My oldest son has been old enough for some time to prefer public restrooms designated for males, which poses a particular problem for me, his mother, who is largely consigned to public restrooms designated for females.
He’ll be nine shortly, and a while back I could see when I brought him into a public women’s restroom his decidedly chagrined demeanor–the mortification in his face, the averted gaze when he ran into a girl his age. I was torn between wanting to make sure he was one hundred percent safe and honoring his dignity. I tried to find the halfway points for a while–letting him use only family restrooms or men’s rooms that had a single stall. But eventually this was no longer practical or possible. So, I would hover outside the men’s rooms of America, making sure I was seen by every man going in; I would also announce my presence to any men who might have been inside by calling to my son intermittently while he was in the bathroom.
Still, I spoke to my son about the strangers he might encounter: Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t let anyone talk to you. If anything makes you uncomfortable, come out immediately and tell me who and what and let me deal with it. And even though I knew this talk made it sound as though danger lurks around every stall, I knew the grave importance of arming him with a sense of caution and vigilance, of helping him to develop good judgment.
Time went by, and my son consistently proved himself to be full of good judgment in this arena as well as many others. So, I stopped my blaring monologues outside the restroom doors and just let him go in, checking in with him each time afterward to make sure he hadn’t forgotten any of the words of wisdom that had been imparted.
Things went along uneventfully for a year–until today, actually.
It was a small public restroom–one he has used countless times. He went in. I sat on a bench just a few feet away. Within a minute, a man exited the restroom. Then my son.
He was pale, shuffling toward me more quickly than usual, his upper lip and nose wrinkled in worry, then the fearsome, breathless monologue the likes of which no parent is ever ready to hear: “Mom, there was a strange man in the bathroom. He came out of the stall and started looking at me and asking me where my mother was. I thought it was weird because he’s a stranger and he’s not supposed to talk to me without a trusted adult with me–especially in the bathroom. And then I thought, ‘Why would he ask where my mother was when we were in the men’s room?’ I just shut the stall door, did what I had to do, and came out to tell you. Was that right?”
There could be a thousand reasons why this man spoke to my son, looked at him the way he did, asked him where I was. But none of those matter because of the single unconscionable one, the one I had to explain today to an eight-year-old boy whose childhood I’m wishing could go back to being nothing but carefree.