I hear you before I see you. The familiar, high-pitched little kid voices float over the carefully stacked tomatoes where I stand mulling over heirloom, Roma, and cherry. When I look up, I see you pushing your full, green cart, your very pregnant belly nudging the handle.
Every nook of the cart is crammed with healthy food and juicy fruit, bright green vegetables and three kinds of kid cereal. There’s not an inch of empty space, which means your two small children are on foot. And they are squabbling. There is injury and insult and a small person debate about whose turn it is to ride on the side of the already heavy cart.
Your face is blank as you face forward, valiantly trying to ignore your kids, desperately hoping they magically stop their bickering. I know that strategy well. I know you’re at your wits’ end on the inside as you fight to maintain control on the outside. I know you are making deals with various deities, praying your offspring will decide it’s better to follow sweetly behind you than fight with each other.
Of course, they don’t do this.
You stop the cart. I am only a few feet away from you, rooted to the spot. The energy around you shifts, and my heart picks up its pace. I know I should mind my own business, move on, but I cannot.
In a flash, the blank look on your face transforms into an angry grimace. I inhale sharply. I know that look far too well because it mirrors my own from not too many years ago. Resentment and exhaustion, sorrow and overwhelm have mixed themselves together in a way you cannot tolerate any more. You are at your limit, and the rage that simmers just below the surface is about to boil over.
You hate feeling this way, but you don’t know how to make it go away. You know it’s not your kids’ fault, but they are fighting and causing a scene and you just want it to stop so you can check out, head home, and fall apart.
I know how you feel. I’ve been there.
I’m on my own at the grocery store right now because, blessedly, all three of my girls are finally in school five days a week. But don’t be fooled: I’m no stranger to the catastrophe that is taking little kids on errands. I remember calculating the risk versus the reward each time I had to leave the house with them in tow: Yes, we need cheese sticks and milk and food that doesn’t come out of a box, but do I really want to risk a toddler meltdown or my 5-year-old screaming at me to buy more cookies?
I remember the fatigue, not just physical but emotional, and how it put me on edge. It felt as if I was responsible for everything, but at the end of the day, I wasn’t sure if I’d actually done anything significant.
There are days when you just can’t hold it together anymore.
Swiftly, you bend down and grab your small daughter by the shoulder. Hard. She whimpers, her eyes glistening with almost-tears. Your little boy scurries away toward the strawberries where he watches from a distance.
“You’re hurting me,” she says.
Her voice is barely audible, but I hear her and my heart scrunches up in my chest. I want to catch your eye or loudly clear my throat so you look my way. I want so badly to help, but I don’t know how. Should I call you out right here in front of the corn and asparagus and all the other shoppers pretending not to see what is happening? I am not shy about talking to strangers, but I do not want to make the situation worse.
Maybe you sense me looking your way because you turn slightly in my direction and let go of your girl. I am silently willing you to look up. You don’t. Instead, you stare down at the concrete floor littered with cornhusks and I know that in this moment you are ashamed and defeated. This is not how you want to parent. This is not how you want to feel.
I didn’t want to catch your eye to shame you or heap humiliation on your already heavy shoulders. Yes, my heart hurts for your kids because, right now, they are on the receiving end of your pain, but my heart breaks equally for you. What you need in this moment is compassion.
I remember what it was like in those days of raising small children. The long, tedious hours interrupted by bursts of almost unmanageable energy; the sleepless nights and constant touching from a child or the dog or my husband. There was joy, too, but it didn’t always wash away the overwhelm. None of us ever really knows the heaviness another is carrying. The least we can do is err on the side of kindness and empathy, especially when we’ve been there ourselves.
Before I can figure myself out, you stand up, abruptly turn back to your cart and push onward, you daughter scurrying alongside you. That’s when the unexpected happens: As you pass by, your daughter reaches out and quickly runs her hand along my jeans-clad leg. I instinctively smile down at her, and she smiles back just as you whip around to apologize.
“It’s okay,” I blurt out, looking right into your eyes. “I have three. You don’t have to say anything. Nothing at all.” I reach out and gently touch your arm.
That’s when your face crumples. That’s when your eyes begin to glisten, just like your little girl’s did a moment ago. I don’t look away.
“I’m just trying to get through the day,” you say letting out a big breath that sounds as if you’ve been holding it forever.
“I know,” I reply and we share an awkward half-laugh, the kind moms know is as close to tears as it is to comedy. It is a relief.
We quickly part ways. My heart unclenches as I go in search of fizzy water. I catch a final glimpse of you and your kids just before I checkout. You are in the cookie aisle, your daughter holding one package and your son another. I see you nod. The kids giggle and both put their bounty in the cart. Everyone is going to be just fine.