I’ve Been There

By Janeen Lewis

I’ve Been There

I watched the frazzled mom pick out grocery items, steer an enormous car cart, and try to keep two children under control. When her daughter ran right in front of my buggy, the mom apologized.

“Oh, no problem,” I said. “I understand. My two are at home.”

Those words lit a spark of commonality in the mom’s eyes and she laughed. “You managed to get away by yourself. Good for you!”

I smiled and continued on, thinking about the frazzled mom, and remembered one day years ago that changed how I treat other parents I meet in the grocery store.

My son Andrew was four at the time, and my daughter Gracie was one. It was a gray, wintry day when I realized that the only edible things we had in the house were one thin slice of turkey, a black banana and a heel of bread. I stopped postponing the weekly grocery trip and took the children with me instead of waiting for my husband to get home from work.

Before I set one foot out of the house, I stocked Gracie’s diaper bag with snacks, diapers, wipes, cloth books and small toddler toys. The bag was so full, I walked through the door sideways. Then I asked Andrew an all-important question: Did he have to use the bathroom? He assured me that no, he did not.

Finally, I strapped the children into car seats. As I put the key in the ignition, I heard Andrew from the backseat.

“I have to go to the bathroom!” he announced.

“I thought you said you didn’t have to go.”

“I didn’t feel like I had to then, but I do now.”

He was too afraid to go inside the empty house by himself, and I didn’t want to leave a 13-month old unattended, so I undid everyone’s seat buckles and we trudged back inside.

After two false starts, we were finally at the carts at the entrance of Wal-Mart when I realized Gracie needed a diaper change. I lugged my twenty-two pound daughter and a diaper that felt like it weighed the same amount into the restroom while cajoling a wandering Andrew to stay with me. Finally, I got Gracie onto the changing table and reached for the wipes. I kept on reaching because the wipes weren’t there. The car! I left the wipes there when I cleaned hands and faces. I didn’t want to walk back to the parking lot, so I lugged Gracie and cajoled Andrew back to the baby section to buy more wipes.

I got in line at the registers at electronics. There were already two people in line, but the man ahead of me said, “Is that all you have? Why don’t you get in front of me? You look tired.”

Not only did he let me in front of him, he noticed I was tired. He had my vote for Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year.” I thanked him and explained about the wipes.

“I understand,” he said. “I’ve been there.”

Finally, I paid for the wipes and changed Gracie. We had been in the store twenty minutes, and I didn’t even have a cart, so we walked back to the front to retrieve one. Andrew was too big for the buggy, so he walked next to me. When I searched for something on a shelf, he got behind me. When I put the item in the cart, I couldn’t see him and immediately panicked – I had lost a child! Spinning like a dog chasing its tail, I looked all around as Andrew turned with me to stay out of view. Eventually, I turned fast enough to find Andrew, and both boy and baby laughed hysterically. We were on aisle one.

I muddled on. Slowly, I made it through three more aisles, reminding Andrew to “Look, not touch” and to “stay with me.” We rounded the bend of the pasta aisle and passed a woman about my mother’s age who smiled at me. I’d seen her in some of the other aisles we shopped, but this time she spoke.

“You must be a good mother because you have good children.”

She must not have heard me, no less than one hundred times, say “No!” to Andrew’s requests for sugary, artificially flavored products. How did she miss me correcting him in every aisle for hanging off of the cart? Then I realized she probably didn’t miss it. Maybe she’s a mom herself. She remembered when she was in my place, and she understood. And she was right. My children were good children, and I was being the best mom I could be, considering the situation – trying to shop with young, restless children in a store full of bright, beckoning products. Like the man in electronics, maybe the woman in the pasta aisle was saying in her own way, “I’ve been there.”

It felt like that shopping trip lasted for hours. We spent 20 minutes in front of the fish tanks. I made a complicated detour past the toy aisle so we would make it home in time for dinner. I had to say “No!” to candy at the checkout while blocking the display with my whole body, unloading the cart, and balancing a crying Gracie on my hip. But I was okay through all of this. The kind words of the other shoppers buoyed me up. In fact, if my children hadn’t come with me, my path wouldn’t have crossed the paths of those who encouraged me and validated what I do as a mother.

From that day on, I’ve made a conscious effort to say something positive to other parents at the grocery. Sometimes I tell them they are doing a good job, or I compliment them on their children. The words don’t matter as long as I pass on the kindness I received from strangers one day long ago and say in my own way, “I’ve been there.”

About this writer

  • Janeen LewisJaneen Lewis is a freelance journalist​, part-time STEM teacher and mother of two. When she isn’t spending time with her family, she loves writing about them.

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2 Responses to “I’ve Been There”

  1. One kind word can make the difference to one frazzled mama with one or more active toddlers. Nice story.

  2. Rose Ann says:

    I remember those days and you put me right back in it! A nice reminder that we can all make a difference with just a smile or a word. Great essay.

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