When my son was a baby, he and I ventured out into the adult world. Our mission lacked the cinematic complexity of saving the Earth from an alien invasion or defusing a bomb while wearing a leather dominatrix outfit. That winter afternoon, my mission was this: drive to a strip mall by my parents’ home while they watched my toddler so I could return some shoes I’d bought while still pregnant.
If you are or ever were a parent of a young child, or know parents of a young child, you realize errands like this are anything but easy. They involve weather research, time and distance calculation, packing a bag for every imaginable circumstance and figuring out an auspicious point on the feeding, napping, and diaper change continuum. So after putting in the prepwork, I planned to savor every moment of my 30-minute errand with my baby.
I should add that in his early infancy, my baby cried in the evenings, and he cried a lot. From sunset until long past midnight, nothing I did soothed him. He’d eventually fall asleep in two-hour chunks and wake up happy and refreshed the following day, until dusk descended again. “He’s a big growing boy!” the doctors and nurses said whenever I brought him in for check-ups or called for medical advice in desperation. “He’s just colicky. Relax!”
But that afternoon in the store, my son finally slept. With my heart full, I kept lifting the Dreft-smelling muslin with drawings of blue parachutes that covered the stroller and peeking inside. His tiny shoulders rose and fell to the rhythm of his breathing. He was vulnerable and perfect. I wanted to imprint this moment in my memory forever.
It felt good to be out with my son in a structured world with other adults, armed with some under-eye concealer. Maybe I was finally getting the hang of this second-time mom thing. I got in line. Maybe my senses were dulled by chronic sleep deprivation, but I could even tolerate Phil Collins being played on the store radio.
As my turn in line finally arrived, I heard a whimper. I looked inside the stroller. The baby’s big brown eyes looked back at me. He woke up.
A decision had to be made, and fast.
I could unbuckle him from his warm bundle and hold him, exposing him to the cold and the winter germs that seemed to be everywhere. A customer in line blew her nose. Someone nearby was having a coughing fit, shaking from the force of her phlegm. A man behind me sneezed with his mouth ajar and I could almost see particles of saliva sputtering in slow motion in the direction of my defenseless babe.
My second option was to leave. Forget the expiring return window, call it a loss, and run home.
And my third option was to pray that the baby would fall asleep again – after all, he was a champion afternoon napper. He’d just been fed, changed, and burped. The transaction would just be a minute. I’d rock the stroller covered with its protective blanket to ease him back into his nap and get out. What could go wrong?
I handed my return item and credit card to the cashier.
But the baby didn’t fall asleep. His whimper turned into a cry.
The clerk-in-training wasn’t in a hurry. He smiled and talked about the weather. He tapped the wrong register keys. He requested a code from the manager, then another code. He dropped the scanner and ducked down looking for it.
Meanwhile, five seconds of crying turned into 10 seconds. Which, as far as crying babies are concerned, is a torturesome eternity.
“I’ll come back another time,” I said, taking my things.
“Just this last thingamajig – almost done,” the clerk said and yanked my shoebox back. The baby wailed. God, how I hated Phil Collins.
That’s when I heard a voice behind me. “Can I help you.” It wasn’t your normal question, where the intonation sort of flutters upward, hanging a flirty question mark at the top. It was a bottom-heavy declaration of intent.
I turned and saw a woman with thick eyeliner and long hair that fell around her sweatshirt. “I said, can I help you,” she repeated, looking at me.
“Thanks, I got this,” I said, grateful for what at first seemed a good Samaritan gesture. I rocked the stroller harder, simultaneously singing a lullaby and begging the clerk to stop holding my things hostage so we could just leave.
“In case you didn’t notice,” the woman noted, “your baby’s crying. Aren’t you gonna pick up your child?” She and her friend shook their heads. People in line stopped coughing.
“I’m leaving,” I said.
“Oh, now she’s leavin’? You’d better be leavin’!” the woman shouted to my back as I scrambled for the exit. “I sure as hell hope that’s your only child. You’re a monster, not a mother!”
Outside in the parking lot, I rocked my baby, wet-faced and dozing off in my arms, away from the coughing audience.
The store clerk followed me out to return my credit card.
“Shame on you!” the woman kept on from a distance, spotting us on her way out.
I haven’t gone back to that store since. But as my work hours and late meetings away from family get longer, the guilty conscience takes me there anyway, to the time I made a mistake.
Bad decision maker. Monster mom.
In those moments of guilt, as all the past parenting errors come unraveling, looming large and merciless, I sometimes glimpse an image of a mother I’ve never met in real life. She tends to float in during the most vulnerable moments, catching me alone with these thoughts. She may be doing yoga on the beach with her children, dressed in spotless pastels.
At other times, I see her vacuuming in high heels that accentuate her muscled calves, with a giggling baby strapped to her chest. She’s got dinner ready by six, while working overtime to exceed company goals and cover the house down payment. She is always smiling. Even her darn cupcakes have this perfectly chiseled frosting, every one of them.
But I wonder lately if, unlike that very real shopper who called me a monster, this “ideal mother” of my imagination is real. Does she even exist? Maybe she’s just a mannequin at an off-price chain store, wearing knock-off shoes and a blouse with last season’s patterns. Maybe, too tired and ridden with self-doubt, we aren’t noticing that she is but a construct of our collective imagination.
So lately, whenever her specter floats in, I want to politely ask her, just like I’d eventually asked that shopper, to let me and my family be. Because even with our flawed reality, with its under-eye circles and colic and blunders, we love our children, love them fiercely and selflessly, giving them all we are capable of.
And it may not be perfect, but it’s everything.