More than twenty years have passed but I can remember like it was yesterday. I had my three year old, my 18 month old, and my three week old infant in the car and we were on our way to Wal-Mart. It was my first solo excursion from the house since the new baby and I was not feeling very confident just yet.
Half of the morning was spent planning, then packing the car with everything we might need. It had taken twenty minutes just to get all three children securely and correctly strapped into car-seats, including re-strapping the oldest who managed to quietly free herself while I worked on securing her sisters.
Then there was the process of finding a parking space which seemed like it was miles from the entrance, and then carrying the cumbersome and heavy infant carrier while trying to usher the two toddlers safely through the parking lot with my other hand. My “free” hand was also holding two baby bags filled with the aforementioned necessities. It was like herding cats with weights strapped to your sides, with the anxious possibility of injury or death by traffic incident.
By the time we entered the store I felt like I had done half a day’s work and I was relieved to get all the children into a shopping cart. The next two minutes were relatively calm. We made our way back to the shoe department, as our first stop was to find much needed shoes for the oldest who had outgrown everything except the hand-me-down flip-flops she was currently wearing which were two sizes too big.
I looked at my beautiful children nestled in the shopping cart and smiled to myself; maybe this wouldn’t be as difficult as I had imagined.
Within the next sixty seconds a series of events transpired one upon another. My first child asked to be freed from the cart in that voice that foretold an oncoming tantrum. I gently placed her on the ground in the hope of averting the stress. The 18 month old began to look fairly sad at being abandoned in the cart.
The eldest began a leisurely skip down the shoe aisle and quickly tripped over her too-large flip flops. She bumped her head and began to cry in sincere pain. I rushed to her side to comfort her to no avail, she was hurt and a bruise was already forming on her forehead. The middle child’s bottom lip began to tremble and she was soon weeping too, simply because her sister was crying.
Just as I was contemplating a way to comfort both distressed children at once, the baby’s face turned bright red and she filled her diaper. I mean, very audibly filled her diaper. Once the diaper deed was done, the baby’s face returned to a normal hue, but an unfortunate odor filled the area. Then the littlest child joined her sisters in wailing at the top of her tiny lungs.
In the briefest minute we had moved from relative peace to the cacophony of three little people who were upset, hurting, and in need of attention. I was stressed and embarrassed and moving from child to child doing my best to soothe and comfort. We were a loud, pitiful group.
I glanced up at the sound of a woman clearing her throat from about five feet away. I was looking into the angry eyes of an irritated shopper with her hands on her hips. As if this wasn’t awkward enough, she spoke. In a very harsh tone she commented how pathetic it was that some people couldn’t control their kids. After shooting another withering glance in my direction she walked away muttering about useless parents making useless kids. The sheer mean-ness was such a shock to me.
The discomfort of the moment sat heavily on my chest, but I turned my attention to my oldest who was able to settle after some gentleness and a band aid. The middle child calmed down as she saw her sister recover. I placed the oldest back in the cart, accomplished a very quick diaper change right there between the slippers and the boots, abandoned any thoughts of shopping, and walked straight out of the store and headed home. We purchased absolutely nothing and I felt like a failure as a mother.
In retrospect I have realized that much was accomplished that day, but it was for my heart rather than my shopping list. Despite the cruelty I experienced, I am truly thankful for those painful moments. Over the years when I have seen mothers struggling with their kids I am right back in the shoe aisle with my three precious children, and I have compassion.
Like the day I saw a little boy run the entire length of the middle church aisle during the service, I smiled at the mortified mother and patted her back. When I heard a toddler crying during a school play, I smiled, offered some crackers from my purse, and assured the stressed mom that all would be well.
When I caught a whiff of an embarrassing diaper issue during a wedding, I offered assistance and reminded mom it happens to all of us. When I encountered a crying mother in the bathroom distressed because her toddlers had caused a disturbance, I was able to offer kindness and acceptance, and let her know that it is just a part of childhood.
That painful shoe-shopping experience has stayed with me, as fresh as the day it happened. It turned out to be one of the greatest lessons I have learned about what parents need from other parents. It motivated me to be a kinder, more empathetic person and so I am grateful. Someone’s negative intention ultimately worked for good in my life. I was looking for shoes, but I came home with empathy.