We were traipsing through the library; I led the way with my baby held tightly in the sling, my shoulder aching under the weight of the book bag as I tried to carry it all. “I am always trying to carry it all,” I thought, tears threatening to fill my eyes again. My boys were in a single-file line directly behind me, the three-year-old marching proudly, peanut butter smeared across his cheek and a few, new paperbacks in his unwashed hands, and my six-year-old, dressed in mismatched clothing and wild hair, struggling to hold an enormous stack of science books, bringing up the caboose of our ragamuffin train.

As we weaved in-and-out of the tables filled with quiet adults, you caught my eye. I noticed the two girls on either side of you, the diligent way they wrote in their workbooks as you patiently guided and instructed. You appeared so calm and well put together, nothing at all like the disaster I had turned out to be.

A smile broke across your friendly face as your booming voice interrupted the library’s silence, “Just look at this little family right here! I love this sweet family! Everyone’s hands filled with books. You’re doing it right, mama. You’re doing this right.” I looked around for a brief moment, searching for the lovely family you were noticing, until I realized that the mama you were praising was me. Me. Disheveled, on the brink of collapse, me. Stunned, I managed a polite, “Thank you,” feeling oddly encompassed by your joy. It was soothing, like falling into the easy chair that sat in your grandparents’ living room for decades, before the house was sold that day. Like hugging someone you’ve desperately been missing, who has long since left this earthly world.

I almost requested that you take our photo, my hand instinctively flying toward the phone in my back pocket, because I needed some proof – a snapshot to see what it was that you could see. All week all I had seen was failure. Nothing was terribly wrong, but nothing at all felt right, either. And I was certain the wrongness was all because of me.

What you did not know on that day that your smile illuminated my weary soul was that I had dragged all of us to the library out of absolute desperation. You see, I am a mother occasionally washed adrift in sadness. It descends like a tidal wave of crushing despair. I do not know when the waters will rise, but when it hits me, it is all I can do to keep from drowning.

You did not know that my bag was filled with self-help books strong women have written, resolving that, if I was doomed to remain on a sinking ship, I might as well sink down under the words of those who have made it.

What you didn’t see was the guilt I was carrying, when you admired their little hands filled with books. You didn’t know that for days my children had sat in front Netflix; in three nights there had not been a single, bedtime book.

What you could not have imagined is that when we arrived at the library’s exit that morning, I had considered driving away. I didn’t know where I wanted to run to, but the anxiety in me told me to just get far, far away.

So when your eyes lit with joy at the sight of me, when your heart softened with love for my three, you had no idea that you were reminding me of the worth the world sees in me. You had no idea that our brief encounter would set me free.

Suddenly I remembered I was more than depression, greater than the hopelessness that sweeps over me. You saw me when I had forgotten my courage and grit, leading my children on, listlessly, and told me I was loveable, anyway.

It was only a brief minute in time that you came into my life before we checked our books and went on our way. Yet, you have stayed in my heart for days upon days; you were with me as I drove home and wept. I wept for people like you who see mamas like me and somehow know to send out a lifeboat. I wept for mamas like me who get caught in monsoons in their minds, and manage to keep air in their lungs. Because some days it is all I can do to keep breathing, but you reminded me that I always find my way up out of the floods.

I wish I could tell you thank you for the rescue you performed that day. How amazingly serendipitous this life is, that you, a stranger, were sent to show me the way.

Aimee Niebuhr

Aimee is a freelance writer and homeschooling, stay-at-home mom living in Austin, Texas. Her days are filled with the sweet chaos of raising three children, nurturing their love for learning and literature, and finding stolen moments to chase after her dreams. When the hustle gets hectic, (and let's get real, it's always hectic!) she turns to strong coffee, good chocolate and humor to make it through. You can find her inspiring women to stay centered in seeking their joy at https://mamacentric.com/ and follow her journey to self-love at at https://www.facebook.com/MamaCentricBlog/