I pushed open the glass door with the usual trepidation one feels when entering a coffee shop with two small children. We had been here before and it had gone well, but scanning the sea of laptop warriors, I felt increasingly anxious.
Still, I decided to soldier on, shaking off the nervous voice in the back of my head that nudged me to cut and run. I had promised my girls a trip here and I was looking forward to that poppy seed muffin as much as they were.
Back at our table with our baked goods in hand and three water glasses, one filled to the brim and two with their bottoms barely coated, we settled in. My girls were sitting together in one chair, leaning against each other and giggling softly as they broke off pieces of their shared muffin and fed them to each other. I was there but not there, taking in their sweet sisterly moment with a half-smile on my face, but also scanning the room for signs of strife.
Is this just me? Am I the only mom who sits in panic when out in public with her young children, constantly searching the faces of strangers for annoyance rather than just enjoying my time with these sweet girls?
A few minutes later, my girls had finished most of their muffin and had moved on to slurping their water gleefully through their straws. My middle daughter was singing to the toddler and tickling her under her chin.
I rested my hands on her shoulders, a note of caution in my voice. “Remember your coffee shop manners.” Then a water was spilled. I rose from the table to get some more napkins, walking right by a gray-haired man who shuffled his papers and caught my eye.
“Excuse me,” he said.
Taking a deep breath, I braced myself for the criticism. Like when the woman in the bakery told me she couldn’t stand the rubbery sound of my daughter’s teeth on her teething ring, or the mom at the pizza place pointed out how nicely her children were sitting at her table in contrast to mine who had wandered off to look out the window. Like the hundreds of nasty looks and zillions of voices in my head that told me far worse things about myself and my parenting.
“I hope you don’t think I’m some kind of weirdo,” he said kindly. “But I just had to tell you how darling your daughters are. They are so sweet with each other.”
I stood there in shock, tears springing to my eyes.
“Do people not tell you that very often?” He asked, incredulously.
“No, they don’t,” I finally squeaked out. “But thank you so much for saying something. Sometimes I feel like I really shouldn’t be out in the community at all with small kids.
girls-at-zoo“I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying the sounds of happy young children,” he said, genuinely surprised.
I thanked him again and returned to our table. Looking at my daughters, I saw them through his eyes. Their rounded cheeks and tiny, breathy voices, their delight in everything that crosses their paths. I considered the possibility that many people were silently enjoying my kids, not wishing we would leave.
I asked myself how much of my anxiety really sprung from the judgment of other people and how much stemmed from my own wounded expectations.
For me, it has always been important to please other people. To be a good girl. To feel liked and wanted. I’ve been lucky enough to feel that way most of my life. I’ve maybe gone unnoticed at times, but I’ve never before experienced open hostility at my very existence.
Then I had kids. Well, first I had a baby, who seemed genuinely adored by the whole world as long as she stayed quiet. But right around the time your little one starts walking, the atmosphere around you suddenly changes. You start to notice people looking a little too pointedly, rolling their eyes, sighing loudly. You start to be judged for your child’s behavior, and for your parenting.
For a super-sensitive people pleaser like me, it’s been hard to adjust to people not liking me. To people not liking my parenting. To people not liking my kids. And I have three of them close in age, which certainly adds to the effect in this town.
It’s been hard to feel like parts of my community are now closed off to my family. Like most coffee shops, crowded buses at rush hour, the checkout line at the grocery store, the line at the post office and just about any building with an elevator in it.
People rarely say anything, but you can feel the atmosphere change when you arrive. Being a parent of young children is hard enough. Sometimes the additional weight of annoyed strangers can be too much to bear.
But are they really? For the first time in my seven years of parenting, I really looked around me, at all of the people who hadn’t registered our existence at all, at the handful of people who had smiled kindly at me or my daughters. And here, all I had hung on to was the man who sighed as my toddler bumped into him in line. The gray-haired man was packing up his things, and he approached our table on his way out.
“I just wanted to add that part of the reason I enjoyed watching your girls is because you are such a kind mother,” he said. “You’re doing a great job.”
His words released all of the hurt and embarrassment I had been carrying with me. I felt proud of myself and my daughters. I felt welcome in my community. I realized I always was. These days, when I sense some annoyance at my family, I just remember the man in the coffee shop.
I am doing a great job with these wonderful girls. Even if not everyone can see it.