The first spring and summer we spent in Richmond, we ate out frequently; usually at the big town center that was, conveniently, located just up the street from our new house. Millie wasn’t really mobile yet and therefore tolerated being confined to a restaurant high chair for the duration of a meal. So, we took full advantage of the small window we had before she knew how much more fun life was on the other side of walking upright. The town center has lots of restaurants with patio seating, plenty of open space for the bigger kids to roam and all of our favorite stores, so it was a fun destination for the whole family in those first few months.
One Saturday afternoon, as we were walking through the parking lot back to our car after grabbing a bite out at the mall, we heard a child screaming. Not the kind of screaming that comes from being hurt or injured but more the kind of persistent, perpetual shrieking that emanates from a massive temper tantrum. As we got closer and closer to our minivan, the hollering got louder and louder. It was definitely a temper tantrum but ramped up to, like, one hundred. When we arrived at the car, we realized we were parked just a couple of (empty) spaces away from the source of all of that distress: a mom trying to handle her very, very upset young child.
Now, as the parent of three kids, a total meltdown isn’t something I’m unaccustomed to. The tears, the dramatic fall to the floor, maybe a little flailing, even the occasional biting. I get it. Kids don’t have control over much and their outbursts are their way of saying, “this fact sucks.” However, this woman’s little girl was simply beside herself. She was sobbing and thrashing and uncontrollable. I watched the mom try unsuccessfully a couple of times to close the latch on her daughter’s carseat harness only to have her daughter do that thing that kids do where they buck their hips to pop out of the seat and avoid capture. It appeared they had been carrying on in this manner for awhile.
As the yelling continued several feet from us, Bob and I gave each other a knowing glance that wordlessly exclaimed, “SO glad that’s not our kid,” and went about the tedious process of securing three children, a large stroller and assorted bags of purchases and leftover food in our car. Since that process isn’t lightning quick, the scene in the SUV next door had a chance to unfold a bit further. By the time Bob had climbed into the driver’s seat of our car, things between the mom and her daughter had become impossible. By now, the woman was on her cell phone, in frustrated tears, explaining to the person on the other end of the line that she couldn’t get her daughter buckled into her carseat. From the one side of the conversation I could hear, I surmised that she was talking to her husband since she repeatedly requested that he leave the game he was at with their other child to come to the mall to help her.
At this point, seeing the distress between both of them, my internal eye-rolling at the girl’s behavior turned to genuine concern. You could tell that both of them were in a bad, bad place. There was so much crying and so much behavior past the point of being even remotely rational.
It felt wrong to drive away from that scene. So, in a distinct departure from my history of avoiding all awkward situations, I walked over and asked the mom if there was anything I could do to help. It took a few seconds for my presence to register so I repeated my question. She avoided eye contact but tearfully explained that she couldn’t get her daughter into her carseat. I remember reassuring her that it was all okay. Explaining and empathizing that I knew how difficult kids can be. Then, I told her to stay there, next to her daughter and her daughter’s carseat, while I walked around to the other side of her car and climbed in the rear passenger seat. As a complete stranger, I terrified the little girl when I introduced myself and explained that I was going to help her mom get her buckled in. But, we persevered through the tantrum and between the two of us, we were able to get the girl in place and the carseat straps secured.
I climbed back out and headed around towards our car, where Bob sat puzzled at the delay. The mom didn’t say a word. I could see she was taking deep breaths and trying to collect herself. Possibly a little embarrassed. By the time we backed out of our parking space, she was already driving away.
I don’t know if I’ve ever shared the story of the mom in the parking lot with anyone before. Mostly, because it feels so personal and the situation itself was so dramatic. I wasn’t sure if I could properly convey how desperate it all seemed. But, if I’m being honest here, I probably haven’t shared it because it hits so close to home in a really uncomfortable way. That mom looked like me. Her daughter was acting just how my kids act. I could have easily been in that situation. Her behavior mirrored how I know I’ve reacted to problems in the past. It’s tough to witness what one must look like when all reasonableness gets pushed aside.
Because, as parents, we’ve all been there. At one time or another. That place of no return. Peppered with problems and barraged with issues and in-fighting, tears and tantrums and why won’t you stop talking and who peed on the floor and what is that smell and who broke this thing over here and did ANY of your food actually make it into your mouth and it just piles on and on and on until… BLAMMO! That final push over the edge, like a car in a cartoon suspended halfway over a cliff, a little girl that refuses to get into her carseat, and it’s all over. The train goes off the tracks. We just can’t deal anymore.
It’s been an interesting and trying few weeks around our house. My children are wonderful, delightful little people that demand all of my time, most of my energy and every last bit of my patience. Some days are amazing. Other days head in the wrong direction from the minute they wake up and emerge from their rooms. Every day is an opportunity to keep the train on the tracks.
This parenthood business is brutal but beautiful. Solidarity, sister in the parking lot. No judgement here.