I saw the toddler signs: whiny, eye rubbing, not easily bribed with bunny gummies. I was in a local toy store buying a birthday present, and I saw the signs, but I still wanted lunch.
And I’m here to let you know that there is such a thing as a free lunch. It’s true. And it happened on Bellevue Avenue in Montclair, NJ.
That afternoon, despite the signs of toddler weariness, I took my just turned three-year-old down the block to Falafel Hut. She seemed game, and she was excited to go somewhere other than our kitchen for lunch. We settled into our seats, greeted the waitress, and started deciding on lunch choices.
And then it happened. A little girl, about to be two, walked by with a babydoll. My daughter LOVES babydolls. She had to touch the babydoll. Her hand went out, and the other little girl – as owners of babydolls are wont to do – pulled back and gave us a decisive “No.” I explained, “Honey, we ask first if we want to touch someone’s doll.” The parents of the other little girl launched into a back-and-forth of “Can’t you show the little girl your doll? She just wants to look at your doll!” Both girls were resolute. Or so it seemed.
I started asking my mini-me what she wanted to eat, and that’s when I saw the quivering bottom lip, the brimming eyes, the tiny nostrils tensing. This kid was about to start bawling.
And then the waitress arrived. With a sheepish and apologetic smile, I said, “We’ll take this to go. Sorry.” And I gave in my order. (No way was I just leaving; I wanted my Jerusalem platter, darn it!) I also ordered a banana-strawberry shake in the hopes that it would calm my little wailer.
The next fifteen minutes were spent with my daughter clinging to me, sobbing quietly into my non-existent cleavage, and forcing my arms around her anytime I moved to gesture or lift my wallet out of my bag. Her feelings were hurt, she said. She thought she’d done something wrong, something bad, she said. Of course, getting that information out of her was mainly intuition. I couldn’t understand much of what came out of her mouth. I reassured her that it was okay, and reminded her that she was tired. I told her we’d take our lunch home and eat it while watching Jungle Junction (a rare treat).
While she sobbed, I chatted with the parents: “She’s tired.” “She’s never like this.” “She’s the same way with her toys.” All true. All perfectly sincere. All an attempt to alleviate their discomfort while I faced them (literally facing their table), and we all waited for our food.
And the babydoll girl’s parents were also apologetic, concerned, and they scolded their daughter mildly for making the “other girl” cry. They were also sincere in their attempts to get their daughter to share the doll, or at least apologize to my daughter. But really, have you ever tried to get a two-year-old to apologize when she’s digging in her heels?
It was a vicious circle of parental mortification. I felt bad that they felt guilty. They felt horrible that my daughter was sobbing into my chest and clinging to my neck. It was a whole vicariously guilty mish-mash. I mean, we – the adults – hadn’t done anything wrong, had we? We wanted to eat a delicious and casual meal with our offspring. And the children hadn’t done anything wrong. They’d had a perfectly understandable interaction involving “Don’t touch my stuff!” – some version of which happens all the time in the adult world. So why did we all feel like we had to bend over backwards to show each other how terrible we felt?
No, really. Why?
Parents of toddlers get slammed on all sides by those who are not yet or were long ago parents of small children. The judgment can even come from people in the midst of toddlerhood parenting – if you catch them on days when their kids are relatively calm. Memories are short when you are sleep deprived. And why is it that teenagers are just being kids when they…egged your house, drank all your booze, drove over your lawn, stole a dozen Slim Jims from your store, heckled your elderly aunt, mooned you from the car… (fill in the blank), and what can you do?
But we parents with small children, somehow we’ve incorporated an “I’m so sorry I tried to eat lunch out with my child” attitude. So much so that here I was, in a casual eatery, trying to quell the mortification of two parents who shouldn’t have felt bad to begin with. And they were so nice! And so was I!
Now, it’s true: Both girls were tired. And it’s true: We could have just stayed home. And it’s true: Staying home all the time would take care of many less than stellar public situations. And it’s also true: I prefer to avoid therapy, and I’d need it if I stayed home every time I thought my daughter might be overly sensitive. Life has to be lived. Errands have to be done. Sanity has to be preserved.
So I choose to go out in public with a potential public scene hanging over me. As do other people, I suspect. Even other people who don’t have toddlers, just their own overly sensitive selves.
To bring it back to my free lunch: I asked the waitress for my bill when she brought my food. And what had those guilt-ridden parents done? They’d already paid it for me. So unnecessary. And it’s exactly what I would have done had we been in opposite positions. See what guilt will do?
I didn’t argue – I’m working on accepting kindness in kind, without minimizing the gift or the giver. I said thank you, re-iterated that it was totally unnecessary, and told them that I would do the same the next time my daughter makes someone else’s child cry. And she will.
If you’re lucky, it’ll be your kid, and I’ll buy you a nice lunch.
This essay was originally posted on a New Jersey mom’s blog, Take2Mommy.