It was about 7 years ago. For some insane reason I had taken all three kids out to lunch. By myself. They were about 5, 2 and 2 at the time. I remember my son refused to listen and then started to have a melt-down about 5 seconds after we sat down with our food. So, I did what I had to do and put him in time-out, right there in the middle of the Dairy Queen, pretending not to notice — pretending not to care — that there were other people staring at me and my temper-tantrum-throwing son. I sat down and started to help my daughters, hands shaking as I cut-up chicken strips and opened ketchup packets.
About 15 minutes later an older woman came over to me on her way out the door and whispered, “you’re doing a great job; keep it up!” I almost melted into a puddle of grateful tears. It was exactly what I needed to hear that day, and I have never forgotten that 5 second encounter.
Tonight I sat in a booth at a local diner with my three kids. They’re now 12, 9 and 9. Going out to eat with them (even alone) doesn’t overwhelm me anymore. They each had a book with them; the younger two colored on the kid’s menus and the older child played on her iPod. Except for a few terse words exchanged between my girls over some serious offense like touching elbows or breathing each other’s air, it was a very pleasant, easy dinner. But in the booth across from us I watched as a young mother and father struggled.
Their son looked to be about 18 months and the very last thing he was interested in doing was sitting in his highchair and eating dinner. He whined and cried and tried to escape the highchair and, later, their arms. He did that lovely thing toddlers do when they arch their back and turn into putty hoping to slip out of their parents’ grips. I overheard his young mother talking to her son, becoming increasingly stressed. The dirty stare from the woman walking past them on her way to the bathroom was the final straw and the mother asked her husband to take their son out to the car.
I glanced over to see her hands shaking as she picked at her now cold food, eventually giving up and asking for a box. And I remembered that day seven years ago and the encouragement and love showered on me by a perfect stranger. As my kids and I got up to leave I hesitated, then I walked over and smiled and said, “Hang in there. It gets better! One day you will be able to come have a peaceful dinner with three kids! Hang in there….you’re doing a great job.” She smiled in relief and her eyes welled up a little as she said thank you; it was what she needed to hear.
I remember those years with little ones. I remember having to pack a bag before going anywhere. I remember having to carefully time all outings so they weren’t too close to nap or bed time, lest I be prepared for full-on warfare. I remember wondering if we would ever have a meal that didn’t end in either spilled milk, smashed Cheerios all over the floor, or at least one melt-down. I remember vacations that weren’t the slightest bit relaxing and day after day feeling like a captive in my house because it was just easier to stay home.
Of course I worried about all the wrong things then. I worried about introducing the right fruits and vegetables at precisely the right time; about enough tummy time; about strollers versus slings; co-sleeping versus sleeping in their own bed. And most of all I spent way too much time worrying about how the rest of the world viewed my children. Not because I was worried about what they would think of my child, but because I was terrified of what they would think of ME as their mother. Worried every tantrum, every lack of manners, every spilled drink and sibling fight was a direct reflection of me and my success or failure at being their mom. In those days a heavy sigh, or admonishing stare from a stranger could completely unravel me.
But if I could go back in time and tell my younger mommy-self one thing, it would be this: Hang in there! It will get better. You are doing a great job.
OK, so maybe that’s three things. But they are all equally important, and all equally true! And it’s what I longed to hear in those days.
I’m not saying parenting a pre-teen and 9 year old twins is a piece of cake! My husband and I often feel like we’re talking to the wall and then, promptly want to beat our head’s against one. I am
often ALWAYS tired. I worry my very last words on this earth will either be “have you brushed your teeth?” OR “for the LOVE, please stop sniffling and blow your nose!” And I get to answer fun questions like, “why can’t I shave my legs” or “mom, what does ‘lose your virginity’ mean?” (yep got asked both of these questions today.)
We definitely have our challenges…they’re just different.
Thankfully, I no longer measure my success as a mother by what other’s think. I don’t care so much what the stranger in Target thinks when one of my little cherubs belches loudly and then the other two burst into a fit of giggles. Because, you know what? They’re kids. They’re loud, they’re silly, they forget their manners too often, and they make bad choices when they know better. Even on the very worst days I know, deep down, that I’m doing a good job…doing the best I know how to do.
And wouldn’t it be great if we moms all reminded each other of that more often?
If instead of admonishing stares we smiled and whispered, “it will get better!”
If instead of sighing and rolling our eyes we laughed and said, “don’t worry, one day the thought of eating out won’t send you into a cold sweat!”
If instead of silently judging we walked over to the next booth and poured love out on a perfect stranger and reminded her that her success or failure as a mother was not defined by that moment right there, and we told her:
“you’re doing a great job!”