I’ve never met you, but you looked familiar. You're a lot younger than I am, but I think we could be friends. Or at least we’d have a lot to talk about if we sat down and chatted over a cup of coffee.
I was in Target last week with my 10-year-old son, Henry. We were shopping for a few things: deodorant (I have 14-year-old twin boys – enough said), napkins, Kleenex, hair color, sandwich bags, and Drano.
Henry came along to look at amiibos. He brought his own money in case he found a rare one. (Don’t ask me what it’s all about. The kid loves video games and Wii U accessories.)
“What is hair color used for?” Henry asked, as we stood in the aisle looking at endless boxes lining the shelves. I explained it to him. “You have gray hair?” he asked loudly, sounding surprised and confused. I bent down so he could look at my hair, but he insisted he didn’t see any grays. Either the hair color is doing its job, or he’s not very observant.
Being the mother to three boys, including teenage twins with autism, has caused my hair to turn gray. Parenting these guys is stressful at times. Henry is partially responsible for my grays, I’m sure of it.
I had just picked up a box of Kleenex when I heard a child’s blood-curdling scream. It wasn’t the sound of a baby crying. Was it a toddler?
Whatever it was, it sounded eerily familiar.
“I had difficult kids,” I told Henry. “Your brothers sounded similar when they were small,” I said.
Henry and I wandered through the frozen foods and meandered towards the back of the store on our way to the electronics department. As we got closer to the electronics, the non-stop screaming seemed to get louder.
I turned a corner and saw you. You were standing in the middle of an aisle with a tall man who I’d guess is your husband. He’s taller than you and has broad, strong shoulders.
You were wearing a baby carrier, and a little love was resting comfortably against your body. The baby had smooth skin and light brown hair. I was surprised the baby wasn’t crying, too.
Your husband was carrying the toddler, who was wearing pajamas -- the kind with feet. The little guy was angry and had boundless energy. His face was deep red from the constant crying and screaming. He was in the middle of a full-blown meltdown while your husband tried to calm him.
I had to smile when I saw the irony of the phone near the end of the aisle, the one a customer picks up when assistance is needed. I almost expected you to pick up the receiver to say, “Ummmm, yeah, if you could send someone over here to help us, that’d be great.”
Your son threw something on the floor, and a Target employee quickly picked it up. He smiled at you. He looked kind but nervous. I sensed he wanted to help but didn’t know exactly what to do.
You stood calmly amidst the chaos and swayed with your tiny baby pressed against your body. I didn’t see your family’s cart, and maybe it was by design.
Had you decided at the last minute to come into the store for a couple emergency items? Was it difficult for your son to sit safely in the cart or to be buckled into a stroller?
I saw your husband look at you, and he laughed.
That’s when I knew.
You’ve been through this before.
This is how it goes most of the time, doesn’t it?
I recognized that laugh and the look you shared with your husband because I’ve done it many times. The look says
I wish we could get the hell out of here.
I can’t believe this is happening again.
I feel like we’re in a bad movie.
I would feel better if I screamed, too.
This might be funny a few years from now, but right now I’m about ready to crack.
I wasn’t staring at you, I promise. This all happened within seconds. Moments later you were gone, but now the crying continued in another part of the store.
It never stopped. Your son should have been exhausted. You looked like you were.
I remember those difficult days, although I try to forget them. When my twins were small, I had similar experiences. I think that’s why you looked so familiar to me. I looked at the scene in Target, and I saw a little bit of myself in you.
I’ve experienced a child screaming and rolling around on the floor numerous times. I’ve had trouble getting a child to leave a store. When I tried to pick him up, his body became a wet noodle and he screamed bloody murder. When a stranger stopped to get a glimpse of my twins in a stroller, one of my sons cried for at least an hour because the stranger’s face wasn’t a familiar one. Leaving the store didn’t do much good. It took forever for him to calm down.
After my sons were diagnosed with autism, I understood why they were often upset. The boys didn’t expect to be in the store, nor did they always want to be there. The lights were too bright. The store was too loud. The crowds were too large. The smells overwhelmed them. They couldn’t tell me what was wrong.
I don’t know your family, so I don’t know your story. I don’t know if your son has autism or sensory integration disorder. I don’t know if your son was overly tired or had a bad day. I would guess he wasn’t throwing a fit, based on my own experience and observations. It looked like a meltdown to me where his sensory system was overloaded. I could be wrong, though.
I would guess there is more to your story.
An older mother once told me, “If you had a bad day, think about the day your son must have had. It must have been worse for him.” At the time I couldn’t imagine it being worse for him, but she was right. It must have been hell.
While Henry and I were waiting in the crowded checkout, the blood-curdling screaming abruptly stopped. I glanced over my left shoulder and saw you standing in line. Your husband must have taken your son outside, where he surely would have been happier and calmer.
You probably felt relieved when they exited the store, as did most of the shoppers, I’m sure.
Once when my boys were having a meltdown in public I overheard an older man say, “If those were my kids, I would have slapped the shit out of them.”
That comment still makes me feel sick to my stomach. He didn’t know our story.
I didn’t hear any rude comments while I was shopping at Target or while I was waiting in line. In fact, I didn’t hear any comments at all.
When I looked back at you in line, you were carrying two small items. Your eyes were low and you were gently stroking the top of your baby’s head while you appeared to be reading the words on a package of underwear.
Who reads an underwear package?
It was obvious you didn’t want to meet anyone’s gaze.
Were you afraid someone would approach you and make a judgmental remark? Was this the first calm and peace you had experienced in weeks? Were you meditating in line, practicing your deep breathing?
I didn’t say anything to you, which was the right decision, I think.
I wanted to turn around and tell you I understood the incessant screaming and meltdowns. If your son has autism, I have been where you are – with the stressful public outings and the sleep battles and the picky eating and the sensory issues and the problems getting dressed and the transitions and the social challenges.
I wanted to tell you your calm demeanor – and your husband’s -- will positively affect your son in ways you can’t imagine. Keep laughing because your sense of humor will carry you through the tough times. It’s cliché, I know, but it’s true.
I wanted to tell you it will get better and easier as your son gets older. It won’t always be like this, I promise. Your son will teach you a million beautiful lessons about life, if he hasn’t already.
I wanted to hug you and say you’re doing a wonderful job, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.
I wanted to give you a box of hair color. I'm sure you're going to need it someday.
I wanted to invite you to chat sometime over a cup of coffee, although I know how difficult that might be for you. Feel free to bring your kids. I'd love to hear your story.