I have an embarrassing confession to make: I put my daughter on a leash.
Before you start thinking that I treat my children like dogs, let me explain about my daughter. Elsa (she's 14 now, and leashless for a very long time) hated strollers. We carried her in our arms or in a sling when she was a baby, but the moment she could walk, that's all she wanted to do. And Elsa was an intrepid explorer who would routinely head off on her own. I think she assumed that when she was done exploring she'd turn around and my husband or I would be there.
If she'd been an only child, that would have been easier to pull off. But Elsa entered her Intrepid Explorer phase when Michaela and Zack were 6 and 5. They were not (thank goodness) intrepid explorers, but they were young enough to occasionally need my attention in public places -- sometimes, unfortunately, at exactly the moment that Elsa set off on an expedition. Because my husband works on weekends, I was often by myself with the three of them at the zoo or museum or store. After a few terrifying episodes when I was sure she had been kidnapped (my heart still races when I think about the time when I lost her in CVS), I decided that desperate measures were warranted. So I bought a harness that had a leash attached to it.
This revolutionized outings for me. I no longer had to worry about losing Elsa, and I could interact more with Michaela and Zack instead of spending my time chasing Elsa and shouting to them to follow me. The first few times we used it Elsa played with it to see if she could get it off (she couldn't), but then she adapted to it quite nicely. Occasionally she'd pull to go in a different direction, but we'd distract her ("Elsa, let's go this way and see the LIONS!") and she'd happily trot along with us.
I got lots of weird looks (especially when Michaela or Zack would ask, "Can I have a turn walking Elsa?"). Some of them were pleasant; many people laughed. But many were definitely not pleasant. A few were clearly horrified.
For what it's worth, she's the only one of my children who needed a leash. Natasha never wandered far from my side, and although Liam was another intrepid explorer, by the time he was born there were enough older siblings around that I could always deputize someone to track him on his expeditions. But when Elsa was a toddler, the leash was what I needed to keep her safe and be a better parent to the others.
That's the thing: the horrified ones never asked why I was using the leash. They labeled me a terrible mom without knowing the whole story. Which, actually, is pretty common; we all jump to judgments sometimes. But parenthood is hard, and complicated, with curve balls coming at you all the time. Every parent chooses his or her own solutions to problems. Just because someone's solutions are different from ours doesn't mean they are wrong.
And sometimes, instead of judging, we should offer to help. Not that I would necessarily have deputized strangers to track Elsa. But some of those terrifying moments of nearly losing her could have been avoided if someone had noticed she was wandering way from me and said something, or brought her to a security guard, or looked for her with me. Nobody did anything. Maybe, if people had helped, I wouldn't have needed a leash.
Once, when Zack was about a month old, I took him and then 19-month-old Michaela to the park. Zack was hungry, so I settled Michaela in the sandbox and began to nurse him. Just as he latched on, Michaela left the sandbox and went to the slides. So I took Zack off my breast -- which made him start crying -- and went to a seat near the slides. Just when I started nursing again, Michaela went back to the sandbox. As I stood up with a now screaming Zack, a mother came over to me, put her hand on my arm, and said, "Nurse the baby. I'll watch your daughter." I nearly cried myself, I was so grateful. Moments like these make such a difference in the life of a parent.
So the next time you see something that looks strange to you -- like a kid on a leash -- stop before you judge. There just might be a really reasonable explanation. And, more importantly, there might be something you can do to help.