“HENRY! If I hear one more word from you … ”
My voice trails off weakly as I attempt to think of an appropriate threat for my 4-year-old. “Just get in the car and shut your mouth! I’ve had enough from you today! I AM DONE.”
I angrily yell this last sentence, punctuating each word with menacing finger points as tears trickle down my son’s cheeks. As I fling bags of groceries carelessly into the back of my minivan, I notice a woman loading groceries into the trunk of a nearby car staring at me. She raises her eyebrows and purses her lips, then whispers something to the woman next to her, who immediately turns to give me a once-over. I know without question they are talking about what a mean mother I am.
I slam down the cargo door, get in my minivan, start the car, and turn up the music so my kids can’t hear me cry.
Yes, I sounded awful yelling at my son. If I heard a mom shouting at her child like I did, I would probably give her the same dirty look (or at least think unkind thoughts). But what the women who gave me those dirty looks don’t know, is that I had just spent nearly two hours grocery shopping with three kids (reason enough to yell and/or cry) only to have my debit card denied in front of a line of impatient people who witnessed every nuance of my embarrassment.
If you’ve never had this happen to you, then you won’t know the depth of embarrassment and shame I felt. If you weren’t raised on food stamps, supremely conscious of being extremely poor, you also might not recognize the trauma not being able to afford groceries inflicts on your soul. What might be a silly accounting mistake to some, is yet another validation to me that I will always be the poor kid from the bad family.
When you come from poverty, when being poor is as much a part of you as the blood that pumps through your veins, when you experienced your own mom embarrassed and crying after not being able to afford groceries, you’re never a careless debit card swiper. Even when you’re absolutely certain you have money in the bank, there is always that split-second of tensing up until your card is approved.
But that day, the worst happened. With groceries bagged and in my cart, my kids hungry and at their limit, and the couple behind me anxiously awaiting their turn, I was denied. A strange buzzing roared through my head and a lump formed in my throat as sweat began dripping down my back.
Please, God. No. My worst nightmare was coming true.
The insensitive cashier tiredly reached over the counter for my card and mumbled something about punching in the numbers directly, but I knew. This was no swiping issue. I had screwed up. As my youngest, Charlie, fussed and flung groceries to the floor and Henry and Violet danced around the cart obliviously, I panicked. The cashier punched the last number and waited. I waited. The line waited.
I swallowed hard, mentally assessing my options. I looked to the cashier for instruction or help, but she just stood there waiting for me. I risked a side-glance at the couple behind me who were watching the show unfold without reservation. Several people were in line behind them. Tears threatened, but the idea of everyone witnessing me lose it at Walmart slapped me into action.
“I must have misjudged my checking account balance,” I told the cashier calmly. “Just void out my stuff and ring up the next people. I’m going to step over here and check my balance on my phone.” I wanted to get away from the line where people were watching. I debated ditching my cart, grabbing my kids, and getting the hell out of there. The cashier looked at me blankly, as if no one in the history of her tenure at Walmart ever shared this predicament. God, lady.
Blessedly, another worker named Tammy was called over and she was sensitive to my plight. She told the cashier to void my purchases, then instructed me to step down to aisle 14 when I was ready and she would personally ring me up. I thanked her and steered my cart away from the line of horrors I’d been standing in, then grappled nervously for my phone. As Charlie turned around in his seat, dug through bags of groceries and threw them on the floor, I logged into my bank account.
$59 in available funds as opposed to the $500 I’d thought was there.
“Let’s go, kids!” I wheeled my crew down to aisle 14 and told Tammy I was going to start giving her the groceries I wanted to buy and would put the rest in a second cart to be returned in the store. I spent the next 15 minutes haphazardly undoing what took me 90 minutes of careful shopping, only keeping the essentials. Bread, milk, diapers, cereal, dog food, toilet paper.
When Henry saw me returning the Spongebob lunch bag he’d spent 10 minutes picking out, he started to cry. How do you explain to your child that the lunch bag you just helped him pick out was no longer something we could bring home? I tried. As his third tantrum in two hours revved into high gear, I told him to choose any treat from the candy bar display, reassured him we’d get the lunch bag next time, then paid for the groceries and attempted to make an escape.
The candy bar didn’t help.
Henry cried even louder, causing everyone to look my way, again. My insides felt like a thousand snakes squirming in hot liquid, the lump in my throat was steadily expanding, and I just needed to GET OUT. Head held high, I hauled ass out of there. Back at the car, as I angrily tossed groceries in the cargo area, my steely facade began to crumble. I was a sweaty, panting, frazzled mess. Holding back my own tears, I yelled at my crying son and was judged by two strangers who had no idea what I’d just been through.
I cried all the way home, made dinner, and bathed my kids. By the time I was reading bedtime stories, Henry had forgotten all about the damn lunch bag. But I hadn’t. I won’t forget any time soon, either.
So the next time you witness a parent being what appears to be a jerk to their kid, please remind yourself that you have no idea what that person is dealing with in that moment. I’m as guilty as anyone of making snap-judgements about other people (especially other parents), but that doesn’t make it right. Cut them some slack. Because you just never know.