Today in the grocery store I had my eldest child only, which meant I wasn’t having to deal with two children fighting or (and this is worse, I swear) climbing up the side of the aisles or running full-tilt through the store or pestering me every second for brownie mix and cream-top yogurt and coloring books. In fact I was having a great conversation with my daughter and she was doing the math to shop for groceries. An excellent exercise; I think I was in my twenties before I started noticing how much food cost. In the produce section I ran into a friend and she looked beautiful but rather stressed; we talked about what was stressing her for a bit, then talked about some upcoming gatherings we’re planning, and caught up as best we could. And toward the end of the conversation we heard the kind of heart-wrenching crying that usually comes from an infant in distress, an all-out sobbing that if drawn out for any length of time is hard for most parents to hear. “I’m going to go nurse that baby right now,” I joked to my friend, and she admitted to having the same impulse. We parted ways and Sophie and I headed to the canned vegetable aisle to get olives for tonight’s dinner, homemade French bread and Salad Nicoise.
The crying was not in fact coming from an infant but from a child old enough to walk, sobbing and screaming and trailing behind his mother who gripped the handles of one of those huge, pain-in-the-ass carts that’s supposed to be extra fun for small children but is really cumbersome to drive, at least in my opinion. The screaming child looked to be between three and four and he was distraught and so was she, although of course full-grown women aren’t allowed, socially, to throw fits or collapse in the aisles of supermarkets. As I passed I smiled at her and she smiled back, but her eyes weren’t really seeing me. She looked almost calm – and of course, many parents can be calm while their child has a big, loud upset in a public place (the family I grew up in denigrated children’s emotional displays by calling them “throwing a fit”) – but I knew the look of tension and anger in this woman and I knew she was very upset. I moved down the aisle and as Sophie and I spied the olives and noted their price I heard this mother at the end of my aisle lean down and near-yell at the child, telling him to shut up and I can’t remember what she called him. Then she’d straightened again and continued shopping. The child remained inconsolable.
Here’s the shitty thing, there were lots of people in the store and they were all either ignoring her or sending off hostile looks and vibrations. This broke my heart into tiny pieces. When I passed her again I said “Ma’am, excuse me, can I help you in any way? Would you like me to hang out with him for a little while and you can finish shopping?”
“No, he’s just a brat,” the woman says. She is a blonde and tiny, her face tight with strain. Her voice is harsh, she looks up at me and then away, and her chin shakes. I say, “I understand. I have two of my own,” and I put my hand on her arm. I have tears in my eyes. She passes on and I put my hand on the little guy’s head too, and I let them go. I think to myself I hope it means something to her, that I saw her and saw what she was going through, and I felt only love and compassion, and I didn’t cast her out or condemn her like everyone else I saw in the store. And even as my words offering help came out of my mouth I thought it was so unlikely she’d avail herself of my assistance – although I was totally willing, and if she’d have had a few moments to herself to shop I’ll bet she could have pulled it together and come back to her child refreshed a bit, and I only wish she would have let me do this for her. But I’ve myself been that mom who needs help, and had help offered, and sometimes I take it and often I don’t, and I hope every damn person who’s done it realizes how much it meant to me.
The thing is some people look at this woman and think she’s a bad person, or a bad mother (totally different, so much more pointed and awful and loaded), and feel sorry for the child in this case in that sort of nosey, pathetic what-about-the-children?! type of feeling sorry. And I felt sorry for the child, sure.
But I also know the chances are most every other minute of every day this woman is loving up on this boy and sticking up for him, and just then she needed someone to stick up for her.