Congratulations! You’re halfway there! If you’re asking “halfway where?” I’m guessing you don’t have children. Today is Wednesday and it is officially the halfway mark of Christmas vacation. In the earlier (and jobless) days of my parenthood, I always smugly remarked that you could tell the parents who spent a lot of time with their kids from the ones that don’t. It’s pretty obvious when they’re out at a mall or a museum or anyplace people take their kids when they’re desperate to find some way of entertaining them.
I’m not so smug about it anymore for a couple of reasons. Primarily because my children are now in school most of the time. I put them on a bus around 8:25 each morning and they get dropped off around 3:40. It’s a long stretch of time where they are now in someone else’s care. So I am no longer as used to having them around as I once was. It’s amazing how quickly we get out of practice.
Besides, they do a lot of changing once they get on that bus in September. School is a lot more structured than hanging around the house. The summer after my son Owen completed a year of full-day kindergarten. He would follow me around the house asking, “What are we going to do now Mom?” This was a kid who always entertained himself—building towers from blocks, spaceships from cardboard boxes, and armies from Play Doh. Now he wanted direction. Fortunately, after a few weeks he realized I wasn’t going to type up an agenda for him (or course, then he went back to school).
I’m a lot more empathetic about other people’s parenting skills and styles these days. This parenting job isn’t easy and there is no single perfect formula for being a good parent. And everyone has bad parenting days—and they usually happen at the mall or the grocery store during school vacation weeks. One of the most even-tempered moms I know confessed to spanking her son at the supermarket a few years back. She was sure she was going to get a call from a social worker that night.
When Owen was two and a half and James was a baby in a Snuggli. There was an afternoon that I realized we were about to get snow—a lot of snow and I was almost out of milk and diapers. Like most small children, mine were at their best in the mornings. I usually ran errands in the mornings before they morphed into afternoon/early evening unpredictable creatures. But I didn’t that day so there was a stand off in the middle of Stop and Shop with Owen—he wanted to get out of the cart and walk. I wouldn’t let him. The snow was already falling and I knew the shopping would take twice as long if he was walking. Also, I had the baby in the Snuggli and I wouldn’t be able to pick up my giant two-year-old and get him back in the cart without the baby getting squished or kicked in the head. There was screaming and crying—some of it from my children and some of it from me. I felt like everyone in Stop & Shop was staring at us. My normal course of action when my children acted up out in public was to simply take them out of the situation. Unfortunately, we needed milk and diapers. It wasn’t one of those times where you nip out to get your favorite cookie to satisfy a craving. No matter how demonic my children were behaving I had to get my shopping done.
Eventually the three of us calmed down and I managed to get everything we needed into the cart and headed for the checkout. I started to unload my groceries onto the belt. This is a very tricky operation if you’re 4’11” and have an infant strapped to your chest. I had to sort of stand on my toes and hold the baby to one side and lean on the other side to get the stuff from the bottom of my cart. Suddenly, an angel appeared. A beautiful, professionally dressed woman behind me said, “Can I help you unload your cart?” It was a simple gesture, but I was so grateful for her kindness that I nearly cried. It only took a moment of her time but it helped me so much.
I think of that woman when I see a parent struggling. Is there something I can do? Maybe I can pick up the sippy cup her toddler has dropped for the tenth time and the mom looks like she’s about to hurl it through the window. Distract the four-year-old who is whining in the line at the bank by telling her I like her bright pink snow boots. Hold the elevator door open so the frantic dad doesn’t have to wait for the next one as his hungry baby screams. It doesn’t take much to make a big difference to someone who is exhausted, hungry and running out of ideas.