On each of my kid’s first birthdays, my father takes them to a local roast beef spot for lunch. He borrows my car seat, packs them into his Jeep Wrangler, and takes them out for a sandwich and a milkshake. And while I am not typically a person who over-values or leans into a tradition, I really love this one. My oldest son happily traveled a few towns over with his Grumpy and successfully tore into a cheesy, sauce-covered sandwich. He arrived home happy and full-bellied, no worse for wear. So three years later, when my second son — with whom my dad clearly shared a special connection — was turning one, the excitement for #birthdaybeefs was mounting. But this time, it did not go quite as planned.
My son waited by the window, sporting a brand new outfit that I’d just put him in moments before. He was headed to the local cool-guy lunch hangout, after all, so I knew he needed to look the part. Gray checkered shorts, a white tee, and, because he was finally an expert walker, his first pair of sneakers — electric blue suede Pumas. He was ready for his beef-covered Instagram fame.
My dad arrived a few minutes early and was greeted by a slightly unsure, but excited birthday boy. I wrestled the carseat into place, I strapped him in, and off they went. I would like to say that I was cool and relaxed sending my one-year-old off on this excursion, but I was far from it. Despite being my second go-around, my anxiety was still off-the-charts. But this was important, so I took a few deep breaths to calm down, assuring myself that they could be back safe, happy, and full soon enough.
I waited patiently for the first text to come through — one showing an unwrapped sandwich on the table and tiny hands reaching in curiosity. And when I got it, I was surprised. He was fine, definitely, but he looked a little off. Not crying, but not smiling — unsure maybe. That’s fine, I told myself. New place, new people, new beef. I get it.
“How is he?! Does he love it?!” I asked.
“He’s okay,” was the reply.
Okay?! Just okay?! My mind raced.
A few minutes later a handful of photos came through. His fingers were covered in a mixture of cheese and sauce and his shirt in ketchup. One photo showed him sipping on his milkshake. But while I remember big smiling photos of my first in this scene, that was not the vibe here. He was eating, and he was okay, but he wasn’t happy.
I knew it, I thought. What kind of mother sends her one-year-old son to a local beef joint with his weird grandfather? My dad probably doesn’t know how to hold him. He’s probably scaring him, or making him nervous. Damn it, I should have trusted my gut — he is only okay when he’s with his mother. No one else knows how to take care of him the right way.
“Great pics! Hurry home! Drive safe!” I replied.
Half a milkshake and a long stretch of highway later, they made it back through the front door. My son was in tears and my poor father looked rattled. “I think he hates me. He basically cried the whole time!”
Crap. Now I felt bad for my dad too! This was supposed to be a special outing — a life memory and highlight, and my kid was unglued. I grabbed him from my dad and rubbed his back as he buried his head in my shoulder.
“I have no idea why he was so sad. Nothing bad happened!” my dad pleaded, knowing I was on edge. “Oh, it’s fine. I am sure he just really missed me. He’s used to being with me all the time. We are just really connected. It’s not you. Just stay for a minute, he will calm down.”
We sat on the couch, my son on my lap, and within a few minutes the crying had lessened. “Maybe he doesn’t like being so messy,” I suggested — he was covered in three kinds of lunch sauce, after all. So as my husband ran up to grab him a new set of clothes, I took off his shoes.
Instantly, he seemed relieved. Unable to articulate anything, he looked at me, wide eyed, and stopped crying.
And as I looked down at my hand, holding the brand new electric blue, cool-guy Puma sneakers, I saw it — the thick wad of crumpled up packing paper, still in his tiny little shoe. Both of them, in fact. I gasped.
It was not my father, or the strangers, or the highway, or the roast beef that upset my beautiful birthday boy so much. It was me — his mother who wedged his tiny feet into shoes still fully occupied by copious amounts of packing paper, leaving them scrunched and in pain for over an hour.
Thankfully, no permanent podiatric damage was incurred, but holy crap, what a twist. I was left in tears, my father was so annoyed with me, and my husband has been using it as stand-up comedy material at parties ever since.
So next time you are feeling like a crap mom — like a hot mess who doesn’t have it together and can’t figure it out — just remember, you didn’t send your one-year-old down the highway for a hot beef with a sneaker half-full of paper. Or maybe you did, in which case, solidarity.
Samm D. is an ex-lawyer and mom of four who swears a lot.