The mall was brimming with shoppers. Heat radiated out of stores and into the concourse where I was already dripping sweat from my toddler’s nuclear meltdown.
I tried not to make eye contact with anyone as I carried my wailing son toward the exit. I don’t remember now what caused his tantrum—probably an expensive toy I wouldn’t buy or an ice cream store we passed without stopping, and also, he was ready for a nap. But just my luck—our car was parked outside a totally different wing. Normally in this situation, I’d duck out the nearest door and hike to the car, but a wind chill of 20 degrees made a hasty exit impossible.
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Besides the toddler trying to worm his way out of my arms, I was weighed down under a bulky winter coat and an overstuffed diaper bag. Rounding out my cargo was my 4-months-pregnant belly, which—this third time around—was already dwarfing beach balls.
My cheeks burned with embarrassment.
I was embarrassed, impatient, and over it. So over it. I kept my eyes down and trudged past women selling beauty cream, teenagers laughing and sipping smoothies, and grandparents walking laps.
We finally made it out into the mind-numbing air. All at once, my son’s frustration evaporated. He reached up to wrap his arms around my neck, burying his tear-streaked face into my scarf. My heart melted. I hoisted him higher and quick-stepped to the car.
As I buckled him into his car seat, my toddler looked into my eyes, hiccupping.
“I sowy fo’ yelling, Mommy.”
Forgiven in an instant, I kissed his sweaty curls, wishing the other shoppers had seen this side of my sweet boy.
And later, driving home on slushy streets, I couldn’t help but wonder what all those people must think of me.
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What were those strangers thinking as I carried my wild-cat son? Most were probably just glad it wasn’t them. Some might’ve been sympathetic—moms who’d left the kids with grandpa for a chance at a rare afternoon of freedom, dads who still shuddered at the memory of their last solo shopping trip with a 3-year-old. Likely a few onlookers who were angry we’d disrupted their day—there’s always one at every party.
But none of that really matters, does it? So what if my fellow shoppers were indignant or affronted or shocked at my son’s behavior? They were strangers in a mall.
None of them had to change his diaper in the crowded mall restroom, baby bump pressed painfully against the changing table to make room for the line of women snaking by. Not a single person who witnessed my son’s tantrum would be coming home with me to tuck him in for a nap. None of them would be there when he woke up to play trains and read story after story.
Not one of those many witnesses to my toddler’s epic meltdown had the job of parenting him.
But despite that, it does matter to a mama’s heart when she feels looked down on and judged. It hurts a mother’s soul when she feels glares thrown her way like icy snowballs. Perception matters. A lot.
So let me tell you what I see when I pass by another mom who’s carrying a whining, frustrated toddler. I see a mom who is doing her absolute best. A mama who’s exasperated a thousand times a day, but instead of shouting, bites back her words. An at-wits’-end mom who still finds words of encouragement and gives infinite hugs.
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No doubt that mom is exhausted most nights, but instead of going to bed early, she folds three loads of laundry or soothes a teething baby. Or both. The mother who’s coaxing her toddler, kicking and screaming through the mall, sacrifices so much for her child, every day, with no regrets.
If anyone looks close enough at a mom with a melting-down child, all they will see is love.