An open letter to the lady who shot me a disgusted look and asked to move away from our table in a restaurant, because my three-year-old was throwing a fit:
Hi. You don’t know me. I’m Stacy. I’m a wife and mom to three kids born in 3.5 years during my twenties. In a breathtakingly short span of time I went from single college girl to newlywed to new mother to mother of multiples. I still wake up sometimes amazed that this is my life, thrilled and terrified that I’ve been given the opportunity to nurture these three souls.
You don’t know my kids either. There are three of them, as I said. All unique individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and challenges. Two of them decided to join our family at the same time, because I guess my life wasn’t crazy enough without twins. I’ve had a few kind people tell me that God only gives multiples to mothers He has a lot of confidence in, but just between us, I’m not sure He really thought it through when it came to me.
You don’t know that we’re headed home from a week-long vacation, which was a blast but also means that my kids have spent six nights out of their own beds, unscheduled and overstimulated. You don’t know that we’ve been on the road for six hours and eight bathroom breaks, with a good eight hours left to go. You don’t know that I have a massive headache from listening to the Frozen soundtrack for the 7000th time and diffusing arguments over whose turn it is to choose a DVD and who ate all the Pringles and who gets to use the coveted polka dot pillow.
But there’s something else you don’t know, something that almost nobody knows because it isn’t something I share frequently. But since you decided, after two minutes of sitting next to my family in a restaurant, that you were in a position to judge my parenting skills, I’m going to let you in on the secret. Here it is: I don’t know what I’m doing.
Seriously. I have no freaking idea what I’m doing. You’re an older lady here with your husband, so I’m going to assume that you either have children of your own or have had experience caring for siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews. If so, you know that kids are unpredictable little suckers. They have big emotions packed into little brains and bodies and sometimes all those feelings just explode. Usually it’s at the worst possible moment, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in 7+ years of mothering it’s that even the best laid plans are often worthless, and fate isn’t kind to moms.
Multiply all those big feelings and needs and quirks by three, and I’ll admit that most days I’m flying by the seat of my pants. I read parenting books and mommy blogs and pray rosaries over my babies, but I still have no clue what I’m doing most of the time. I’m just doing it. I’ve been to childbirth classes and breastfeeding classes and CPR classes, but somehow I missed the class where they tell you what to do when your preschooler loses his shit in the middle of a Cracker Barrel. I don’t have a degree in child psychology or training in behavior management. I’m just a mom. I’m just a mom trying to straddle the line between acknowledging my kids’ feelings and holding them to a proper standard of behavior. Sometimes I give in too easily because I’m exhausted or too sympathetic. Sometimes I’m unnecessarily harsh and have to ask their forgiveness later. I worry every single day that I am being both too lenient and too hard on them. I spend a portion of every single night reviewing my parenting successes and failures, promising, always promising, that I will do better tomorrow. It’s so hard, trying to raise good kids while not losing sight of the fact that I already have them. It’s even harder when I’m frequently doing it on too little sleep and too much caffeine.
I don’t blame you for moving. I’ll admit, when I see a family with a baby or a toddler board my plane I send up a quick prayer that they won’t sit by me. I didn’t relish the idea of listening to a three-year-old cry through my lunch either. My leisurely break from an exhausting drive turned into 20 minutes of scarfing down my food under the shadow of disapproving stares. Chicken fried steak never tasted so good. Something about white gravy tinged with judgement really makes the meal.
And you know what? Maybe I didn’t handle it right. Maybe I should have punished the rest of my family by making us all pack up and leave. Maybe I should have sat outside with my upset child while my husband and other children ate their food. Maybe I should have given in to whatever he wanted to shut him up (honestly, that would have been an appealing option had I known what he was freaking out about – apparently he didn’t know either, because, ya know, three-year-olds). Maybe we shouldn’t have been there at all. I really just didn’t want to eat another French fry on this trip, and I hold to the parenting philosophy that says the only way to teach kids how to behave in society is to expose them to it. It’s his world too, you know.
So request another table. That’s fine, really. I understand. But maybe next time you encounter a family struggling with a little one’s big feelings, you could offer an encouraging smile instead of a glare. When you see a mom who appears overwhelmed by all of the demands on her time and body and attention and patience, offer a kind word. Tell her you’ve been there (even if you haven’t). Tell her she’s doing a good job. Because she is. She’s just a mom, like I am. Just a mom, rocking my baby on the porch of a Cracker Barrel in some godforsaken part of Alabama, holding back tears because your silent judgement hurts, even though I know I shouldn’t let it. Just a mom, trying to do my best, even when I don’t know what that is. Just a mom, holding myself to a standard of grace, not perfection. I wish that you would too.
Stacy Buxton Mitchell is a wife and mom of three, including toddler twins. She recently moved her family into a 456 square foot studio apartment on her husband’s grandparents’ farm, where she juggles children, chickens, honey bees, a milk cow, and the medical school application process.