Why didn't I stop to help this struggling dad?

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

I am on my way to collect my son from after-school care when I hear an ear-shattering shriek, one only toddlers are capable of producing.

Outside my local convenience store, a harried father is attempting to strap his daughter into her pram. She protests, red-faced, as he clicks the straps shut.

The shrieking gets louder.

Ten metres up ahead I see another girl, around three years old, all blonde hair, in an Elsa-blue dress. She is sitting on the footpath, alone. It's a strange sight, this tiny child on this busy inner-city street, a look of steely defiance on her face.  

As I walk towards her to see if she's okay, I hear someone yell out behind me.

"Come here now!"

I realise, then, that the little girl, who remains completely still on the concrete, isn't alone at all -  she belongs to the increasingly stressed dad. 

"Come here!" He bellows again, his voice thick with frustration. 

"I don't want to."

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I am close to her now, the mother in me primed to help, when I hear the dad's voice again.

"I DON'T CARE," he screams. "You can't be trusted to walk by yourself. GET INTO THE PRAM."

The father charges past me to retrieve his daughter, and, out of instinct, I flinch. 

And I keep walking.

The scene stays with me as I pick my son up from school. I can't shake the feeling of guilt that I didn't stop to help - something I've done countless times before.

So why didn't I? What stopped me this time?

It occurs to me that had the dad been a fellow mother, my response would have been very different. I would have smiled and made a comment about "having one of those days." I might have thrown her a "I've-been-there" look, or waited beside the little girl while her mother retrieved the pram. 

But I wouldn't have had the same reaction to her voice.

Because on some level, and one that wasn't really conscious, when the man yelled, I was momentarily afraid. The tone of his voice scared me, and my conditioned response was to flee. Is that silly? Rationally, perhaps it is. The girls clearly recognised their father's "dad voice" and weren't at all fazed. It might also have something to do with my former job as a child protection caseworker, where I was regularly subjected to verbal abuse from parents. But in that instant the fear was real - and it's a fear so many of us, as women, feel keenly when it comes to our safety out in public.

I wonder, too, if I knew that by trying to assist, I could easily have made the situation (unintentionally) worse. While it's gradually getting better for today's fathers, the "incompetent dad" stereotype remains alive and well. And god knows I didn't want to make the weary dad feel any worse than I could sense he already felt, by stepping in and - by doing so -  implying he couldn't handle the situation himself.

I'm still thinking about the dad, and still feeling bad about not helping him, as I reach the park with my son. I know that stretch of footpath all too well, and the dangers the side streets pose to little people still learning about road-safety. His fear, his reaction, was valid and real and palpable.

When I open the gate to the park, I see him there with his daughters. He's pushing one on the swing while the other attempts to climb the slippery dip. They are calm and smiling and happy.

It's a reminder, and a sobering one at that, that often, what we see is only a snapshot of someone's day, of their character, of their parenting and of their heart.

"Daddy can I get an iceblock?" the girl in the Elsa-blue dress asks from the top of the slippery dip.

"Not after that little performance," he says, but his tone is gentle now and he says it with a chuckle.

And oh, little one, what a performance it was.