To the harried-looking mom in the beat-up old burgundy SUV

When I turned the corner on my way to the gym, I saw your car. It was pulled next to the grocery store and you were unloading groceries from the cart into your trunk. Your kid caught my eye.

Because I have an 8-year old, I tend to notice 7-9 year old kids. Maybe it’s because they have this look of confused big-kid-ness: like they’re not little kids anymore, and they can pour milk and cereal for themselves, but they can’t be left alone, so they can’t really decide where they stand. And because kids like mine are growing taller and sturdier, their parents tend to expect much more of them. We look at them and realize that our kids can now knock us over (well, at least mine can knock me over) easily, and we can’t really carry them easily. So something has changed, and we expect more of them. We expect them to act like little grownups. We expect them  not to spill the juice when they pour it; we expect them to remember their math homework; we expect them to behave sedately in public spaces. And when they act like children, we – well, I – sometimes lose it.

Your little boy was pushing the cart, and it slipped from his hands and trundled on, down the slope from the curb, into a small collision with your old car. I inadvertently exclaimed, “Oh no” as I drove past you, and I noticed that you reacted too. The tired, harried, grumpy look on your face was too familiar. The edge in your voice, that dangerous edge, was too familiar. And your kid, that sweet little 7-8 year old boy with coffee-colored cheeks and a big puffy coat, reacted with practiced fear, cringing quickly, leaping back swiftly, aware that he needed to back the hell up, away out of the reach of that grownup bundle of nerves.

I’ve been there, you know. I’ve been at my wits’ ends, at the end of my tether, and my kid has dropped, slipped, broken something or other, and I just can’t handle it anymore. Maybe that is why I react with such internal savage anger. Look at that sweet face. Look at his eyes. Look at his fear. Quit screaming at him. Be a grownup and let him be a kid. I am full of judgment, full of grief, full of sympathy for him and full of fury for you.

So I park, and I stand outside, watching you, bullying you with my gaze, telling you I’ve got my eye on you. Don’t you treat him like that. Because I can sort of see in his fear that he is used to more than screaming. When you open the back door to put a grocery bag in, he leaps quickly away from you, fearful. So I walk slowly to the gym. I want to come up to you and say something. I’m afraid you will unleash your fury on me. After all, I think, how would I feel if someone were to preach good mothering to me when I was having a bad day and my kid was … was … acting like a CHILD?

So I don’t really know what to do. I want to protect him and put a smile on his face, but a nagging thought clouds over my anger for you: you’re having a really bad day. Your face is haggard, your hair is messy and wrapped in a bandana, and your car is not in great shape.

As if to prove my evaluation of your car’s health, when you start the engine, I hear it cough, sputter, and die.

What a day.

I’m still mad at you, but I’m also wondering what a day you must be having. So after a few minutes, when I see your car still there at the grocery store, I abandon my hoodie on a treadmill, step down, and walk out. I go up to you. Your car is stationery. Your kid is now sitting in another car, an old white sedan – a friend came to help you out? – and you are now loading all those groceries into the white sedan. The kid is in the passenger seat of the sedan. stressed-mom

I go up to you. You are so harried you don’t hear me say ‘Ma’am? Ma’am? Excuse me!’ several times. Eventually you turn and I ask if you are okay and if I can help you. As if to explain why your car is there blocking traffic, you tell me your car’s not working, so you’re going to drop off your groceries and come back for it. You seem okay now, maybe getting some help has put you in a better mood, so you smile, and I make a sympathetic face for you and wish you good luck. You thank me with a smile and hurry off.

As I turn back and leave, to return to the gym, I catch that little boy’s eye. He is smiling at me and waving. Is he grateful that I stopped to ask his mom if she needed help? Is he grateful for a friendly face, for someone who was willing to be nice even if she didn’t actually do anything for him?

I give him a thumbs up and a big grin.

I walk away, wondering if mom is unemployed or underemployed, if her car will die now. I wonder how she will manage.

I wonder, seamlessly, how I will manage next time I have car trouble and my kid is being a pain in the neck. I wonder if someone will stop to be nice, or if they will offer me nothing but judgment.

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