“You hear that baby crying?” asked my youngest child.
Who didn’t? We were standing in the oral care aisle at Target, and the sound of wailing filled the Health and Beauty department. Baby #4 looked at me with concern, patiently waiting for me to seek out the source of the noise and to promptly shush it. It didn’t sound like the weeping of a child in trouble. This was definitely an infant that had had enough shopping for one day.
Baby #4 was enjoying a bit of unexpected freedom in that moment. Normally, he is confined to the shopping cart, but since we had two more items on our list and the registers weren’t far away he was standing in the aisle as requested. He was playing the part of confident shopper, perusing the toothpaste choices like a label-reader, while I was on alert to scoop him up at the first sign of him causing mischief.
I assured him that the baby we heard would be fine, and corralled him down the aisle as I pushed our shopping cart. Before I could navigate towards the cleaning products, another shopper’s cart whisked in front of us. A woman appeared holding an infant that looked to be about 9 months old. The little one’s face was red and blotchy from sustained crying. She was pushing the cart with one hand and cradling him in the other. Her expression led me to believe she wasn’t far away from joining in his weeping.
“Ah, little babe, what’s the matter?” I asked him with a smile.
He looked over at me and hiccuped, his little body shuddering with a silent sob. He then glanced down at Baby #4, who was staring at him with no small amount of annoyance.
“Yeah, baby, why you cryin,?” His sanctimonious self was poised with fists on hips. Oh, the irony here…
“I’m sorry,” the woman said, wiping at her own eyes with the back of her hand, “he’s having a tough day.”
The baby looked back at me with tired eyes, and his head bent towards her shoulder.
“No apologies need,” I assured her. “Everyone has tough days.” I hoped that she could sense the sincerity in my reply.
The infant was quiet, watching Baby #4 rearrange bottles of mouthwash on a shelf. The woman took advantage of his silence to blurt out a question.
“It gets better, right?”
I thought about that. Better? I didn’t want to speculate on the extent of the question’s origin. Parenting is full of surprises attributed to bad public behaviors: projectile vomit, diaper leaks, streaking, back-talking, tantrums…Some days we parents handle it with grace, reacting swiftly and effectively to minimize the damage. Other days, we aren’t as nimble on our feet, do not possess the right words to calm the situation, and our frayed and frazzled ends show.
Other people can be sympathetic, or they can worsen a parent’s embarrassment over the incident. I’ve heard the loud sighs in church when my children are unwrapping their snacks and crunching on crackers. I’ve seen the eye-rolls when there’s a tantrum on the boardwalk when I say no to a souvenir. I know about the head-shakes when one of the kids refuses his dinner at a wedding reception, or melts down while I’m attempting to have an adult conversation at a party.
No one can see our families and immediately comprehend the complexities of our mix of personalities , needs, and situations. What a different world it would be if we could. Recently, a friend of mine was asked to leave a restaurant with her autistic child because he was crying loudly while transitioning. What if the staff had tried to assist the family instead of ostracizing them? If you read the comments some people leave on articles like the one my friend was featured in, you will be appalled at the lack of empathy. Why are so many parents quick to judge one another, when we’ve all been like this harried mother in Target?
I’ve also experienced the surge of reassurance and compassion that others can provide during those difficult moments. The woman that complimented me after Mass by saying that I was wise for bringing my children to church, as I was on my hands and knees picking up minuscule crumbs of granola bar…the gentleman who did a magic trick for my son when his anxiety threw him into a panic at the mall…the nods and smiles over the heads of stubborn, disruptive children while I’m trying my best to keep my cool and finish the task on hand…those people are what I remember in detail about those stressful moments. I don’t clearly recall what brought the incident on to being with, but I remember the reassurance. I’ve never forgotten how, in those difficult moments, someone reached out to remind me that yes, I’m doing a good job raising my kids.
We are parents. Managing another person’s life 24-7 is more daunting and complicated than trying to maintain one’s own. Sometimes we make quick and efficient decisions; sometimes we put time and effort into a strategic plan, only to watch it crumble under the formidable will of a toddler. Even those of us who are the most prepared are going to experience surprises. So much of our own mood hinges on the whims of a child.
These thoughts swirled through my mind as she waited for an answer. I laughed from deep down inside. Does it get better?
“Some days, yes. Some days…not so much.” I shrugged. “But I look at your baby and I see a little guy that is deeply loved. You’re doing a great job.”