on Twitter (@midlifemixtape) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/MidlifeMixtape.)