I heard her before I saw her. Ear-splitting, glass-shattering, skin-crawling screaming came from one aisle over. I closed the door to the refrigerated case, placed my milk in my cart, and thought Thank goodness that’s not my kid. Immediately followed by That poor mom.
Many moons ago, before I had children, before I became a veteran of public tantrums, my thoughts would have been very different, ugly, judgmental. Now I know better. Now I am a card-carrying member of STYWOM.
I pushed my cart around the corner to the next aisle to collect my Greek yogurt and frozen green beans, and there she was. She stood about twenty feet from her mother and their cart, stomping her feet and screeching, “NO!” I smiled, once again thankful for the passage of time. Her mother, wearing tired eyes and a grimace, began to push the cart away from her manic little alien. Good for her, I thought.
I continued collecting granola bars and cereal, chips and paper plates – all by myself. Alone. My oldest was at a water park with her friend, the younger two at day camp. What was once akin to waterboarding is now simply a mindless item on my to-do list. No toddlers to wrestle into a carseat, no diaper bag, no snacks to carry, no bribes. No apologies to the teenaged stock girl for the bottle of apple juice that exploded as I maneuvered through the aisle with a two year old and a newborn. This day, it was only my cart and me.
I wandered through the produce, selecting avocados and bananas, when once again I saw the same mom, same cart, same alien child, now buckled securely in the cart and eating a snack, temporarily occupying her little screeching mouth. “I know,” the mom said to her child, “we’re almost done. I’m trying to finish as fast as I can…”
“Three years old?” I asked her with a knowing smile.
“Three and a half,” she replied tightly.
“My daughter is now thirteen, and I thoroughly enjoy her. She’s amazing. But when she was three, I thought I was going to kill her. She was a nightmare.”
Her face relaxed. “I’m so glad to hear you say that,” she sighed. “Thank you.”
“This is the hardest age. Whoever coined the phrase ‘terrible twos’ obviously did not have a three year old.”
She laughed. “That is so true!”
I turned and whispered, so her child couldn’t hear me, “It’s okay to not like your kids. No one tells you that.”
Her face slightly, almost imperceptibly contorted with guilt, frustration, grief. “It’s not her,” she said as she too turned away from her cart. “It’s me. I was never a screamer. Now I’m a screamer…”
That I could completely understand. How someone you love so much could transform you into someone you hate. How you don’t recognize yourself, and the guilt from not being who you need to be. How you wonder if anyone will come out of this unscathed.
I didn’t give any advice that day. I didn’t recommend any books or techniques. I didn’t offer any solutions. This frazzled mom didn’t need any of those things. Not this day. She only needed to know that this season of life will pass, that she is not alone, that she is okay. With one last empathetic smile and a wish for luck, I turned to walk toward the bread while she headed toward the wine – small offerings on our altars as we filled our baskets.