It was a makeshift scarf, made by my mother from a piece of fleece from the fabric store. Lucy felt warm and cozy and grown up wearing it, so I let her. She wrapped it around her neck and we drove to the mall for some playtime before dinner at her favorite restaurant on her third birthday.
As I strapped the baby in the carrier I thought I was doing everything right: I told Lucy we weren’t bringing the stroller because she didn’t like riding in it. I told her I wouldn’t be able to carry her because I was already carrying Charlie in the Ergo. I had prepared for every conceivable need: diapers, a change of clothes, hand wipes, water, snacks. But what I didn’t prepare for was that scarf, being slowly pulled tighter and tighter around Lucy’s neck by her tiny three year-old hands. Twelve feet into the department store, she was beginning to choke herself.
“Lucy, sweetie, we need to loosen the scarf. You’re pulling it too tight and I’m afraid you’re going to hurt yourself.”
“Nooooooo! I want it like this!” I pried one finger between the pink fleece and her skin, which was also turning pink. A few more moments like this and her face would be blue.
“You have a choice: we can make it looser or I can take it away and put it in my purse.”
“No! No! No!” She collapsed in a tearful fit under a rack of men’s Bermuda shorts. “I want it tight!” I could feel every eye in menswear on us. She let out a scream.
“Let’s go. We need to talk somewhere quiet.” I scooped her up—no easy feat with a 22 pound baby strapped to my side. We walked as quickly as possible to a women’s dressing room and shut the door. I set her down, unwrapped the scarf, and stashed it in my purse out of sight. Then the fit really began.
“I. Want. My. Scaaaaaarrfffff! Moooooommmmmm! I want my SCARF! NOW!” She hit me. Kicked me. Nearly kicked her sister. Threw herself on the floor. Spit. Wiped snot in her hair. Screamed some more.
“Lucy, you have a choice. We can stay in the dressing room and cry, or we can go play and then have dinner. You decide.”
“I. WANT. MY. SCARF. NOOOOOWWWWW!”
“The scarf is not an option. Your choices are to stay here and scream, or to go play and then have dinner. Those are your choices.” She slumped down. Her eyes softened a bit. The worst was over.
“I want you to carry me to the play area.” Shit. The restaurant and its wine were looking very, very far away.
“Sweetie, we talked about this in the car. I didn’t bring the stroller because you don’t like to ride in it. I told you I wouldn’t be able to carry you because I was going to carry your sister. If you want to go to the play area you have to walk.”
“NOOOOOOOO! I. WANT. YOU. TO. CARRY. ME. NOOOOOWWWW!” The poor women in this fitting room—they only wanted to try on some clothes. Little did they know their afternoon shopping would come with a very loud soundtrack as well.
“Tell you what. I’ll carry you until I get very tired. And then I’ll hold your hand. There are posters of The Lorax on the way and we can stop and look at them.”
“The Lorax?” Bingo. I scooped her up as promised and we made a swift exit. I thought we were free and clear when I heard another fitting room door—the shopper who had been next-door—open behind us.
“Ma’am, I have to tell you something.” Here it comes. Sorry, lady, that you had to hear my child scream for 15 minutes. She was in her underwear, half covered by a dress still on the hanger. “You are a wonderful mother.”
That…I was not expecting. I was speechless.
“I heard the whole thing, and I just had to say that you are doing a wonderful job.”
The day had been so long and the last twenty minutes so stressful that I felt tears begin to well up. “Thank you—I’m so sorry you had to hear all that. It’s her birthday and I think she’s just a little overwhelmed.” She was complimenting me and all I could do was make excuses for Lucy’s behavior; I had been so prepared for an attack.
“Not at all. You handled it all very well.”
“Thank you. That means a lot. It really does.”
And it did. It meant everything. Because the truth is, I never hear that from anyone, not even people who know me very well. And yet a half-naked stranger who listened to one conversation for 15 minutes told me I was a wonderful mother and those words echoed in my ears for days. I was a wonderful mother. I am a wonderful mother.
No one wrote a how-to book for this job. There are no performance reviews. No bonuses and no report cards. And yet we are so quick to judge each other’s performances: Ian hits (Mimi must be a bad mother). Rebecca is 3 and doesn’t know her ABC’s! (Sophie must let her watch way too much TV). Alexander isn’t potty trained yet! (What the hell are Michelle and Sam thinking?).
Do we ever tell each other what a good, fantastic, unbelievable, jaw-dropping, ass-kicking job we’re doing? Nope. So we doubt ourselves. We try to do every little thing right. We compare ourselves to others and tear each other down and act all Mother Superior (pun intended). From someone who has heard those words, let me tell you: it felt like relief. Like, all this work, everything I do, everything I strive for, it’s all worth it. Because I’m good at this. Maybe my children will not grow up to be ungrateful, egotistical heroin addicts who make their living working in a traveling pet zoo. Maybe.
My little girl turned three that day and a year from now what I’ll remember most is not her birthday meal but those words from a stranger: you are a wonderful mother.
Wherever she is, I hope she knows that she is a wonderful woman who gave this mother encouragement when she needed it most.