“Don’t you have somebody who could watch them?”

The disapproving voice of the nurse might have felt a little more painful if I wasn’t already weary to the core of my body and my soul.  My youngest, just barely two, was sedated and safely asleep in the hospital crib, having just come through surgery to remove the infection from her skull that was threatening to spread into her brain, and I’d spent the night trying to distract myself from the gut-wrenching fear while she was in surgery, composing variations of the letter I’d need to send her father, who was in prison and completely unaware of the crisis, depending on the various outcomes that may have come from the surgery.

My other children were four and six years old, and I’d left them in the care of the only resource I had, the raging alcoholic who lived across the street. You see, their father had gone to prison only a few months previously, and that had resulted in complete social isolation. His family was, understandably, in their own emotional crisis over the situation, and they were not an option. I had an older daughter, age twelve, but I’d made the excruciating decision to send her to live with my parents about ten hours away because the environment had gotten emotionally toxic for her. That did mean I didn’t have the luxury of a “built-in babysitter” and had to make the best of the situation, and the neighbor was my “best” choice.

I couldn’t imagine an explanation to give to Nurse Judgey-Scrubs that wouldn’t trigger another visit by social services, and we’d had quite enough of their involvement, thank you ever so much, so I simply said to her, “No, I don’t. I’ll be back before she wakes up,” as I gathered my things and headed out the door.

“Can’t you just leave them with a neighbor?”

Fast forward about four years. I’d moved to Indiana just a few months prior, it was January, and we were getting hammered with heavy snow. School was delayed (again), and I was calling in to let my boss know I’d be late, because the kids, now 2nd, 4th and 5th graders, wouldn’t be getting on the school bus for another two hours and I couldn’t leave them home alone.  Ethically, morally, *legally* I could not leave them home alone. I didn’t know any of my neighbors. Years of dealing with the social fall-out from their dad’s incarceration had created thick emotional walls that I wasn’t ready to dismantle, certainly not two or three months into being in a new space.

I was being told to knock on the doors of complete strangers and hand my children into their care.

My boss wanted to hear none of it. I was told that this would affect my attendance record and, for sure, my performance review. I asked the HR manager to please put it in writing that they were asking me to leave my underage children home unsupervised because I could not believe that even after explaining the situation (again), I was being told to knock on the doors of complete strangers and hand my children into their care. I knew that most of my new coworkers had lived in the area for multiple generations, and had extended families and social connections to fall back on. I envied them both… and had neither.

I had moved to give us a fresh start and was paralyzed with fear at the thought of sharing the specifics with these new people who didn’t know us, or our situation, knowing full well that once they learned “The Truth”, we’d be shunned all over again. Not to mention, we’d lived in the South for my kids’ entire lives. They didn’t understand the dangers of extended cold exposure, and I wasn’t comfortable taking the risk of leaving them in some suburban version of what, in my mind, felt like “Lord of the Frozen Flies”. So I protected them the best I could, and took the black mark on my “permanent record”.

Those experiences were over a decade ago, and I still remember those voices and others like them.

I recall them more frequently these days, as I see a lot of incredibly harsh posts on social media from people who are criticizing fellow citizens at the local grocery store or other places of business who have their children with them, and to be fair, MANY people may just be lax in their adoption of the “social distancing” measures recommended by the authorities. But how do we know that they aren’t doing their very best?

That un-masked mom at the supermarket with the toddler who is, terror of terrors, using a pacifier, is she lazy, uncaring, or making the best choice she can by taking her child shopping?  That man buying ice cream – is he just oblivious? Or is his partner recovering from chemotherapy and ice cream is one of the few things they can keep down?

I replied to a particularly acerbic (translation: judgey) comment on a friend’s social media post about a similar situation (mom at the store, no mask, baby with a pacifier and also no mask) with these words:

“My kids wouldn’t wear barrettes in their hair. I cannot fathom trying to force a kid to wear a mask… You think a pacifier spreads germs? So does a stressed-out howling kid snotting and crying everywhere. I think people should do what’s reasonable for them, but unlike the jerk I saw vaping, with his mask at a jaunty angle and clouds of respiratory moisture billowing into the people around him, this sounds fairly ok, honestly. At least in principle.

There was a time in my life when youngest needed emergency surgery, and literally, the only person I had to leave her older siblings with was the raving alcoholic across the street and I spent the next several hours in extreme panic because I was not sure my other kids were going to be ok. Not everyone has support systems in place. That’s just life. Delivery costs more. Babysitters are expensive. That might be a no-go for that person. I have no idea. There are a lot of assumptions about the life of a person we don’t know, eh? Was that ideal? Pft. No. Sometimes life isn’t ideal, and we do better to offer grace than to leap to judgments.”

This person simply could not imagine a world where their version of “how things should be” was easily attainable for others. Ah, to have lived so privileged a life!

This isn’t new. I’ve watched people heap nastiness on parents in public for decades. Not-so-quietly muttered statements like “I’d beat any child of mine who acted like that in public” are pretty common, actually. And I get that people are extra-freaked right now and it takes a village to flatten a pandemic curve and accountability is perfectly cool, but y’all… Stress abounds. We can all use a little more grace, and we almost never know the struggles others are carrying. I believe that when we approach situations with extreme kindness and an overabundance of empathy instead of shame and reproach, we are far more likely to encourage those around us to do their (… our…) best. And isn’t that what matters?


Sarah Ratekin
Sarah Ratekin
Sarah Ratekin, founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happiness Is Courage Inc., translates the science of happiness and well-being into actionable plans that get radically positive results. An enthusiastic positivity activist, speaker, author, and researcher, she believes we can change the world for the better by being positive, grateful, and kind, and she’s often quoted as saying “Happiness is a gauge, not a goal”. Her current focus is on helping organizations and teams navigate the particularly complex reality of today’s stressors and engagement challenges by nurturing healthier workplace cultures. No stranger to weird working environments, she believes that everyone deserves the opportunity to develop their strengths, find joy in their profession, and engage in the pursuit of happiness in the workplace and beyond. Sarah has a veritable army of garden gnomes keeping watch over her extensive container gardens and is the proud mother of four amazing humans who are making their positive own marks on the world. She and her spouse Kris, both certified Laughter Yoga leaders, also travel extensively bringing the joy and power of laughter and positivity with organizations of all sizes and industries. In their downtime, they enjoy exploring the outdoors (usually by kayak), dancing, and general merry adventuring. Sarah and her family currently reside in Indiana and travel as often as humanly possible.

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  1. Sarah sweetheart thanks for this exquisite vulnerability — taking a great deal of character and boldness! Your piece moved me to my core 💙

    There is no doubt empathy will almost always pay off, and has the ability to inspire even mean folks freely attacking us for the sake of feeling a little better about themselves (unless we are truly in the darkest places, full of unhealed traumas and resentment).

    In order to be able of compassion even in the most unpleasant situations, though, we need to become aware people are the product of their life-time conditioning. This is making of them navigating life with a considerable quantity of trash and only looking for a bin to throw some.

    We need to understand that in at least 90% of the cases, it’s not personal; only the manifestation of their internal suffering and shame of never feeling good enough. Judging, labelling, making assumptions, being unable of actively listening, complaining, accusing others and the universe of our misery, having emotional outbursts, etc… are nothing but shields created by our unhealthy ego.

    That is to say, it is not a conscious behavior my friend. It is the distorted subconscious program fault. That’s why becoming honest with ourselves and re-writing it is the only effective way to set ourselves free from all our coping mechanisms including being judgemental.

    Thanks again for this beautiful piece in which I saw your beauty 💎

    • Yes, Myriam, you’re spot on. Sarah’s compassion and insight shares her story in a way that touches my heart as well.

      When someone treats me as if I am not a person, it hurts so extremely much.

      And so often, the only solution is to walk away.

      Whether in the moment seeing it is about whatever bad stuff’s in that person and thus not truly personal – or not.


  2. Sarah, thank you for sharing such a personal story. It is quite moving. You bring up many good points, not the least of which is you never know the kind of roads someone else shoes are traveling. But we have a choice each day, and hopefully, it involves kindness and grace.

    We all stumble from time to time. Lord knows I do. But, I try to forgive myself, recognize why I may have stumbled, and try again.

    Thank you for this reflective piece, Sarah. I wish you well.

  3. Your essay is such a powerful reminder to not assume. How important to not assume anything about another human being, their circumstances, their situation for there is often a larger context that we know absolutely nothing about. I appreciate your honest sharing here, Sarah, and your encouragement to be kind, patient, and compassionate with others.

    Harsh judgments often come from people who feel powerless and terrified, out of control on the inside. How important to hold them in grace, also. Just like me-for when I’ve felt helpless and terrified, I have behaved badly, too, and have been very critical of other people. I hadn’t even begun to confront my own inner bully or as some call it the “inner critic” or Inner A*(*(&^. Felt “easier” to think those mean thoughts about others in my head (or maybe say them under my breath). When I finally looked deeply inside and went to work with all the self-hatred to heal and relinquish-and also took the time to really listen to another person’s situation-did I eventually shift into a more enduring compassionate, non-judgmental, curious, deeper listening, holding space for others because I was better at doing this for me. I can still catch myself quickly when I go to even “soft” judgments of myself and others. Self-compassion and other compassion remains a lifelong practice.

    Thank you so much for your writing, your perspective, and invitation.

  4. Excellent albeit heart wrenching post Sarah. Thank you for sharing, you’re incredibly brave. I am seeing a lot of criticism and judgement right now and am especially aware of parents being criticised for bringing their children to the supermarket. If they’re doing that….. isn’t it obvious to people……… they have no one to leave them with????????

    • I mean, there are a zillion ways that story could unfold. Maybe they’re truly not thinking and are not making good decisions. OR maybe it’s the first time they’ve been able to escape the hellish domestic violence going on in their home. OR maybe their kid has some emotional challenges and this is less traumatic OR… the stories we tell ourselves are powerful, and we fill in blanks like champions… Whew. It’s pretty overwhelming sometimes. Thank you for your kindness. (This was a hard one to write – but it’s harder to live that way ALONE, so I hoped that by sharing my experiences maybe somebody else out there would know they’re not truly alone in their experiences)

    • It’s hard, eh, Laurie? Snap judgments probably save our lives more times than we can even ever know, but that doesn’t mean they are always ~right~.

  5. Sad to say, as we all know, Sarah, it’s easy to get caught up in other people’s ways of doing things and criticizing them … maybe to feel better about ourselves (I’d NEVER do that!!!) or to put them down.

    Not an expert here, but I do my darnedest to remember what it was like just having two kids and no pandemic or abuse or anything horrible to deal with! Some of these parents are dealing with stuff I never even imagined. Who am I to judge?

    Thanks for your article; I am sure many readers will take a minute to reflect.

    • So right, Susan! It doesn’t take a pandemic to find common ground. Thank you for the kind and beautiful thoughts!

    • Thank you for your kindness, Paula. It can be really difficult to “walk a mile in someone’s shoes” if you never even see the shoes. Lord knows I’m no expert in empathy, but I keep trying. ♥

    • You don’t have to be an expert in empathy….you just gotta keep it good and stay the course….🙏