It was a Wednesday night and I was sitting at a booth at P.F. Chang’s in the Chicago suburbs with my children and elderly father, holding my wailing, three-month-old baby girl with bad thoughts running through my head.
I had done everything right: fed her, changed her, and given her a nice, long nap shortly before we arrived at the restaurant, just past 5 PM. But as soon as we arrived and placed our orders, she erupted. I took her out of her carseat and held her this way and that way, bounced her on my knee and got up and walked her around the restaurant. Nothing I did to comfort her seemed to make a difference. She was inconsolable, screaming like a half naked woman in a horror movie, each wail echoing in the chamber of the ominous eatery, while my son, in the prime of his terrible twos, alternated between standing on the booth and trying to get the attention of the unamused man at the table next to us, screaming “More rice, mama!” right in my ear, and defiantly crawling under the table.
I was silently cursing the young hostess, who clearly didn’t get the memo about seating families with small children away from everyone else. My food, sad looking and uneaten, sat on the table in front of me, but despite my ravishing hunger, I couldn’t bring myself to eat because I was too flustered. Everyone was looking at me. I was a bad mother, and they knew it. In my head, I could see them listing off all the things I was doing wrong and wondering how someone could be so stupid to bring their kids out to dinner when they acted like this. Burning shame and embarrassment flooded through my blood.
Wah. Wah. Wah.
The baby refused to make eye contact with me. I’ve never hurt my children and never would, but as each pitch hit a higher and higher note, and my stress started to build, I began to see how some parents — in a momentary lapse of sanity — could be pushed to the brink.
And then a stranger stepped in.
“Can I please hold her?” you, a smiling 50-something woman sitting with your friend at the table across, asked me. “You look like you could use a break.”
Caught off guard, I laughed, thanked you, and made a stupid joke without answering yes or no, because that’s what I always do when someone I don’t know offers to help me. I was sure you didn’t really want to hold my baby, but nonetheless, it was sweet of you to offer.
“No really,” you insisted, getting up out of your seat, walking toward our table and reaching your arms out in the direction of my wailing child. “I would love to. You should eat.”
What I did next was totally out of character, shocking even to myself, but it was as if you didn’t leave me a choice: I handed her over.
I spent the next 10 minutes inhaling my overcooked Chinese food, while you and your girlfriend passed my screaming infant back and forth, bouncing her and patting her little back until her screams were a tone less deafening and her face, a lighter shade of crimson.
My father, 83, sheepishly explained he couldn’t hold the baby because he had a tendency to drop things, and then asked you two how you became friends. Through your children, you explained to us, they dated several years ago. They were older now, out of the house and away at college. Boy, do they grow up fast. You can remember scenes in restaurants just like this one, like they were yesterday. You actually miss them.
My father made a joke about karma. “When you were a baby, your mother and I had to take turns eating when we went to restaurants,” he told me. “One of us always had to walk you around the restaurant or take you outside because you fussed so much.”
We all laughed.
“These are the best days of your life,” you assured me. “Some of them are hard, but years later you will trade anything to have them back.”
By the time the check arrived, the consuming shame, embarrassment, and frustration was a distant memory. I thanked you and we left, I with enough patience to keep my cool until both kids were asleep and could recharge my sanity for another day of the beautiful mess we call motherhood. Once I was in bed, I thought again about what a nice woman you were, wishing I had your address so I could send you a thank you card. But then I realized: I didn’t even get your first name.
Being a mother is the blessing of all blessings. A day doesn’t go by where I neglect to realize that I am the luckiest person alive to have birthed two living, breathing miracles. But some moments it’s impossible not to feel the darkness.
I see mothers in the midst of scenarios like these and I empathize. I sit there and think, I’ve been there. Sometimes I even say something, crack a joke, “Oh, the joys of motherhood,” to let them know they aren’t alone. Maybe I’ve even offered to help once or twice, but nobody ever accepts, because us moms, we can handle it, right? We can do it on our own. We have too much pride to accept help from a stranger. Even when we so badly want to say “yes” because we are so close to our breaking point, we say “no.”
Thank you, stranger, for teaching me that when I see another mother silently suffering, I need to do more than just offer to help. Us moms, we need to stick together and when we glance over and see that look on her face, it is our responsibility to step in, to insist on it, so that she can take a few breaths or have a few bites of her food, and get back to a good place.
Thank you for stepping out of your comfort zone and investing 10 minutes of your night in a mom who desperately needed help but would never ask for it, and in turn, teaching her to do the same for others.More On