Flustered, flushed, and blinking back tears, I approached checkout and snuck a glance at the girl standing behind the counter. Her hair was clean and smooth and her makeup tastefully applied. She was calmly waiting for a customer to serve. Well ding, ding, fucking ding. She got me—the disheveled mother with sweat pooling on her upper lip and her haven’t-been-groomed-in-weeks-brows. Jackpot.
“Hi,” I said, fanning my face before starting to lay my groceries on the conveyor belt. My usual meticulous grouping of like products flew out the window as I hurried to match the speed of the scanning and bagging. Onions mixed with ice cream, mixed with shampoo, into the bag they went, messy—like my unwashed hair, banana-smeared top, and scrambled brain.
Meanwhile, my daughter, sitting in the cart’s designated baby seat, screamed at us and not those cute little yelps designed to say, “Look at me, I’m so bloody adorable with my little white teeth, golden curls, and pink leggings.” No, the screeches she was producing were terrible. Imagine the sound a miniature pterodactyl/rhinoceros hybrid would make when angered. Then multiply it by 15.
Willing the tears to stay back, I turned to the girl serving me. Her discomfort was palpable. I forced a smile and said, “Have children, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.”
It was meant as a joke, something to break the tension. We were supposed to laugh together and then relax into a chat about how full on kids can be. But that didn’t happen. She looked up for a split second, gave a fleeting smile, then concentrated extra hard on bagging my vegetables.
I let out an awkward laugh and started placing my messy bags neatly into the cart, hanging on to the tiny shred of control I had over the situation. The baby was tantrumming. I was sweating. My jokes were falling flat. The groceries were not grouped correctly. Dammit, at least the bags would be stacked in a civilized fashion.
I’d been listening to my daughter’s tantrums since we started shopping. In my desperation to console her, I handed her whatever she happened to point at—a ball, water, food, my keys, a freakin’ cucumber. Every single item ended up on the floor. So not only was I shoveling things into the cart like a shopaholic on crack, I was also bouncing up and down like a demented jack-in-the-box picking up her rejected playthings.
I had known it was going to be a longer shopping trip than usual as I needed to stock up on supplies for her two birthday parties. No one was available to babysit. My husband was playing golf. My sister was working. My mother was working. Of course, my husband had made sure I didn’t need him before he booked the round, but really, who the hell knows a breakdown is around the corner?
I paid for the groceries and made a beeline for my car, desperate for some privacy. I looked down at my daughter. I wanted to say, “Stop. Stop screaming. Stop whining. Just stop.”
Instead, I stopped. I brought the cart to a grinding halt and took a deep breath. All of a sudden I was overcome with guilt. Because when I looked down at my daughter, I didn’t see a small predatory animal intent on tormenting me. I saw a sad little girl holding her arms up to her mom for a cuddle. Two of the tears I’d been holding in escaped and rolled down my cheeks. I leaned forward, planted a kiss on top of her head, and then continued walking to the car. The moment we got there, I scooped my baby up into my arms and held her close until she calmed down. When the cries subsided, I buckled her into her seat and loaded the groceries into my car.
Once home, I forced my list of to-dos out of my mind and sat on the floor with my daughter as she proceeded to take every single toy out of the toy box one-by-one—her favorite game. Every so often, she’d hand me a random object and babble something incoherently. Smiles replaced screams. It wasn’t two damn birthday parties and a special monkey cake she needed. It was her mother’s attention, her mother’s time.
Maybe she didn’t need the cake, but my Instagram account did. Okay?
Why was I finding it difficult to give my daughter what she needed? Quite simply, my tank was empty—the fuel spent long ago on planning, list-writing, shopping, article research, Googling cake recipes, and more list-writing. Ridiculous. I see that now.
We spend so much time thinking about what our kids “need”—all the Bonds onesies so they look fab even when they sleep, a little extra money in their bank accounts because last month they got $48 instead of $50, gold for their birthdays “just in case they need to sell some stuff for a quick buck in the future” (or is that last one just me?). But really, all your kids need is you. The best version of you. But here’s the thing: To actually have the capacity to give your children what they need, you need to give yourself what you need.
Whether it’s a long walk, therapy, or Keeping Up With the Kardashians that feeds your soul, find a way to give it to yourself. Baby’s napping? Ignore the dishes and sink into the couch with a cup of tea instead. Craving some alone time? If possible, drop your little one off at a friend or relative’s house once a week—even if all you do is stare at a wall for the following two hours. Losing your mind from sleep deprivation? Okay, I got nothing. But I will say this: I share your struggle. You’re not alone.
Deny yourself the time you need to refuel, and you deny your child the best version of you. I felt like a genius when the penny finally dropped for me. I wanted to stand on the roof of my house and yell, “I get it now! I need to look after me so I can look after her!” But let’s face it: I’m just too tired for that shit.
I made it through that busy weekend without anymore hiccups by the way—well, not major ones anyway, just a handful of embarrassing ones. Instead of ordering a prawn and pork rice paper roll for another on-the-run lunch, I ordered a “porn roll.” Thankfully the girl serving me knew what I really meant. I also announced to everyone at my daughter’s birthday party that I’d bring out the “Chim Cham Teesecake” (Tim Tam Cheesecake), just as soon as I changed the baby’s “wappy” (wet nappy). Not the words I intended to use, but sometimes, when a mom’s run off her feet, her brain becomes tired too. That weekend, I was a tired mom who couldn’t be fully present for her daughter’s birthday. I decided to take the following few days to slow down, use my words, and throw all the lists out the window.