We sat down with the food to watch the kids play, and she looked up and wiped a tear from her face. It was red and splotchy, her eyes vacant.
I looked sidelong at my sister next to me, unpacking the food.
“What’s going on here?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “We should ask.”
But the time wasn’t right. She had four kids surrounding her. Asking for napkins and straws and pushing each other and whining. She was busy, doing. Doing everything. Being a mom. She was busy, but I could see it in her eyes. She wasn’t even there.
My sister and I waited. We fed our kids, got them their napkins and their straws and managed them while they pushed and whined and finally got up to play. We cleaned up the mess, and then we sat, watching her from beneath our whispered conversation, trying not to be rude by staring. We didn’t want to interrupt her in front of her kids. But the tears kept leaking out of her eyes, even as she went through the motions.
Finally she got up, and her kids trailed after her, and my heart just hurt and I couldn’t not say anything.
“Are you okay?” I said. “Do you need help?”
“I’m okay,” she smiled. “It’s just hard when they’re all melting down and you just want them to Eat. The. Chicken.”
I told her she was doing a great job, and she smiled and thanked me, and I walked out the door, heralding my daughter and my niece. I didn’t look back.
But I should have, I think now. I should have looked back.
Maybe I should have said, “Are you sure you’re okay?” or “Can I help you get them in the car?” or even “Do you want me to watch them so you can go pee alone?”
But I didn’t. I was wrapped up in my own business of mom-ing, and I had already stretched myself further than I like to go by inserting myself into another woman’s troubles. Who was I to her? A stranger. Nothing more.
In all likelihood, she was just having a hard mom day. She had four kids and the summer is almost over, and maybe one of them said something that set her off, or maybe she got a text that was hard to read, or maybe she was just feeling lonely or she was hungover or tired or maybe she really did just want them to eat the damn chicken.
But I can’t stop thinking about her. I’m an introverted person by nature, and going out on a limb to talk to strangers is hard enough. We’ve all been through it. Trying to meet other moms at the playground, or at the PTA meeting, or the swimming pool. Trying to find our tribe. Wondering if we’re doing this right. Screwing it all up.
But when I’m feeling alone, feeling sad, feeling wrong, would I want a strange mom to come up to me and tell me I’m doing a good job? Ask me if I need help? Make sure I’m okay? I think I would.
Isn’t it better that we choose to be cheerleaders for each other? That we acknowledge the hard, and let it be okay? We’re all just trying to make it through the day. Let’s make it a little easier for each other. Even if it means interrupting a stranger.