I round the corner of the grocery aisle, bypassing a sugary end cap display of Valentine’s Day goodies, when I hear it. Raptor-like shrieking and guttural bellows. Followed by the unmistakable toddler sqwak: “Yellow!” The toddler tantrum that’s migrated from one end of the store to the other has reached its peak at register 15. And something yellow is clearly either mortally offensive or exceedingly desirable.
Pushing my cart of food and — on this incredibly rare occasion — not children, I smile reflecting on my own plentiful experiences being THAT mom. THAT mom with the toddler flailing belly down in the cereal aisle. THAT mom with the nap-refusing child following me down every aisle in an unending tirade of tot tyranny. THAT mom wearing a breastfeeding infant while rushing a potty-training toddler in football hold across a crowded store shouting for her preschooler to keep up. THAT mom asking her toddler not to headbutt her sternum while telling her preschooler not to chew on his shoe — his freakin’ SHOE! — and coaxing her dramatic kindergartener mid-meltdown through the produce section. You know, THAT mom.. human birth control.
I sigh with relief that this time it’s not me. And head towards checkout.
I approach a register and peer down the lane to assess to line length. And: “YEEEELLLLLLLLOW!!!” rings out just feet in front of me. That’s when I realize I am at ground zero. Register 15.
Then I see it.
The eye roll.
The woman at the front of the line scoffs at the melodious cart behind her, eyes the cashier, and does a judgy eye roll towards THAT mom. If I trusted my aim, I would be tempted to chuck a box of black bean pasta at the judgy eye-rolling scoffer. But I don’t. So I don’t.
Then I see THAT mom. Long dark hair, which is beautifully wavy likely from lack of brushing rather than dedicated styling, steadily moving edibles from her car-shaped shopping cart to the conveyor belt while simultaneously kindly conversing with her one smiling toddler and patiently addressing the emotional upheaval of her second only slightly older toddler. THAT mom was a mom of TWO toddlers and she was completely capable of triple-tasking with the graceful patience of a Buddhist monk after having grocery shopped with said offspring, yet the child-free (at least at the moment) woman ahead of her could not muster enough emotional fortitude to stand without judgment or snark at the front of the checkout line? Cue yoga breath.
I push past and find the next register line brief. I load my groceries on the belt and say a little wishful prayer for THAT mom. I feel gratitude that this time it is not me in her position but I feel guilt that it is her turn instead.
Receipt in hand, I push my cart of bagged food out towards the parking lot and I see THAT mom parked along the side of the aisle. She’s rummaging through her cart — one toddler gazing at the ceiling, one toddler wailing — promising “I’ll find it!” to the tantrumer.
I stop my cart beside hers, pat her upper arm, and with a reassuring smile say, “You’re doing great.” She looks up at me, her eyes warm despite her mind swiftly spinning, and smiles. “Thanks,” she sighs.
As I near the doors I feel it. Tears in my eyes, lump in my throat, the familiar knot of exhaustion, the churn of anxiety, the wear of endlessly giving, the sting of judgment (both external and internal) that this time is hers and not my own. I keep moving.