Not So Happy Meal

Earlier today (or rather, yesterday –  I’m having trouble sleeping), I failed my family.  I did not fail them by doing something that I should not have done.  Quite the opposite.  I did not act when I should have and I put not only my own safety at risk, but also that of my children.

A long and complicated series of events resulted in the necessity for me to travel by public transportation with my 3 year old daughter and 8 year old son to downtown Chicago to meet up with my husband.  If you have never had the opportunity to do this with your own children, count your lucky stars.  It took a considerable amount of time to pack a backpack with a change of clothes for each of the kids (in case we had the chance to play in the fountain at Millennium Park), light jackets for each of us (it’s cooler by the lake), proper first aid supplies (I like to be prepared), things to entertain them on the train so they wouldn’t behave like animals (didn’t work),  sunblock, a hat for me (hey, lots of women have thinning hair and run the risk of a sunburned scalp), water and the essentials from my purse (wallet, aspirin, etc.) so I would only have one (very heavy) item to lug around.  I also had to make sure each child was dressed, fed, and had empty bladders prior to hitching a ride from my neighbor to the train station.

Upon reaching our destination downtown, I wanted to find a place to let the kids unwind and have something to eat (my daughter had been whining about being hungry for the last hour) while I got my bearings on my Smartphone Overlord and verified the correct route to the art festival where I would meet my husband.  Finding the Golden Arches in close proximity, we headed inside for a couple of Happy Meals.

Not 10 minutes into our meal, a stranger approached our table and began talking to us.  We were seated next to a half wall separating the eating area from the path leading to the restrooms and this man stood on the other side of the waist high wall talking to us as if he were sitting at our table.  Even my son could tell that there was something not quite right about him.  In between whatever he was trying (mostly incoherently) to communicate to me, he would lecture my son to “always respect his mother” and “there’s nothing like a mother’s love.”  Then he told my daughter (in case you missed it, she’s 3) that when she was old enough, he was going to marry her.

And what did I do?  Nothing.  Not a damn thing.

I thought about going to get some help, but I certainly couldn’t leave the children there.  I thought about ways I could tell him to go away because he was scaring us, but I was afraid that whatever I said would set him off.  I thought about just packing up the kids and leaving, but I was concerned that he would follow us.  I simply did not know what to do.

Had I been alone, this would not have been an issue.  I could have gotten up and moved or asked for help from an employee or even risked his anger by telling  him to leave.  But the presence of my children somehow stifled my ability to act until ultimately, an employee noticed my plight and sent a security guard to our rescue.  When we left the restaurant, we had to walk past the man who was now shouting at me about how I shouldn’t have called the cops on him.  I conducted my children down the street as quickly as possible and made sure to check several times that he wasn’t following us.

What kind of example did I set for my son, who has been on the receiving end of plenty of “stranger danger” lectures?  What should I tell my daughter to do should she ever find herself in a similar situation?  What if that security guard hadn’t been there to help us?

As a woman who has done a lot of traveling, I know how important it is to be aware of your surroundings and mentally ready to defend yourself should the need arise.  But it never even remotely occurred to me that I might not be alone if trouble should come my way and I honestly still don’t know what I should have done to ensure our safety.

I clearly recognize this experience as a teachable moment.  So will you please tell me what you would have done so that I will know what to do in the future?  Besides getting Happy Meals only through the drive through, I mean.  That’s a given.

15 thoughts on “Not So Happy Meal

  1. Perhaps there is something fundamentally wrong with me, but I don’t understand people who shy away from confrontation in a situation where the occasion arises. I don’t like confrontation, but given the circumstances you describe, I would have punched the guy. (Seriously, telling your three-year-old daughter he was going to marry her? I have a three-year-old daughter!)

    I think you handled the situation in a cool and level-headed way. Probably the way most people would have handled it. And this is why I think there may just be something wrong with me. In Snoring’s stalker situation, and in your situation, my response would have been the same: knock the guy out.

    I have far too much experience with crazy people to just let things be anymore. I’ve seen too much and been involved in too many situations. I know what some people are capable of doing, even those who appear harmless. I never – NEVER – give them the chance anymore; I just go off on them.

    1. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you. And I would love to have been able to listen to my inner voice that was screaming at me to do something, anything to get away from this guy. I will probably do just about anything to avoid confrontation of any kind. I’m not proud of that, but I think it’s a result of the combination of my nature (I tend to try to see the good in everyone which makes me a remarkable good crazy magnet), my parent’s divorce and nasty custody battle when I was 4 or 5 (all I remember on a conscious level is the judge asking me who I wanted to live with), and the fact that children in general and girls in particular are taught to be “good” by sharing, being polite, quiet and essentially passive. And fairy tales have underscored that in a lot of ways by having the princesses passively wait to be rescued by the handsome prince. I think a lot of women have a fear of causing a scene or coming off like a bitch and for that reason tend not to do what needs to be done to protect themselves and their families. I was lucky this time and I don’t intend for there ever to be a next time.

  2. IDK Tawn, I think you’re being a little hard on yourself. Probably in the first few seconds of talking to this guy, it hadn’t hit your radar that he was a weirdo, and out of being polite you just allowed this conversation to happen. Probably for the benefit of the boy, you can make sure he knows that. I don’t think you scarred your children for life, though. How typical for us mothers that we never think we are good enough…to do the right things at ALL times? Really? God doesn’t call any of us to be perfect mothers. We all just do the best we can, and probably the best thing you can do for your kids and yourself too, for that matter, is admit and accept that.

    1. Thanks, Jen. You’re absolutely right, we as mothers are constantly beating ourselves up for what we “coulda, shoulda, woulda.” But I want to be prepared if anything like this should happen again. The boy has also had occasional problems at school with not being assertive enough with his classmates and I’m thinking maybe this is something that we could work on together.

  3. Even me, the pacifist, wishes that I could just haul off and punch someone out for disturbing my sense of safety and security. I hate feeling threatened. I wish I had walked up to my recent stalker and screamed in his face that I was calling the cops on him. I fantasize about shoving him down and kicking him. Community members need to start being more aware of their neighbor’s discomfort and safety needs. There is safety in numbers. I suppose, one thing you could have done is to have asked him gently to leave you three in peace. Who knows, though? I’m thinking that the next time you’ll act differently – really.

  4. If being confrontational isn’t your style, how about “I’m sorry, but we’re trying to have some family time, could you please excuse us and leave us now?”

    1. You’d think I would have been able to at least do that, right? For some crazy reason, when in a situation where an honest, direct approach is entirely reasonable and most likely to give me the results I want, I never do it. I either sarcastically drop obscure hints or try to make a joke. So in this case, I told him we were in a hurry to meet my husband instead of simply saying, “You need to leave now.” Some captain, huh?

  5. I came over from the comment you left on the Pigtail Pals blog. I agree with Amy about saying something polite but firm indicating exactly what you want the weirdo to do – leave you alone – with the ‘family time’ reason to soften it if you’re worried he might react badly. You can always escalate from there to a just plain, “Please leave us alone.” Since you were in a business with staff nearby, they would hear you if you said it really loudly, in the event that someone hadn’t noticed your plight on their own.

    I would have been just like you, though, most likely. You get into a conversation like that and it’s almost like you’re invested in this little relationship now and can’t all of a sudden be rude, even when it wouldn’t be rude at all to protect your kids. I think the best thing you can do is to be honest with your kids, especially your son who is old enough to understand. Tell them you made a mistake at the time and then tell them how you should have handled it, what you’d do differently next time, and how they should handle anything similar if it would happen to them. It’s OK if they know you’re not completely perfect and that adults make mistakes sometimes, too.

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Cat. I think it was really fortuitous timing that the Pigtail Pals post came out so soon after my encounter. I was blown away by how she handled herself despite how incredibly scary her situation was and she’s really inspired me to be more proactive about our safety. As a pilot, I was constantly trained for whatever emergency might come up and many of them required such an immediate response that I could do what was required without thought. So, I’m going follow that example and work on assertiveness and some self defense techniques with my son this summer. I found “A Teacher’s Guide to Stick up for Yourself!” by Gershen Kaufman, and “Fight like A Girl– and Win Defense Decisions for Women” By Lori Hartman Gervasi at the library and I’m planning on starting with those. Oh, and of course I’ve heard good things about “The Gift of Fear
      Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence” by GavinDe Becker, so I’m checking that out as well. Knowledge is power.

  6. Tawn,
    I think you were listening to your inner voice. You said you were afraid that if you said or did anything he might react badly. At the time even though he was VERY out of line he was not posing an immediate danger. Had you gotten up and left, he could have fallowed you (possible very bad), had you said anything confrontational it could have made him angry (again possibly bad). The only thing I would have considered doing was saying something (in your stern mom voice) like “You need to leave now” or moved you and the kids as close to other people as possible and staying there until he was gone. I have NO DOUBT that had the situation escalated you would have fought like a tiger to protect your children! Although, sometimes the best thing is to keep everything as calm as possible. I would talk to your son, but not necessarily that you did anything wrong. Each situation calls for a different response, sometimes you make as much noise as possible and cause a scene and other times you keep everyone calm. Don’t be to hard on yourself, you are a great mom and you and your children are safe tonight.

  7. Thank you, Lynn. You make a great point – we are at home and safe, and that’s all that truly matters. We will also be more prepared in the future. My inner control freak may mutiny if I don’t make this an object lesson for myself and the kids. Is 3 too young to enroll the girl in Karate?

  8. I don’t see any failure on your part. Talking politely to someone who may be a nut-job doesn’t necessarily encourage him. It may help to treat him like another human being, and might keep him calm, You were in a public place, with security nearby to help if you needed it.

    I don’t think it would be a good idea to punch some poor schmoe in the nose just because he’s delusional, but I agree that you want your kids to be cautious. You handled this just right, in my never-to-be-humble opinion.

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