(Im)perfect Parenting: The kindness of strangers

Authored By Natalie Green

We were in the frozen food aisle at Walmart when a stranger almost made me cry.

It was just my daughter and me, doing our weekly grocery shopping. As we shopped, I began asking about her day.

“And Mama,” she chattered, ”we had a new friend in our class today.”

“You did?” I asked, perusing the frozen vegetables. “What’s their name?”

“Chelsea,” she responded, “and me and all my friends went up to her and told her our names.”

“You did!” I exclaimed. “It sounds like you made her feel very welcome in your class.”

“We did,” she said, nodding for emphasis. “She was a little nervous.”

“Well, I bet when you went up and introduced yourself it made her feel a lot less nervous.”

“It did,” she confirmed, ”and I also invited her to play a game with us!”

I stopped and looked my daughter in the eyes. I smiled at her and touched her cheek.

“I’m very proud of you, sweetheart. A new friend came to school, and you made her feel welcome and less scared. That makes my heart feel proud.” I leaned down and planted a kiss on the top of her head.

She gave me a shy little smile, and we continued making our way down the aisle-but not before a hand landed on my shoulder. I turned around to face an older woman who was beaming at me: ”I just wanted to say that you are an excellent mother. That almost brought tears to my eyes.”

I was speechless. I had no idea anyone was listening. I’ve been in the habit of talking almost constantly to my daughter since she was an infant, so our conversations are second nature. I stared at the woman, dumbfounded, and finally offered an awkward, embarrassed “thank you.” She smiled again and walked away. 

I blinked after her and felt humbled, surprised . and completely unworthy of her praise. I wanted to snatch up my child, abandon our cart, chase her down and tackle her. “NO,” I’d demand to her face, ”I am NOT an excellent mother. At best I am sufficient, and at worst I am actually the LEAST EXCELLENT ONE EVER.”

I would then confess to her all my maternal shortcomings, tell her about all the times I had lost my patience with my tiny person (too many to count), about how many things I’d slammed down in frustration or how many threats had come out of my mouth. I would insist that she put her shopping on hold while I listed each time I’d plopped my baby girl down in front of the television instead of engaging her in an enriching activity. I would make her listen to the atrocity that is my child’s diet; I’d tick off each and every “bad” item that she regularly consumes: Cheetos. Pop Tarts. Chicken nuggets. I’d whip out my phone and scroll through my photos until I found the ugly birthday cakes I’d baked, the Halloween costumes, I had bought instead of made and demand, “Do THESE look like the work of an excellent mother?!”

I would take her by the shoulders and insist that she take the compliment back. I would make her see that I’m not an excellent mother. Sometimes, I’m a lazy mother. A boring mother. A frustrated mother. An impatient mother. An angry mother.

I shook my head, knocking the vision from my thoughts. I watched as she turned the corner and strolled out of my sight. I stood there, all the reasons I shouldn’t accept her compliment clanging around my mind and heart like a noisy, unwanted houseguest. The woman’s words echoed in my brain. I turned them over and over, marveling at them, pondering them.

“I just wanted to say that you are an excellent mother,” they whispered, ”an excellent mother.”

I turned back around to see my daughter sitting in the shopping cart and looking at me. She smiled, and I couldn’t help but return the favor.

“I love you, baby,” I told her as I tucked a few locks of hair behind her ear.

“I love you, too, Mama,” she replied while swatting my hand away. “Don’t touch my hair.”

I studied her for a few moments and saw nothing that indicated that I was an atrocious mom. An annoying one that brushes stray hair away, maybe, but not the monster I’d built up in my mind. I have always been my own worst critic, and that quality has only gotten worse since becoming a mom. I beat myself up; I put myself down; I convince myself that I’m scarring my kid for life and that nothing I do is right.

And then, a stranger comes along and shows me that maybe I’m not as bad as I think I am. I guess, sometimes, all it takes to boost our confidence and make us see that we’re doing OK is the kindness of a stranger.  

Natalie Green is a Chicago girl living in Chattanooga with her husband and their 4-year-old daughter. When she’s not working full time outside of the home, she enjoys reading, writing, singing, zombies and running. From zombies. And also beer. You can stalk her blog, Mommy Boots, or follow her on Twitter @mommyboots; or you can email her directly at [email protected]. She also has an (Im)perfect Parenting Facebook page. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.