“Boy, you sure have your hands full”: the rebuttal

This isn’t what I usually write, or how I usually write. It’s actually a really great example, from the point of view of a professional writer, of why you shouldn’t write when you’re all het up—or why you shouldn’t press “send” right after you’ve written something that had you all het up. Think on it a bit. Emotional angst makes for great drama—it rarely makes for great writing in the moment. Too much confusion, cloudiness… self-absorption.

What the professional writer in me wants to do is to file this under “bad drafts,” come back to it three or four months hence when I don’t remember the incident that fired it, take the nugget of insight from it (generally found in the second-to-last one-sentence paragraph), and build a proper essay around it.

My inner child wants to publish it as is, because she’s wilful and has poor impulse control and it’s her blog, goddamit, and she’ll write what she wants.

The wilful inner child takes charge, grabs the lead and starts to write this:

I was rude to you the other day, I realize, and the soft, peace-making, acquiescing part of me wants to apologize. It’s not nice to be rude to people and I should have made some effort, taken the high road, etc. Etc. Especially as you weren’t malicious—nor rude to me, particularly. I was just tired of mediating with the world, and you were just… stupid, I think is the word I’m looking for.

The adult within asserts a little and starts to edit a little:

Damn, this apology is not going well. Stupid’s unfair. You may have been a perfectly intelligent, thinking person under most circumstances. With a flaw, perhaps: the desire to talk to strangers about the first thing that occurred to you. There’s probably nothing wrong with that trait. Probably helps you make friends in new places. You just had the bad fortune to select the wrong mother at the wrong time to talk at. I’m sorry.

There, that’s a better shot at an apology. And now, the inner child and its super-ego start to compromise and work together… They write this:

I suppose before I go any further, I should recap what you said—and what I did. So there I was in the library on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, with my three kids. The seven-and-a-half-year-old (“I’m actually closer to eight, now, Mom, shouldn’t you say that?”) was checking out our stack of books at the self-check out. The ten-year-old was amusing the not-quite-three-year-old (“Amusing? Well, that’s one way of putting it, Mom.”). And I was lounging against the wall between them, occasionally toning down the volume on the amusement, and occasionally helping my checker-outer when the machine didn’t read the book codes properly. Last book went through the check out. I divided the books between four sets of arms, and said, “To the car, dudes.”

Arms full of books, the kids ran joyfully—and noisily—to the door. I followed more slowly.

And, somewhere from the periphery of my vision, you let out a (well-meaning) chuckle, and said, “Well, that’s what your day off looks like, doesn’t it.”

I half-turned my head to ascertain that you were talking at me, and then I said…


I tried to offer one of those smiles of acknowledgement, but I suspect it didn’t come out genuine, because I didn’t particularly feel like smiling. I thought what you said was really silly—and I didn’t feel like offering any of the conventional responses you expected. What would they have been, anyway? What were you looking for? “That’s the way the cookie crumbles?” perhaps? Or “Good thing we love them?” Or something else that would validate your assumptions that a) this was my day “off”, b) that I’d rather be doing something else, c) that spending a Sunday afternoon at the library with my kids was somehow hard? I’d had a really tough, exhausting week, and this Sunday afternoon was, frankly, one of the week’s jewels, one of those moments in time that underscore just how good my life is. I wasn’t frazzled or ticked or yelling at the children (that was Thursday afternoon, but you weren’t there… wonder what you would have said then? “That’s what your day on looks like?”). My children were by no one’s compass behaving inappropriately or in a demanding, taxing manner (though by Zeus’ third testicle, on Tuesday they did). What the hell were you commenting on?

And as all this flew through my head at lightening speed, the fully rational part of me also knew I was completely over-reacting, because it had been a tough week and because I was tired and my defences were down, and you did not mean to be in any way rude, —you were just a friendly stranger trying to make conversation, and you said the first thing that came into your mind. So I tried to force that smile to be a little less fake, but I still said…


You were a few steps behind me in the parking lot as we both walked to our cars. My children had raced ahead to mine. They opened the doors, and loaded themselves up into the card. You caught up to me. And said:

 “My daughter’s thinking of having a third, but looking at you, I don’t know—boy, it’s a lot of work.”

And I turned my head again, and looked at you, and said…


But I gave you The Look. I know I gave you The Look, because you took two steps back, and then almost ran to your car without half-a-backward glance at me. It’s possible I made you cry. I’ve never seen The Look on my own face, but I’ve bequeathed it to all three of my children, and I’ve seen it there, and it’s a pretty terrifying thing; it’s a “You’re too stupid to live, and you should leave my sight before I do something about it” kind of look, and apparently it frequently creeps onto my face during business meetings, and my colleagues, as well as the people who have the misfortune of being interviewed by me live and repeatedly, live in terror of me one day turning The Look on them (and my husband and children treat it as a sign of my undying, clearly unconditional love that no matter what they’ve done or said, I’ve never turned The Look on them… yet).

Anyway. I gave you The Look. You skedaddled. I got into the car.

“Can we put one of the new books on tape in?” the 10-year-old asked me, as the seven-year-old finished buckling up her little brother in his car seat. The books were piled around them.

“Sure,” I said. I started the car. He put the CD in.

As we drove home, I tried to parse what it was that you had done that ticked me off so.

 “Well, that’s what your day off looks like, doesn’t it.”

“My daughter’s thinking of having a third, but looking at you, I don’t know—boy, it’s a lot of work.”

Two sentences. Kindly meant, really. What’s ticking me off here? Is it that you interfered in a moment I was having with my children. Sunday afternoon. At the library. The four of us. Chilling. Not performing for you, or awaiting your commentary.

Mothers today live essentially in constant defensive mode from verbal assaults—er, commentary—from well-meaning strangers.

This mother’s tired of it, and is done responding to it. See me in the park or the grocery store with my kids? Whether we’re in a moment of bliss or a moment of strife, it’s our moment, and it’s none of your business. The only two acceptable comments from a stranger to a mother (or father) in a public place are:

 a. What a beautiful family you have.

and, its more effusive variant,

 b. How lucky you are to have such a lovely family.

Feel compelled to say something else? Shut up.

Was that it? The above rant notwithstanding, no, not really. A little—it sure didn’t help—but not really. It wasn’t even that your comments were so completely… inaccurate. I mean, there are plenty of times when I’m out in public with the brood when it does look like hard work. Like the time I had to get Cinder to sit on Ender at the deli while I paid so that I wouldn’t have to buy $200 worth of broken jars of imported honey and olives. Or the time… well, anyway. There are times. This wasn’t one of them.

But even if it was—here’s what really got me—even if it was. Even if it looked like hard work. You vocalized the thing that I’m convinced will be the reason Western society collapses:

 You think if something’s a lot of work, it’s not worth doing.

Is having three children hard work? A lot of work? Having any children? Yes. It requires effort. But everything worthwhile does. My work requires effort. Living in my community requires effort. Maintaining relationships and lines of communication. Eating well. Learning a language. Unlearning bad habits. Cleaning house. Gardening. Fixing your car. Making supper. Some days, getting out of bed in the morning.

It all requires effort. And it’s all worth doing.

If I didn’t do things that were hard work, I’d… I don’t know. Sit on my ass watching bad tv because it was too hard to find the lost remote and too hard to get off the couch? Watch life and opportunity and everything pass me by because it was too much work to seize the moment, make the change, do the thing I wanted to do?

My fingers pause over the keyboard. I’m not sure how to end this rant, which isn’t quite going where it started out heading. Then Ender putters in. He’s carrying a giant, giant rock. Into the kitchen—which means, he must have lugged it in from the garden, up the two flights of stairs.

“This hard work,” he says, with an oof, as he plops down for a rest beside me. “This hard work for a little me.” And I look at him in awe, because what’s the first thing that I was going to say in response to this amazing feat of toddler strength? I think it probably was going to be, “Then why did you do it?”

Ender gives another oof. “This hard work for a little me.” He looks with pride at the stone. “Me did it.”

You did it, dude. And that’s that.

Inner Child Art --Rescued!

Inner Child Art –Rescued! (Photo credit: Urban Woodswalker)

Post-script: So. The writer in me sat on this draft long enough that my seven-and-a-half year-old is now eight and change. But the inner child still wants to share it with you more or less in its original form. And she still has poor impulse control. Plus, her super-ego is rather tired this week.

Blogger love: I got the nicest cyber ego stroke from one of my absolute favourite daddy bloggers, @PapaAngst last week, in his post Balsa Wood Forever, and you should wander over to meet him if you don’t know him already. Actually calling him a daddy blogger does not do him justice: He’s a daddy and a blogger, but what he is, on line, is a story-crafter and talented writer. Who knows how to work his inner child just right.

38 thoughts on ““Boy, you sure have your hands full”: the rebuttal

      • YES! THAT is it! I just have NO patience left for adults who should know better, when I am dealing with 3 little kids still on a steep learning curve! (Unfortunately, my husband gets the brunt of this lack of patience attitude)

      • I agree. I know my lack of patience with some well-meaning strangers is hubris. The “I got this” in my stupidity. With others, they probably deserve it.

  1. Seriously, some people need a roll of duck tape to keep them from uttering anything stupid!! I get comments like this more often than not and seriously could feel the anger boiling inside of me for you!

  2. I love it. What a smart kid, carrying that big-ass rock all that way just to teach you a lesson.

  3. Well now I’m dying to know what your kid did with that rock?!! Did you make him carry back down those stairs or did you let him have the largest pet rock in the world? Great post! Love this!

  4. I think you’re right that there was no malice in the words, but the circumstance certainly called for a “what a lovely family” rather than a “DAMN, girl–sorry about your luck” kind of comment. I thought this really spoke to that person’s perception of family and work ethic. It’s definitely hard work lugging a big ol’ rock up the stairs, but the sense of pride and accomplishment is well worth it in the end! Not enough people go the distance to have experienced said pride, and that’s a dang shame.

  5. You are truly speaking to me with this essay. I *constantly* get “boy you have your hands full” when I am out with the twins and the Kid. Even when they are perfectly peaceful, in a stroller or shopping cart – everyone feels compelled to comment. And I’m sure I don’t get half the number of comments as Diapers…or Wine?

    But I was feeling this same push & pull the other day. A while back I wrote “Are They Paternal?” and it was a funny post about the dumb comments people threw my way when I first started going out in public with the twins. I picked the silly and downright stupid comments, and I wrote about what was going on in my head during the encounters. Someone recently commented (anonymously) on that post about how rude I was and called me rage-filled and hateful. I was so stunned that they could take my post and see it as that. And then all the thoughts you just put out there for us were rolling around in my head.

    IS it our responsibility to just suck it up and take what people throw at us whether it is uncomfortable to us or not? Are we supposed to just laugh it all off when CLEARLY we have our hands full?

    Still a conundrum to me, but I love your essay on the subject.

    • I remember your Are they paternal post; twas hilarious (and also hair-pulling frustrating!–for you, I mean). I think the other acceptable thing to say when a mom clearly has her hands full might be, “Can I help you carry that?” or “Here, you go on to the car, and I’ll meet you out front with the groceries.” Help. Or shut the fuck up.

      I might still be a bit cranky…

  6. Oh wow. I was nodding along through the whole post, but damned if I didn’t get teary at the end with the heavy rock! I am so glad you let your inner child take the lead, poor impulse control and all. Posts like that have value, too. And even when you’re all het up, you can’t get rid of the fact that you are an articulate, poised, professional writer. I actually let my inner child write a post yesterday, and I probably should have let it sit longer than I did! I think your point on the commentary is right on. As a music therapist, there are a few days a week when I walk into the rec center with a guitar on my back, a stroller full of instruments, and a toddler on my hip. I am well aware that I look ridiculous. I do not need to hear a stranger comment cleverly, “You sure have your hands full!” I realize they are well-meaning. I realize they are just trying to connect and make an easy conversation. And still, I resent it.

    • A. A ridiculous sense of pride that I made Mommy for Real cry. Win for me!

      B. Another response to “You sure have your hands full!”: “Yeah, never heard that one before. Well done.”

      Did I mention… still a bit cranky today…

  7. Thank you for letting yourself post this. It is what I needed to read even though I didn’t even realize it. I am always getting the ‘My you have your hands full comment, or glad thats you and not me comment. They always kinda bothered me, like maybe I should be saying’I’m sorry for having these 4 babies out in the world and bothering your day.’

    • Annoying people. No help for them. And there are so many of them in the world… 😛 xoxo Thank you (and you all above too) for taking the time to comment. I wasn’t even sure anyone would read to the end of the inner child’s rant. 🙂

  8. I think this is perfect, just as it is. I get really annoyed when people assume that my life is “hard” with my three year old son (he’s on the autism spectrum). I write about it. A lot. One of these days, I’m going to do The Look – in person (!) – and let loose. Er. Hopefully.

  9. I get it all the time. ALL THE TIME. With four kids people talk to me like it was all some kind of mistake and that my life must suck. Idiots. Lovely post, from the heart and free flowing. So glad I stopped by!

  10. I actually see absolutely nothing wrong with what you did! You said nothing and you tried to stop the conversation in that way, but it didn’t work. And, that lady was rude and nosy…sorry, I’m calling it what it is! Not only was she insinuating that you were to be pitied, she also implied that she would be holding you as example for her daughter to not have a third child (which also is none of her business, by the way!)! I see nothing wrong with how you reacted. I would be outraged if someone told me he/she pitied me because of my kids!

    • “So, honey, you know how you’re thinking of having a third baby? I saw this lady at the library today with three, and OMG, what a zoo! They were checking out books and having fun and my heart was just breaking for that poor haggard mother…”

  11. Isn’t it interesting what seem people can’t keep themselves from saying? What that person said doesn’t even make sense, really. Good for your for not engaging with them…accept to show them The Look. (I have one of those, too, but I use it when I’m too dumb-struck to know what to say…which is most of the time.)

    I love that you had one child sit on another at the deli. That’s awesome. I don’t know that I would have had the balls to do such but I believe that one’s going in the tool bag. Thank you for that.

  12. Loved it! I get the hands full comment A LOT! My standard response is “and my heart, too, so I feel pretty lucky”, which shocks people for some reason (it has literally stopped people in their tracks a couple of different times, which goes to show just how crazy they think I must be to actually enjoy this thing called motherhood). I think “the look” probably conveyed it all so much better and seems it was extremely effective in ending the ridiculousness of the conversation, rather than prolong the agony. Thanks for one beautiful rant (I like that inner child) 🙂

  13. i now have seven kids, and since I had three have had the ‘you have your hands full!’ comment approximately every 10 yards down the pavement every. damn. time. we go out.

    I tend to answer ‘yup, it keeps me out of mischief!’ with a big grin!

    Now I have seven, I actually tend to get ‘how do you COPE?!’ a lot more. I assure them that seven is a LOT easier than two or three – yes, really!

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  17. You know, it’s funny because I’ve always had a polar opposite response to the “You sure have your hands full” comment. I’ve always taken it as a compliment and my knee jerk response has always been ,”I know! I’m awesome!” It took me a long time to understand why people get irritated with that comment, but I get it, I do, but… I still think I rock. 🙂

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