We drove along the hilly road towards the shopping area on the south side of town, busy Christmas music blaring as we stopped and started through red and green lights as part of the lunchtime traffic.
Perusing a bunch of bustling store aisles for the remaining odds and ends on my Christmas shopping list with three little ones in tow wasn’t going to be easy, especially when they hadn’t had their lunch yet. And the busted handle on Holden’s car seat would make things even more challenging. I’d discovered the day before that its locking mechanism had suddenly become faulty—that instead of clicking in place when set upright for carrying, sometimes it would slide back when lifted, and then the seat and buckled baby would unexpectedly dump forward like a load of coal, giving me heart palpitations in the process.
Still, it made sense for me to get this trip over with. I needed to go car seat shopping, for one. And taking the kids with me now instead of venturing out during some of my elusive free time was totally worth it. Plus, it would be good for the kids to get out of the house. They’d enjoy looking at all of the flashy Christmas décor and I’d let them scope out the toys. I’d get them chicken nuggets for lunch at the food court, and they could run around in the mall play area while sneaking peeks at Santa in his big, comfy chair nearby.
We’d be driving in the opposite direction with full tummies and shopping bags shivering in the back of the minivan before we knew it.
We were going to get through this. It was going to be fine.
I just hadn’t thought to consider whether everyone else would make it through our little outing unscathed.
…Because not everyone would.
Hobby Lobby was our first stop. Trying to safely carry the wonky car seat through the parking lot while holding my busy little boy’s hand was the trickiest part. Other than that, everything went pretty smoothly there. Each and every delicate display of holiday knick-knacks remained miraculously intact in spite of our presence. We especially enjoyed looking at a giant Santa figurine with a “nice list” that had Alice’s name printed on it in fancy cursive lettering. And Rowen didn’t even throw a fit when it was time to hang the shiny motorcycle ornament back on its hook when it was time to check out.
Although externally, things went off without a hitch at Hobby Lobby, something subtle started in my mind when I smiled at an elderly lady in the entrance of the store. I had just switched Holden from his car seat to the carrier and I felt like a mama kangaroo with her newest little joey curled up cozily in her pouch and her other two roos hitching a ride upon the cart. I fully expected the woman to smile back at us with a rosy-cheeked, gleamy-eyed look that said, “What a precious handful you’ve got there!” Because I’d seen the look many times before. But instead, I was met with a deadpan stare that seemed to say, “Yeah. I see you’ve got kids. And?”
It caught me off guard. Initially, it was just this funny little thing that happened, but quickly, quietly it snowballed into this menacing question that repeated itself every time I encountered another person: What does this person think when they see me?
It’s rare for anything good to come from asking that question and I wish I’d realized I’d been asking it, quite compulsively, before it was too late.
It was hard enough trying to be a smart and savvy shopper when my ears were being assaulted by a toddler whining directly into my face and a preschooler complaining that her legs were getting tired, but when I invited the nerve-wracking element of what other people may or may not have been thinking into our personal shopping errand, it was almost too much to take.
For each and every strained and stressed-out move I made, my mind easily whipped up new labels that the people around me could’ve potentially been placing upon me, the frizzy-haired freak in the pea coat and sweat pants. Most of these labels had to do with my performance as a mother. Over and over, I imagined them seeing me as “that mom who (fill in the blank).”
One moment I was that mom who enables excessive whining. The next, I was the one who’s too hard on her kids. I was also that mom who tortures her kids by repeatedly saying “just a minute” when we all know things are going to take much longer than that. I imagined them posting open letters on social media to “the mom at the store who behaves as though her business is more important than everybody else’s just because she has kids,” or to “that mom who keeps retaking pictures of her fidgeting preschooler with her phone, forcing the poor thing to stand still and smile long after the authentic moment has passed.”
No longer were we this sweet public petting zoo of fuzzy kangaroos for passing shoppers to approach and admire. Now we were an obnoxious traveling circus and I was the unkempt keeper of the wild animals who were literally hanging off me and my cage-like cart.
I pressed on, shunning these unfounded thoughts to the best of my ability as I zeroed in on the tasks at hand—pull Rowen’s thick legs out of the single hole he’s jammed them into in the cockpit of the cart, decide how much money is going on these gift cards, go with my gut and just buy that person this gift that I’ve picked up and put back five times because I’ll regret it if I don’t and will wind up making another nightmarish trip back here in a couple of days anyway, and finally, drag everyone all the way back through the labyrinth of aisles and customers to the other side of the store for one last bag of chocolate to make the 3-for-$9.00 deal work.
“I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” I exhaled Philippians 4:13 as I approached the busy checkout section to wrap up this most taxing portion of our outing. I wanted to embody a cross between Jacob Braude’s famous description of a duck who keeps its cool on the surface while churning the waters beneath and the proverb about being like a tea bag whose strength is unseen until it’s placed in hot water.
This was the perfect opportunity to put myself through the tea bag test, because temperature-wise, I was burning up. I get hot easily enough under normal circumstances—you could say I’m an “extra” warm-blooded person—so you can imagine how I felt after wandering around in a sweatshirt with a big-for-three-months baby strapped to the front of me for over an hour. And with the way he was starting to grunt and stir, it felt more like I was wearing a ticking time bomb. He was getting hungry. The kids were getting hungry…
Combine a time crunch, cranky kids, and claustrophobia in a crowded store and you get one hot mama whose blood has been boiling long before she’s even been given a reason to rage.
I sputtered at static-y hair sticking to my lips and took a few swigs from my water bottle to stave off the monster headache I could feel coming on. Just when I was starting to get really desperate—wishing a customer ahead of us would recognize my plight and let me slip ahead—a Target worker’s face appeared in the sea of backs and butts before me. He announced that a register had opened directly in front of mine.
I hesitated a couple of seconds to see if anyone else was going to go for it, bouncing up and down on the balls of my feet to hold off Holden’s howling. I was a game-faced kangaroo mom with boxing gloves on.
When no one moved, my fate was sealed for the next several seconds—that register was mine. The only thing standing between us was a person—a girl wearing black capri leggings with wool socks and those thick-framed, nerdy-chic glasses with the lenses covering half her face. With how narrow Target’s checkout lanes are and how big they make their carts, there was no way I was getting around the girl without asking her to please skootch.
There was no time to be shy about it. “Excuse me,” I called out loudly. When she didn’t turn around, I went around my massive cart and tapped her shoulder. “Excuse me.”
She whirled around, startled.
“Hi. Is it OK if we just squeeze past you to get to that register?” I asked, scurrying back and gripping the cart’s throttle…er…handle.
Being polite in a hurry has never been my forte. I feel like I always come across as really rude or psychotic.
“Oh, um, uh, sure,” she responded, fumbling with her cart to make room.
“I know. These lanes are so narrow,” I said as I pushed the cart forward. “But I think we can make it through. Thankyousomuch!” And just as the front of my cart started to pass Nerdy Chic’s, I realized I still had a blonde-haired barnacle in a green winter cap clamped onto the side. She was scrunched in the space between our carts.
“Oh, oh!” Nerdy Chic softly exclaimed, hovering her hands protectively over Alice.
I knew Alice would be fine, but I figured I’d better check on her based on the concern contorting Nerdy Chic’s face.
“Are you OK, honey?” I asked. “Can you stand up nice and straight? We’re just gonna squeeze through here real quick.”
I turned to Nerdy Chic and hastily assured her, “It’s OK. She’s OK.”
Nerdy Chic didn’t look convinced. She haltingly cradled Alice’s head and let out another sympathetic, “Ohh!” as I forced the cart through.
The thought hit me—“She thinks I’m some selfish mom who cares more about winning the race to the check-out than about the well-being of her own daughter.”
I was “that mom” again.
I decided to take a light-hearted approach to defending myself against my suspicions and pretended to ram the cart in the direction of the open register. “I’m like, ‘Ahh! I gotta get over there! Ha, ha ha!’” I cackled, hoping that by mocking myself, she’d let me off the hook and stop giving me that look. It seemed a girl in big glasses would have a good sense of humor.
…You’d think, right?
No such luck.
“I just didn’t want her to hurt her little head,” she explained in a tiny, tender voice, touching my daughter’s head for the final time.
And that’s when I’d had it. My daughter didn’t need an advocate fussing over her. Not when she was in my care.
“I didn’t either,” I scowled, barely looking at Miss Mousy Millennial as I stepped out of her line and barreled towards the open register like a bull seeing red.
After spending my entire trip guarding myself against a constant barrage of jagged-edged judgments, my claws had finally come out. The only problem was that all of the nastiness had taken place inside my head.
…Except for the thing I’d just done.
As it turned out, I was the only mean person I’d met all day. Yep—I’d done a bang-up job of spreading good old-fashioned Christmas sneer. No wonder my name hadn’t been on Hobby Lobby Santa’s nice list.
I swallowed hard—literally representing the term “hot and bothered—as I rumbled along. I yearned to go back and apologize to the girl—to explain that my stress level had been skyrocketing before I’d even gotten to her—and that it still was—but that I shouldn’t have taken it out on her.
“I should actually be thanking her for caring about my daughter,” I realized with a sudden sting of shame.
But I was running out of time. The kids were all squirming, especially Holden, who was due to detonate at any moment. Plus, Nerdy Chic had already started placing her items on the counter. Going back to talk to her would’ve meant clogging up the area all over again. I felt like I needed to unclog myself first—to drain myself of all of the defensiveness and paranoia and anxiety still storming in my system—before attempting any kind of apology. Otherwise, chances were I’d dig myself an even deeper hole than the one I was already in, making the meantime into an even “meaner” time, if you know what I mean, and instead of having one thing to apologize for, I’d have ten. I knew because I’d sabotaged saying sorry many times in the past. I didn’t want that to happen now—especially not with a complete stranger.
I felt conflicted and convicted—still angry, but also ashamed. I pushed all of my sticky feelings aside so we could get out of there as quickly as possible. I skidded to a halt at the open register and looked up to find a familiar cashier—an upbeat, shaggy-haired woman who adorably mispronounced her “Rs.”
“Hello!” I smiled maniacally, still revved up from the adrenaline of rage and regret.
“Do you have a Target RedCard?” she asked.
“Nope!” I responded from the other side of the cart. “Sorry I’m throwing stuff!” I had packed my merchandise all the way around Holden’s sprawling car seat. My ability to bend over the cart was hindered by having Holden strapped to me, and I didn’t want to have to keep walking around it to unload it, all the while dodging Alice, who was now roaming free. So I simply began throwing everything onto the conveyor belt. Duck and chuck. That was my strategy, even though I knew it was obnoxious.
If Nerdy Chic was watching, I figured maybe it would make her feel better to see that she wasn’t the only recipient of my recklessness. I imagined her cashier watching me with widened eyes as she commented on my outrageous behavior. “Can you believe how rude some people are? I heard what she said to you back there. And that poor little girl!”
“She’s probably just having a hard day.”
Imaginary Nerdy Chic was so gracious and kind.
I found two more hidden bags of Hershey’s Kisses and hurled them like grenades. I sneaked a peek at Real Life Nerdy Chic—I couldn’t help it. She was staring at her feet, looking sad and self-reflective.
Crap. I’d shattered a fragile soul.
“You should really think about signing up for a RedCard,” my cashier continued. “You get 5% off every purchase and there’s even a debit card option.”
We’d gone back and forth about the RedCard on past shopping trips to the point where it had become something of a joke between us. She’d ask me, “Has your husband changed your mind about letting you sign up yet?” And I’d smile and shake my head. She was kind of my buddy. But that was back when I used to go to Target more often. It seemed she’d forgotten me in my absence.
I thought that, perhaps if I reminded her, she’d recall our little ritual. I lifted the car seat to check for any hidden merchandise and grinned through gritted teeth, “We’ve talked about this many times before.” As I said it, though, I realized how snippy it sounded.
“Oh, OK. Sorry about that,” she stammered quietly, seemingly caught off guard by my directness. She kept her head down as she scanned.
Man. I was on fire. And not in a good way. I felt like a first-class dragon lady. Definitely not a cute, composed, tea bag. A dirt bag was more like it.
“Oh, no, no. I wouldn’t expect you to remember!” I breezily responded as I slid my card. I plastered on a vacant smile and detached myself from the fact that I was inches away from having a major public meltdown.
Once we exited Target’s checkout lanes and wandered into the wide-open walking area of the mall, I fought the urge to stay in that distant, detached, “checked-out” place. I wanted to ruminate on everything that had just transpired until I arrived at some kind of resolution, but I also knew I needed to be present with my kids. I wanted to throw my flailing thoughts in a box and shove them aside until I had some alone time to sort them out. I figured the best way to do that was to pray—to give it to God my Father and trust Him to counsel to me through it whenever He saw fit.
I allowed myself another minute inside my head as we entered the food court. I prayed for Nerdy Chic—that my behavior wouldn’t harm her or ruin the rest of her day. I prayed that she wouldn’t despise her good intentions. I prayed that she’d forgive me, and herself, if she was feeling badly for stepping on my toes. I prayed that God would turn the entire situation around for good and His glory and that He’d use my words and actions to bring life and not death. And finally, I prayed for another chance to apologize. I knew I hadn’t gotten a close enough look at her face to be able to recognize her in the future, so I prayed that if we were to ever cross paths again, she’d remember me and approach me so I could say “sorry” and “thank you,” too.
I ordered chicken nuggets and fries to go with the baby carrots and clementines I’d brought for Alice and Rowen and a Jr. Whopper and a Coke for myself. The cashier handed me cardboard crowns for all three kids, even though he knew Holden was too young to wear one. We found a table to sit at on the edge of the dining area and I adjusted the crowns to fit Alice’s and Rowen’s heads.
As I smashed the circular crown down over Alice’s golden hair, she grinned up at me and insisted that I wear Holden’s crown. I knew it was just a silly, throw-away thing from a junk food joint, but I didn’t feel worthy of it. I put it on anyway, for the kids’ sake, and stared off into space, nibbling on my burger as the brooding resumed.
When I realized there was a five-second delay for every response I was giving to the kids while they chattered at me, swinging their legs and licking ketchup off their fingers, I turned to Alice and said, “I’m sorry I haven’t been answering you, sweetie. I have something on my mind.”
She popped another salt-sprinkled fry in her mouth and asked, “What’s on your mind?”
It was such a grown-up response that I had to remind myself I was speaking with a four-year-old so I wouldn’t collapse into a fit of incoherent crying as I answered her.
“I feel bad because I was rude to that lady in the checkout line back at Target. I wasn’t very nice to her, and I wish I could tell her I was sorry.”
I’d had to gulp between words and some tears seeped out, but I’d held it together, for the most part. Confessing my wrongdoing out loud was a relief, especially when I’d been worrying that Alice had picked up on my pride and poor example.
I praised the kids for doing a good job eating their food and looked around at the busy food court, hoping my face wasn’t beet-red as I sipped my soda. Just as I was wondering whether it was obvious that I was the kind of person who lashed out at strangers, a white-haired lady approached our table and placed her delicate hands on the back of one of the empty chairs. She looked around, slowly taking us all in with her lips pressed together.
My mind started racing again. Was she an angel? Did she have some sort of message for me?
She commented on the kids and the fact that there were three. She asked them their ages and names and I translated for her. She actually wasn’t saying much, so I offered up the fact that we’d been looking at the toys in Target and were headed to the play area next.
“You need to relax first,” she nodded matter-of-factly.
I gawked up at her. So it was true. God had sent me a Christmas angel. Or, at the very least, He had sent an unwitting messenger.
I cringed, caught in the act, and confessed, “I know…I’m a little amped up.”
I waited for her offer me more words of wisdom in her soft, straight-forward tone, but she just stood there, so I smiled and told the kids to tell her “Bye-bye!” and “Merry Christmas!” to end the awkward moment.
After she walked away and I started gathering all of our garbage onto my tray, I realized that, rather than advising me to settle down, the woman had simply been commenting on the fact that we were taking a break in the food court before going to the play area. Rather than saying, “Get a grip, girl,” she was more-so saying, “Oh, I see. You’re taking a break first. That’s a good plan.”
I smirked at my mistake. It did make me feel better, though, to know that we had once again become a mild, amiable petting zoo that little old ladies and the like felt welcome to stop and see. And even if she hadn’t been advising me to take it easy, I knew that’s what I needed to do, and that that’s what God had been telling me all along.
Sometimes, I get so worried about what other people are thinking that I forget to take my anxious thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ. I let them capture me instead. As Proverbs 29:25 states, my “fear of man” becomes a snare, and rather than reaching out to the outside world, I become trapped inside my head.
But praise God, who offers me a way out in every circumstance where I find myself encased. When I’m stressed and hard-pressed, wedged-in and wild with worry, He cradles my crazy head and leads me through into a spacious place. And a gracious place, where forgiveness is free and He gives me space to get a handle on how much I can handle in this intensely sweet, sensitive, insane season of being a mom of three little ones. He gives me strength when I feel fragile, and I know I can expect the same in each new season to come.
Thank you, God, for this indescribable gift.
Psalm 118:5— “When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord; He brought me into a spacious place.”
Isaiah 40:11—“He tends His flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart; He gently leads those that have young.”
Matthew 11:28-30—“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
2 Corinthians 12:9-11—“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”