The day a stranger saved me at Target, I was wearing an oversized, peach tank top. It was one of the few shirts that fit over my already large, fully engorged breasts. I walked through Target, shopping while nursing. It was a skill I’d acquired when I became a mom for a third time in less than a year. My first two, adopted a little over a year before, were two and four years old. My youngest was just over eight weeks old.
I was exhausted and rapidly becoming undone.
My four year old wanted to be in the shopping cart, but all the car carts were gone and she did not like to share the regular cart seat with her brother. Her brother, in turn, was weeping over the loss of the car cart. The car cart and the automatic doors were what got him through a trip to Target. Both kids were loud and effusively forlorn.
I’d have left the store without having purchased anything, but it was our third attempt to shop that week. And we desperately needed toilet paper. Truthfully, I was also sure that leaving that store and going home, where nobody would be watching me, might be dangerous to my kids.
Like most new parents, I hadn’t slept more than two hours at a time since the adoption. My baby nursed every hour on the hour. My husband’s job had him commuting three hours a day and exhausted upon returning home. We were fairly new to the community and had experienced a variety of growing pains making new friends. We were hundreds of miles from family. Going home, a new mom of three children with three drastically different sets of needs, was a lonely prospect. Loneliness, combined with not having inherited enough healthy parenting skills from my own childhood, made parenting seem nearly impossible that day at Target.
Just before the stranger saved me, checking-out at the cashier knocked me down beyond my final notch. My son had spotted the toys, the ones they put at the checkout aisle at child level so that kids can break their parent’s will until they buy one. My son was working it, trying to break me. I shook my head no at him. He wailed as if to communicate that he would love no other toy ever again. My four year old daughter was done sharing me with her baby sister. She wanted to be held and she had certainly waited long enough for it. While loading up the conveyor belt with baby wipes and toilet paper, milk and M & M’s, I unlatched the baby from my breast and placed her in the carseat to pick up the four year old. Neither daughter was having it. The baby wanted back in the sling and the four year old decided the view from my hip wasn’t actually what she wanted either. Meanwhile, the checker had his own little tantrum. Too sternly, he barked, “Um…is your son going to buy that because he keeps playing with it but he didn’t pay for it.”
Sometimes, when I am pushed to my limit, I explode with rage. I rush through the house cleaning things and yelling at the ether about why things are as messy as they are. Rage cleaning is my safe version of violence. I launch into verbal tirades about whatever topic is at hand: minimum wage, that shady politician…I’ve got a million of them.
But sometimes, like that day at Target, I can’t even find my limit. I shrivel a little inside. I become insular, robotic.
I gazed methodically just beyond checker’s head. “No,” I said, “He’s not.” And then the tears gently flowed, unforced. “He’s not going to buy that toy you put there to make him buy it. Plus, he’s two so he doesn’t buy things at all. He’s not buying it. No.”
I wasn’t emotional. Wasn’t shouting. I was nothing-ing. I was just a shell with words dribbling out.
I paid and walked to the door. Staring directly into absence, I placed my screaming eldest daughter on the floor and lifted my screaming baby back into the sling. Horrified, I realized that I had forgotten to reassemble my nursing bra earlier. My breasts hung askew. I didn’t care. Then I pointed the shopping cart towards the door, secured the hands of my two and four year olds, and guided the cart towards the car with my hips, all the while sniffing snot and tears.
That is when the stranger arrived. She said something to my four year old. I don’t know what (I had to assume it was a safe thing to say), but my daughter stopped crying and I heard her laugh. The stranger gently took her hand and my daughter miraculously let go of mine. The next thing I knew, the two of them were pushing the cart, freeing me up to help my son out a bit more. Somehow, my daughter led the stranger to our car. Then the stranger opened the front door and gently guided me into it. She pointed to my baby girl, still in the sling. “You go ahead and get her situated and I’ll take care of your older kids.”
She could have walked away with my other babies and my toilet paper at that point. It was only a few years post 9/11 so I wasn’t supposed to trust anybody. That’s what people said later when I relayed the story.
But I was so lonely. I needed somebody, anybody at that point. I had no choice but to trust her. I literally cannot recall if I ever even saw her face that day. I don’t know if she told me her name.
What I do know is that while I nursed the baby to sleep, the stranger safely buckled both my older children into their car seats and installed the baby seat its place. She unloaded all my purchases into the trunk. She sang silly songs with my kids and made silly faces that sent them into fits of giddiness. At some point, when the baby was asleep, she gently lifted her from my lap and placed her safely into her car seat. Then she walked back over to the driver’s seat and made sure I too was buckled in safely.
Finally, she patted my shoulder and asked if I was going to be okay.
And do you know what? At that moment, I knew I was. I was really okay.
I hadn’t known it in the store when I was calculating how long we would need to stay at Target for me to feel sane. I didn’t know it when I realized that I had one breast in and one breast out of my nursing bra. I was sure I was not okay when all three children were crying and I needed to somehow get them and the shopping cart to my car.
But in that moment, I knew I was not alone. I could see through the stranger’s act of kindness to every slice of grace anyone had ever offered me. It was a thread of hope that knit together for me a lifetime of kind people, a gilded quilt to comfort me for the next step in parenting. I was able to pause for a moment and feel gratitude that when my husband did return from his long work days, he pitched in all he had. I could envision making new friends and finding a close community. I was thankful for the family we had, no matter how far away.
I drove home, newly aware of the space I was in. I could hear my children laughing. My senses were alive.
I spent that evening looking for mom groups online. I found several and made real-life connections through them. Out of those connections, I developed relationships with some of my dearest friends. We have raised our children together.
My kids are older now. The baby will be 12 soon, my eldest is almost driving. I tell them about that day when a stranger saved me. I want them to remember that they have not been raised alone, that nobody should be raised alone, that we can rely on friendship and family and sometimes strangers. I want them to know that it is okay to melt into a helping hand when they feel like they having nothing left to give. And I want them to remember the most important lesson the stranger taught me that day when she saved me at Target, that it is possible to make a profound difference in someone’s life during the most simple of moments.
originally published May 2016
A version of this post is at Scary Mommy.