As a parent of small children, you often get the vague sense that you are in the way. You notice the quiet cringes as you enter a restaurant, the looks of crushing disappointment when you board an airplane. You apologize 13 times in the span of a one-block walk because the kids still haven’t learned (after eight million reminders) to look where they’re going.
Sorry. Sorry about that. Say excuse me, guys. Look FORWARD when you walk, please. I’m so sorry.
We’re working on it. And most of the time, people are pretty nice — if not warmly understanding, they’re at least tolerant. I’m sure the people who wince at the sight of kids aren’t even doing it on purpose. It’s probably just an automatic reaction. Subconscious.
I’ve gotten used to feeling in the way, but there’s a huge difference between FEELING in the way and someone straight up telling you that you are — something that, this past week, has happened twice. TWICE. In one week.
Maybe I just really suck at this whole going-places-with-children thing. I don’t know.
We head to the Costco bathroom to wash our hands in preparation for all the glorious samples. I position the cart and go to work pulling each kid out, one at a time. It isn’t crowded — completely empty, in fact, except for a woman using one of the four sinks.
As I strap the baby back into the cart, someone else walks in and pauses behind us. “Oh, we’re not in line,” I say, smiling. She smiles back and goes around us into a stall.
The woman who is standing at the sink snaps, “Well, some of us still can’t get by.”
This is a weird thing to say, because she then proceeds to stalk past us and grab some paper towel and storm out. And because I am still standing there, dumbfounded, I just back up silently and take this picture to document the sheer absurdity of her rudeness (and also to prove to myself that I haven’t totally lost my mind.)
My four-year-old watches her go, and asks (much too loudly — subtlety is something else we’re working on), “Mommy, is she feeling crabby? Why is she feeling so crabby?”
“She’s probably just having a bad day, honey,” I say.
And I chalk it up to that.
Cut to this morning. Different person, different location, same-ish situation. We’re at Lowe’s in the gardening aisle. The kids have requested the “car cart” with the steering wheels, because duh. (Confession: I have been known to white lie on occasion about the car cart’s availability — that sucker is AWKWARD — but today it is sitting there unattended in the parking lot and their little eyes alight on its cumbersome splendor with the precision of homing missiles and just forget it, it’s all over.)
So yep, the car cart is big and annoying. But several minutes go by and no one else is even remotely around — not even my husband, who has wandered off to examine the lumber for reasons I will never understand, as we have no immediate plans to build something — and the kids and I are discussing which seeds we should attempt to plant in our very first vegetable garden.
Suddenly, I notice a woman off to my left. She’s just standing still, staring at us, and has uttered zero words even though “excuse me” would have sufficed here.
So I say it instead: “Oh, sorry! Excuse us!” And I maneuver the cart aside.
She doesn’t reply to me, but when her husband joins her a second later, she remarks to him (much too loudly — she must be working on subtlety, too), “Can you believe idiots who just park a big thing like that right in everyone’s way?”
My cheeks go instantly hot. Even though I am frozen in place and aware that I now look all red and embarrassed and blotchy and realize I should probably turn and flee before my skin sets something on fire, I can’t help myself this time.
“I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do,” I tell her. “I have kids. I can’t just leave the cart over there somewhere and go grab what I need.”
“I don’t expect you to leave them,” she says, speaking to me for the first time. She waves a hand toward the wide-eyed faces of my children. “But you’re in the way.”
I’m already wheeling us in the opposite direction — we’ve abandoned the seeds for our garden, but at least she looks appropriately semi-flustered. And I want to chalk this encounter up to someone’s bad day, too, but I’m wondering: So what? Does “a bad day” give a person a free pass to act like a jerk? To eschew decency and patience and grace? Even worse, why does it seem like more and more people are eschewing these principles every day?
My own interactions with strangers could use some work (although I’d like to think I’m not overtly and intentionally rude): I’m sometimes lost in my own head instead of conversing with the grocery store cashier. I’m easily frustrated when people don’t use turn signals. I’m often too introverted to be the first to smile at a stranger.
I’m not perfect, but I want to be. At the very least, I want to be someone who tries to be better.
Obviously, this does not qualify as some unthinkable, weighty injustice — but let’s drink a toast to starting small, because sometimes it feels like that’s all we can do. There are a million things in this world and in this life that are out of our immediate control, which makes it even more important to take charge of all the tiny things we can: The way we behave toward other human beings. Small kindnesses. Politeness and civility.
I wish these two strangers had been forgiving enough to remember that the people around them — particularly those who are responsible for smaller, needier people — are going to inevitably take up some space.
Instead, they served up two ripe, delicious, teachable moments: the children were watching. They always are.
“I feel so sad we made that lady angry,” my daughter murmured on the drive home.
And we talked about you, strangers. We talked about the kinder ways you might have behaved, bad day or perfect day or some day in between. In two young minds, you are now a tangible example of how NOT to treat someone, and I hope you’re comfortable with that.
Actually, I hope you’re not. This place needs more people who aren’t comfortable with that at all.
A version of this post first appeared on MichiforniaGirl.com.
Extrovert Melissa profoundly misses adult company and loves meeting new people via her Facebook page. Introvert Melissa appreciates that this can happen from behind a computer screen, where she is inevitably sporting a mom bun and downing a third cup of coffee with extra whip.