I saw her out of the corner of my eye. She was subtly smiling, maybe even smirking, but she had the look on her face. You might know that look, where the lips are pursed and the head is tilted and the expression screams, “Please get control of your kid!”
I’m familiar with this look from strangers — and at one season in my life, it made me furious.
“I know my kid is running around this grocery store like a hyper hyena. I know I should be a better parent. I know this isn’t proper. I know, I know, I know. But I’m tired. And I have to make dinner. And we have to pay bills. And I just want to get home, get this kid fed and in bed so I can relax for 10 dang minutes,” I would say to myself.
I know because I’ve been there. But I know better now.
I have three kids. Ella is our oldest. She’ll be 13 this summer. Grace is our middle child, and plays the role well. She’ll be 11 this summer. And their baby brother, Keithan, is 4.
He is very 4.
He is my wild child, as they say. He is the one who will, on occasion, run around the grocery store begging for toy cars and cheese and ice cream and all the things that a 4-year-old boy finds delightful.
Sometimes he is well-behaved. But he wasn’t today.
“Keithan! Get over here right now,” I scream-whispered down the candy aisle. You know the scream whisper, right? It’s where you’re trying to get the kid’s attention without screaming in your loudest voice, but that voice is still loud enough to drown out the early ’90s music playing on the store’s speakers?
“But mom,” he yelled, “I just want this toy. Can I have this toy?”
“Nope,” I told him. I’ve learned that no is a very good answer.
And that’s when I saw her — the older woman, likely in her 70s. She gave me the look. Our eyes met for just a moment, but instead of being sad or angry, I smiled back at her — and she smiled back at me.
And that was it.
I didn’t know this stranger, of course. But I assume she is a mother. I could read it in her face. And I know 12 years ago when I was just starting out in this parenting gig, her look would have made me cry tears of exhaustion and sadness but this time, I knew it meant something more.
I knew because I give that same look in grocery store aisles.
When a mom is holding a crying baby.
When a mom is frustrated with a cranky toddler.
When a mom is standing in the hair aisle, picking out pretty things for her little girl.
I give the look too. It’s not a look of judgment, it’s a look of compassion and nostalgia. A moment from mom to mom. A single glimpse to say, “Hey, I’ve been there. You’re doing a great job. It’s all going to be OK. Just love those babies because time passes so fast.”
I strapped Keithan into his car seat, gathered the rest of the groceries from my cart, and finally made my way into the driver’s seat. And that’s when I cried.
Because I know, so soon, I’ll be that 70-year-old woman giving a look to that 39-year-old mom, just begging for one more minute with my hyper little boy.