The dad was screaming at his child. Every instinct in me wanted to run up to the child and whisk him into my arms as I yelled back at the dad.
Then I remembered.
We’d dropped off our eldest at kindergarten for the morning, and the house seemed too cold and lonely to go back to. So my younger two children and I headed to the library.
Normally the library was a place of solace. On Thursday mornings the library was alive with storytelling and great family-friendly activities.
This wasn’t Thursday morning.
I could usually find some books with which to settle my kids at a table within an arm’s distance of me, while I had a quick look at some reading matter a little more advanced than Dr Seuss.
But not this morning.
While I was two metres away from my kids, they started some sort of uproar.I don’t even remember what they did. But I do remember the face of the security guard as he suggested I try to come back another day when the children wouldn’t be so disruptive.
So we headed for home.
But we needed milk, so we popped into the drugstore (yes, we were living in the USA at the time).
We didn’t end up getting milk that morning. The kids caused a racket.
And in less time than it takes to get a flagon of milk and line up in a 20-person-long queue, another security guard came up to us. In his sweetest, deepest Southern-USA accent, he said,
‘Ma’am, y’all need to leave the store. These chillun’ are disturbin’ the other customers’.
Mortified, I grabbed the pusher and the hand of my three-year-old, and we headed out—without the milk.
Our house still seemed cold and lonely, so I headed to our friend’s home, where the kids felt right at home and joined in the activities without fear of being expelled.
As the kids played, my dear friend poured some freshly brewed coffee and listened as I burst into tears and related the goings-on of the morning.
‘… and then … and then …!’
And then I looked at my friend’s face. She’d evidently been trying to keep a straight face, but could no longer hold it in. She burst into fits of laughter.
‘What’s so funny?’ I asked.
‘Well, after all you’ve been trying to tell me about being a Christian, at last I know now that you’re real! This has spoken more to me than anything else you’ve ever said. Thank God you’re human!’
She continued to speak words of truth, encouragement and compassion. Her words were loving, caring, concise and compelling.
She knew us so well.
We were everyday friends and shared most aspects of our lives. So she knew of the stresses and strains on our young family.
She also knew of the unrealistic demands I had placed on myself as a young mum of three young children in a place a world away from everything and everybody we knew.
She was also a doctor, and picked up pretty quickly that at least one of our kids had a fever—something that I’d overlooked. Several hours later, another burst eardrum revealed itself as the cause of my ‘terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad day’*.
As soon as I remembered that day, I was able to think about the dad in the shopping centre in a different light. I was so quick to judge—just like those people in the drugstore. Several of them offered words of advice:
‘That child needs discipline.’
‘If he were my child, he would have had a spanking by now.’
‘You shouldn’t come here if you can’t control your children.’
None of the advice had been particularly helpful, and none demonstrated any form of understanding.
They did not know that we had been up all night with various demands of the children.
They did not know that we were from the other side of the world and really needed somebody to give us a break.
They didn’t know that the child who was being most boisterous never complained of pain, but acted up in other ways. He must have been screaming inside but didn’t know how to tell me.
The people knew nothing about us yet were so quick to judge.
And here I was, doing the same thing.
The dad and the child left the building.
And I felt sorry that I didn’t do anything. I hadn’t given any word of encouragement. I hadn’t offered any help. I hadn’t even given the understanding smile that I’ve since been practising.
I hope it says, ‘Yes, sometimes we do have terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad days. I understand. I hope your day gets better from here, but I promise not to contribute further to your misery.’
These days I try to keep a bottle of bubbles in my bag, which often is all the distraction that distraught dads need. A dad with those magic bubbles in his hand turns into a super-hero in the eyes of a small child, and in the eyes of judgemental onlookers.
For the times when I’m not armed with bubbles, I have rehearsed some lines which I have actually used, such as:
‘Not a good day? Can I help?’
‘I hope your day gets better.’
‘Would you like me to help you with your trolley?’
‘I remember those days. Is there anything I can do to help you right now?’
I usually receive some funny looks—but, in comparison with being a judgmental, older person with a poor memory and no clue of the cause of anybody else’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad day, it’s worth it!
Originally published in ‘The Lutheran’ magazine, September, 2012. https://www.thelutheran.com.au/
* from the book Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very-Bad Day by Judith Viorst