I was crouching outside of a public bathroom stall, a bag of thirty library books precariously hanging from my shoulder (homeschoolers are book hoarders), trying to calm my screaming 3-year-old enough to teach him how to unlock the stall and let me in to help. He had decided he was going into the stall alone that day, “like big brother does,” and happened to pick the terrifying toilet that was going to erupt water like a violent volcano upon flushing. Meanwhile, my 6-year-old was standing atop the counter trying to wash his hands (hopelessly high countertops), and my 2-month-old was clinging to my chest like a fragile, baby sloth. (Regrettably, I did not have my trusty ring sling that day. On the way to the library, my smoothie had flown across the car, covering my favorite baby carrier in blueberry kale mush. The smoothie I had rushed to make and didn’t even drink. I’m trying to get healthy. It isn’t going so well. Later that afternoon I would hide away in my pantry and eat handfuls of chocolate chips to quell the stress. But I digress…)
Back to the bathroom. It was at this exact moment that the most beautiful girl in the world entered the scene.
There we stood: frazzled, crouching mom holding books and baby; wailing preschooler; erupting toilet; towering boy and his mountain of soap bubbles; floor littered with spilled contents of impractical, heavy diaper bag; beautiful twenty-two in track outfit. Wide eyed and a bit bewildered she generously asked, “Do you need some help?”
It was the third time that week that I had been stopped by a stranger and asked that question. The first time involved an impossibly windy day, a cart full of impossible grocery bags, a renegade apple, and a jam-packed parking lot. The second time, coincidentally, also involved a public bathroom, only then, the terrifying toilet was replaced by faulty stall locks, and instead of holding a bag full of books, I was holding a bowl full of oranges. (Don’t ask.) All three times involved the same cast of characters: the frazzled mom; the baby on chest; the wailing preschooler; the boy making some sort of mess; the impractical suitcase of a diaper bag; the bewildered, concerned stranger.
“Do you need some help?”
How helpless do I appear, exactly?
Each time, I bristled a bit at the insult; the mere suggestion that maybe I was struggling and needed a hand was enough to bruise my ego. (Because I am a mother; because I am supposed to be able to carry all of this, and a little more of that, and the weight of the entire world, if necessary.) And all three times I replied in the exact same way: “No, thank you. We are okay. No, really, it’s alright.”
Except, I wasn’t alright. (Remember, I would later find myself hiding out in the pantry, commiserating with crappy chocolate chips.)
On some of those days, I was really, really far from alright.
What if I had replied honestly?
Yes, beautiful girl, please help me. Please remind me that I, too, was once twenty-two. Remind me of that girl who still exists somewhere inside of me, in spite of this diaper bag I’ve used in place of a purse for the past six years and these sagging maternity jeans (Yes, it’s been two months. Yes, I’m still wearing them.) Remind me that she is there, and always will be, and refuses to be lost amongst the books, and the diapers, and the undesirable amount of time spent in public bathrooms. Please help me to look into this bathroom mirror and see the beauty in myself, right now as I am, and forever as I will be.
Yes, kind grandmother, offering to load my groceries and gushing about your grandkids, please, help me. Please tell me that you, too, once cursed under your breath in the store because you were tired and because they were tired. Please tell me that you might have even cursed your very existence, once or twice. Please tell me that you once sat in your car in a parking lot and cried before you could drive away. Please tell me that you doubted yourself, and you still made it out alive. Even though you don’t know me. Even if it isn’t true. Won’t you please tell me it’s going to be alright; that my children are going to be alright; that the world is going to be alright?
Yes, fabulous, eighty-something with the smart suit and the gentle eyes, looking at me with only empathy, please, please, help me. Please grab ahold of me and shake me; command me to wake up. Please tell me that this is going to pass me by before I know it, and all the moments I wished away will only be shimmering jewels I carry around in my heart, decorating my memory with their invaluable beauty. Please tell me that in just a breath or two, I will step away from playing bridge with friends and step into a restroom, where I just might find a young mother holding a bowl full of oranges and 3-year-old’s hand, working even harder at holding herself together, and I will smile as I recall that chaos, that joy.
What might have happened, had I just said yes to their help?
It is so hard for me to accept grace and kindness. Most days, I can’t help but feel as though I am much like my wailing preschooler, trapped inside my own stall built of ego and pride, struggling to find my way out. If I could only quiet my own noise, just for a moment, I might hear the calm voice of reason standing right outside, saying, “I’m here. Let me in to help.”