Yesterday was a bad day.
We are in between settling into our new home (yey!) and going on holiday, where we will also see my family for the first time since December, (extra lockdown restrictions permitting). Aware that the new school year is set to start days after we return, we put some time aside this week to acquire two new pairs of school shoes. Time which happened to coincide with the current heat wave. Ick.
So off we set in the car, in southern hemisphere temperatures, to a nearby town that apparently boasted a Clark’s Outlet. It didn’t. Eventually, Sideshow Dr. Google led us to a boarded up building that was apparently “open until 5.30pm.” Dirty rotten liar!
On the drive home I made several phone calls to miles-off outlets to find that all fitting appointments were fully booked until 2025. Urrrgh… we are going to have to go to real Clark’s.
But not today.
Reluctant to put the entire family through another day of shopping centres, I agree to take the two school-age kids on my own the following day. I mean, how hard can it be?!
Honestly. The handful of times I’ve had the kids out in public recently we’ve actually been congratulated by strangers on their impeccable behaviour, (I know right?!). Since lockdown started, they’ve grown more polite and I’ve become more attentive; more confident, less frazzled. (Nothing to do with the fact we’ve never been anywhere, I’m sure…)
And so we go. And they are, indeed, lovely. They’re excited; I can’t remember the last time I went out with this particular combination of children. We all three realise we don’t have a pram and so stairs and escalators become the theme of the day! The first round strikes fear in me, of course, and I cling to them with a white knuckle grip as we board the moving stairs of death. But, by the tenth round trip, we’re all pretty much over it.
Just kidding. The stairs move!!!
In the end I have to bribe them away with more exciting things. After much discussion, they agree that the only thing more exciting than escalators on a day like today is, if course, a Slush Puppy. And so the deal is done. Impeccable behaviour for an undetermined period of time will be rewarded with an ice cold cup of pure, frozen, e-numbers. Top notch parenting there folks. You’re welcome.
So it works. I rip of my arms and hand them to the Clark’s clerk, before preparing my legs in exchange for the promised Pups. Only… as we approach the Slushy counter we see the server pour a great big blue bottle of room temperature liquid into the machine.
“Ah… that’s not ready is it?”
“No, sorry. Best come back in half an hour.”
Oh dear. I turn to break it to them gently, but of course, they overheard.
“It’s ok.” The Boy says matter-of-factly. “We’ll wait.”
“You sure you don’t want something else?”
Nope. The agreement is apparently set in stone and we have half an hour to kill. This wasn’t part of the plan. But… they have been impeccably behaved. And I do need quite a few things in town and would rather not come back… (besides they haven’t yet had their treat, so that is still to play for!)
Right. Two shops. Let’s do it.
Poundland has wheelie trolleys and ridiculously cheap photo frames. Win! I buy about thirty (Pinterest project), and the kids wheel them round with glee. We leave with two very heavy bags-for-life and a hula hoop. Because… Well, who doesn’t want to carry that?!
Next up is Wilkinson’s, who store their picture frames upstairs and have an escalator. The kids are on Cloud Nine. We get upstairs, I find another thirty frames of different sizes and realise we probably need a basket. They have some upstairs, the kids take one each and we load up again.
Now this, this, is where the proverbial hits the fan. And I’m not proud. Quite the opposite, but I need to get it off my chest.
We head towards the lift to find, with horror, that it is out of order. The Eldest declares that she is “a big strong girl!” and will carry her basket down the escalator instead, thank you very much.
“NO!” I tell her, as I envisage a barrage of photo frames crushing little old ladies on the floor below. “Give me your baskets,” I tell them, genuinely believing this to be the safest option. I now have two bags-for-life over each shoulder, a heavy basket over each arm and a hula hoop round my neck. The Eldest marches forward and boards the escalator before we are ready. She’s already out of sight and so I start to panic. I try to board with the boy but he is hovering.
“You go first Mummy!”
“No, I can’t in case you get left behind! But your sister is already down there so we need to go!”
“Ok!” He says, and he puts on one leg, letting it stretch ahead like some Mr Bean skit that’s only funny when the character isn’t four. I shout at him to pull back his leg, but he puts his butt down instead. He’s now sat at the top of the escalator with one arm on the moving side and one leg stretched out over the moving stairs. I’m so laidened with heavy things that I can’t bend down to get to him and so I’m now in full on panic mode. One child is out of sight, the other is in a very dangerous position and I’m basically just flailing. I wish and wish and wish someone was around to help!
At which point I hear,”Excuse me!” In a tone that is far from excusable, as an older lady barges past us to board the escalator.
Incredulous, I call after her, “I am sorry but we are really struggling here!”
She turns around, huffing. “Then why don’t you use the lift then?! It would have been alot easier!”
Now this is the bit I’m really not proud of, but in times like these we need some honesty. Without a thought to God or Grace or anyone who might recognise us and realise that I displayed neither; I yelled at her. I mean, I don’t know if it’s because we were both wearing masks and didn’t seem all that human, or because I’ve forgotten how to be with people, or because I washot and bothered and in distress … but for the first time in my life I went to town on a stranger in a supermarket.
“IT’S OUT OF ORDER!!!!!!” I yelled.
I mean I literally screamed it into my mask. There were people watching. It was horrible.
“Well he shouldn’t be on that escalator by himself. He’s far too little, it’s not safe.” She barked as she turned and boarded the escalator, leaving us behind.
“I’m sorry Mummy.” The Boy had stood up by this point and was now standing safely next to me. “That was all my fault for messing around.”
My heart is shattering at this point. “No it wasn’t your fault darling… THAT WOMAN WAS INCREDIBLY RUDE AND UNHELPFUL!!!” I shout down the stairs at the back of her head, which is ten times worse as she probably can’t hear me but my son definitely can.
I now do what I should have done in the first place. I put down all of the shopping, take The Boy down the escalator, collect The Eldest, go to the till and ask a shop assistant to help me with my baskets. We pay and find a seat so that I can sit down and breathe. After calming, I apologise to the kids. I should never have behaved like that, it was wrong of me to shout and lose my temper. Adults make mistakes too. God forgives and is there to help us if we ask. We pray. They are lovely. But for me, the damage is done.
Driving home, I don’t recognise myself. I am half ridden with guilt and repentance, half fantasizing about shoving the old bat down the stairs. I hate the fact that she barged past. I hate that she judged, instead of helped. Most of all though, I hate that she was right.
I start imagining now how long she had stood behind us. How long she had watched my stupid, irresponsible attempt at parenting before she lost her rag. I start telling myself that people like me don’t deserve to have children- to the point where every cute and lovely thing they do for the rest of the afternoon brings a wave of anxiety so strong that my neck swells and I feel dizzy and I have to sit outside. You don’t deserve to be their mother.
It’s a long time since I’ve experienced anything this intense. I wonder how many others are triggered so severely, so quickly, these days? I wonder how much harder it is for any of us to interact with each other when we’ve been isolated for so long?
Later, when the kids are in bed, Husband and I try to pray it out. I reach the foot of the cross and out come the tears. Real tears. Snot and howling and ugly face tears. I try and explain the dark contents of my mind; more for Husband’s benefit as clearly, God already knows. Besides my terrible witness and awful parenting, the root thing I fixate on, it seems, is the lack of community. I can’t fathom why someone would barge past a child that they have recognised is in danger? Why the other people present would just stand back and watch? Why didn’t anyone help me?!
“Because they won’t.” Husband says. “You’ve hardly been out. You don’t know what it’s like. Everyone is anxious. Everyone is on edge. No one will come near you or your child; people think children shouldn’t be out.”
“Now that you mention it… we did get some funny looks. But… someone could have at least carried my basket?”
“No. No one will touch anything.”
“OK… got an assistant? Offered to watch my things so I could help the kids?!”
“No. Honestly, people just want to keep to themselves and leave as quickly as possible. You have to accept that this is the world now. If you’re going to go out you need to lower your expectations of other people; understand that no one will help you.”
More ugly crying. You get the gist. How long is the world going to be like this?! And is it really neccessary?!
Besides the prayers, one other thing made my heart slow down a little after that incident. As we sat by the window, a man was trying to pay at the till when his three year old daughter ran over to us, beaming. He called to her to come back and instead, she bolted out of the door and into the street. I stood up to go after her, as I saw the father react with an all-too-familiar wobble; his credit card was in the machine; his daughter was out of the door. He hopped from one foot to the other- trying to do both at the same time- before his face crumpled in both relief and embarrassment as she came back of her own accord.
“It’s flippin’ hard, isn’t it?” I said as we both walked out. The look on his face then was all too familiar too. Another softening of relief, a masked smile of grateful connection, when you realise that you’re not the only one in over your head; that someone else understands.
I mean, obviously, she was more important than his credit card. Just as obviously as my children were more important than the baskets and the ruddy hula hoop! It’s so obvious to anyone watching, so obvious to anyone who aced parenting (as far as they can remember); and so painfully obvious to us, ourselves, afterwards, outside of the moment. But sometimes, in the moment, in the constant stream of decision-making and hair-raising events; even the best of parents make the stupidest mistakes.
I just wanted to be upfront about that. Because honestly, in times like these, a little understanding goes a really, really long way.
Peace be with you. (And please pray he same for me!)