I pressed the fingertips of both hands between my eyes, rubbing intently, occasionally flaring out to massage my temples, as well. The bright lights of the restaurant were painful—the incessant noise coming from all three of my children, even more so. We had hit the homestretch of our long journey that day—just another hour and a half and we would be there. But I was spent.
Utterly. Completely. Spent.
We had left home at 6 a.m. that morning; earlier than planned, but when the baby wakes up at 4:45, you just keep moving. The big kids dutifully climbed into the car, somber and uncharacteristically still. They had said their goodbyes the night before, and I could feel the pain in their silence.
None of the neighborhood kids were outside now, thank goodness. One more goodbye might’ve broken them—or me; probably both.
As the sun rose, we quietly slipped out of the driveway. It would be another week before my husband could join us; another month of PCS limbo before arriving at our new duty station; who knows how long before we might feel any semblance of ‘home’ again.
Seven hours later, the stillness of the morning had given way to the chaos of long-distance travel. The kids were hungry, rambunctious, and loud. I had hoped throwing food at them might calm the craziness but, alas, kids are wonderful multitaskers when they want to be.
As we sat in that small-town restaurant, nearly everything they did made me cringe.
They talked and talked … and talked. It was as if their mouths had been cooped up all morning instead of their feet. The baby banged on the table, the 7-year-old typed away on my cell phone, and the 4-year-old complained about the food he had literally just begged for.
They whined, they fought, they interrupted. One kid complained about the movie selection on the iPad. Another turned from texting to Facetiming. The baby kept banging.
Did I mention I was exhausted?
Hands on my head, I answered their questions unenthusiastically, periodically shushing their ever-increasing crescendos with a pitiful wave. My eyes would close for a moment here and there as I relished the darkness, ignoring the onslaught of noise.
Somewhere in that haze, I decided what a great essay I could turn this into—lemons into lemonade and all that, right?
In the essay, I would insist that judgement is alive and well in our world, with op-eds railing against lazy parents who use technology in place of interpersonal engagement and fast-food in place of well-balanced meals.
I would call out the haters. If you’ve never endured a PCS, you have no room to judge, I would say. There are so many things about our life you could never understand.
I would go on to explain that the apparent animals seated at my table are capable of being well-behaved kids but that their lives had been turned upside-down. In my head, there was an excuse—er, explanation—for everything.
They left their home this morning—forever. You should’ve seen how their hearts broke when they said goodbye to their friends last night. They are about to face a new life in a new country. No my daughter isn’t usually buried headfirst in a phone but talking to the friend she left behind brings her such joy. I’m sorry she’s loud, but she’s so excited.
I usually have help corralling the chaos, but my husband had to stay behind. It’s not always like this. The baby just learned to sit in a high chair last week. He’s noisy and energetic because he’s been cooped up in a carseat all day and because, you know, he’s a baby.
No, I don’t just throw iPads at my kids every time they’re in the car but it’s been a long day. A really long day. You might complain about your movie choices at this point, too. Besides, this kid has big emotions and sometimes struggles to express them. He’s a sweet boy, I swear.
Yes, I know I’m irritable and short-tempered right now. Have you ever traveled alone with three small children? I would appreciate a medal instead of your judgement. Besides, we’ve been living out of suitcases in a mostly-empty house for over a month already. We all deserve to be a little cranky.
The thoughts tumbled around in my head, knocking against my skull in perfect harmony with the headache that wouldn’t quit. At some point, I willed myself to look around, fully steeled against the judgement that awaited.
But it was nowhere to be found.
What I saw instead? A kindly woman cooing at the baby. A family nearby smiled in our direction. A few passersby seemed to grin in solidarity.
Where was the disgust? Where was the annoyance?
As I threw away our trash, a group of elderly ladies stopped me to say what a beautiful family I have. When a “closed” sign on the restroom door elicited audible exasperation, a lovely woman marched inside and demanded we be let in because, “you can’t expect little kids to wait, you know!” She held the door as I pushed the stroller past and winked at me saying, “I have six grandkids. You’re doing great.”
By the time we loaded back into the car, the essay I had planned to write was gone. There was but a single soul in that whole restaurant judging me and my family. Maybe if I could just quiet all those nasty thoughts, my pounding headache would finally go away.
The thing is, I know I’m not alone in this. Motherhood can feel impossible to navigate sometimes. There is an ever-changing list of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’t’s’ saturating our media to the point that we expect perfection of ourselves and our families. The internet is littered with faceless strangers pontificating on the ‘right’ way to parent, along with well-meaning but sometimes unhelpful suggestions that women can have it all.
We’re supposed to enjoy every moment—it goes so fast, you know! We must find time for ourselves, no matter what. Of course, cultivate your passions; having a hobby is important for nurturing your kids’ own ambitions. Be available but foster independence. Be gentle but firm. Wake up early to work out, because if you love your body you love yourself, right? Volunteer. Get promoted. Master life hacks. Cut back on refined sugars. Don’t forget about date nights! Treat yourself but stick to that budget. Be pinterest-worthy but down to earth. Less screen time. Smile. Smile more.
Is it any wonder then, that we’re so hard on ourselves? That we insist others must be judging us because, secretly, we’re desperately insecure that we’re failing some imaginary list?
The truth is, some days call for being grumpy, for letting your kids push the boundaries because you just can’t fight it anymore. Because some days are rough, and that’s OK.
But if, instead of hiding behind our guilt and shame, we simply looked around, we might find what I saw in that busy fast food restaurant: compassion, solidarity, and not an ounce of judgement.
Forget silly lists and all the ‘do’s’ and ‘don’t’s’ — they aren’t real anyway.
What’s real is the kindness of strangers and the grace we are willing to extend to everyone except ourselves.
Let’s work on that last part, mamas. Because that lady was right. In the midst of a tough day, I was still doing great because I was doing my best. You’re doing great, too! You really are.