It was late one Saturday when my husband and I stopped at a travel center for coffee before heading home after a day out.
I stayed in the car singing along to an old Whitney Houston song as my husband went inside. A car pulled up alongside of me and a girl who looked about 8 or 9 got out with a cute poodle. A young woman, who I presumed was her mother, got out moments later. She took the poodle’s leash from her daughter and the girl skipped toward the travel center and went inside.
I watched as the mother carried on a deep conversation on her cell phone and walked the poodle to the other side of the travel center where she lit up a cigarette. Minutes went by.
Why aren’t you going to check on your daughter? I said to myself. Did you ever hear of the word pedophile?
The girl finally came out holding a rainbow slushy. I exhaled a relieved sigh until the mother handed her the poodle and went inside.
Was this mother stuck on stupidity? I wondered. Just that week I’d heard an Amber Alert for an abducted child in the surrounding area.
My husband came out with our coffee. I tasted mine. “Sweetheart, it needs more sugar,” I lied stalling for time. This little girl needed someone to watch over her while her mother was inside.
I turned Whitney’s song down to an inaudible level and kept my hand on the door latch. I had on comfortable flats. I could sprint if I had to in order to save this child from harm.
What would make this mother think a young child could be so unassailable in this too often cruel world. Didn’t she watch Nancy Grace?
But as I continued to judge what I perceived as her lackadaisical parenting, to tear her actions apart without knowing her heart or backstory, I remembered once being a young mother who was too trusting. And the thought that someone might have been judging me harshly, someone who didn’t see me loving on my babies, who didn’t know that I would stand in front of a speeding locomotive to protect them, caused me to have this awful pit in my stomach.
It was right after my husband had gotten out of the Armed Services. We had three children, two young sons and a baby girl, and were settling back into civilian life. My husband had to take a city exam at a high school so we packed the children up, and while he took his exam, I waited with others in the high school gymnasium. A woman began talking to me. She was a pleasant diversion as we waited. In the midst of us talking, my youngest son began doing the “I have to go to the bathroom dance,” so I placed my daughter who was asleep in her carrier so we could find a restroom.
“I’ll watch her,” the woman said. “She’s sleeping so peacefully.” Her voice was scented with sweetness.
I hesitated but then I thought I’d only be gone for a few minutes. I stepped away with my sons in tow and walked toward the exit door and smack into my husband.
Often, as I look at my adult daughter, now the mother of a 6-year-old girl, I think about how that day could have ended differently if my husband hadn’t shown up. Thankfully, I’ll never know that side of pain. But sometimes when I hear disturbing news reports about children, it makes me want to grab every child and put a GPS tracker on them and a bodyguard. I’m still haunted by what could have happened.
Back then, I was a smart, intelligent loving mother. I just assumed the good in people would always outweigh the evil. Maybe the mother at the travel center dreamt a better world for her daughter from the first time she rubbed the expanse of her belly, and that’s how she lived, as if such a world existed instead of this fearful place that can make us want to keep our children in a bubble.
Recently, at my and my husband’s favorite restaurant, a mother came in with her child with special needs. She garnered a few disapproving stares from a few other mothers because she allowed her daughter’s hair to be beautiful and wild and free.
This mother had probably been long overdue for a day out, for time to catch her breath and have a nice meal she didn’t have to prepare. I bet sh thought, Comb be damn! Let’s go eat. Or maybe she just loved the way her daughter’s hair made a sweet halo around her face, and that was the way it was going to stay. My heart broke that her choice for her daughter was being dissected by others, though this choice had no bearing whatsoever on her daughter’s well-being.
Why, I wonder, are we so hard on each other? We give a parental hall pass to fathers more often than the mothers we share a sisterhood with. Their actions don’t warrant our criticism, because we are all in this “mothering” thing together, the seasoned ones and the young ones, growing and evolving each day.
Instead of being critical, we should offer other mothers a smile, a look that lets them know we’ve walked a few miles in their shoes, or a kind word. And when they are preoccupied with whatever is going on in their life, we need to be that guardian angel for their child until they can come back down to earth. For, at times, all of us have been distracted by life’s burdens.
That night at the travel center, the young mother and my husband exited at the same time. I watched as mother, daughter, and poodle got into their car and drove off. I whispered a heartfelt apology to her and any other mother I ever judged erroneously, and then I turned Whitney up full blast.