When I was a single parent, I had a transformative experience that I still think about often. Really often.
I was at a restaurant with my then 2 ½-year-old son and he was hanging out in the small outdoor play area. There was a row of seats along the edge of the play area where myself and other parents were sitting, keeping an eye on our kids.
I don’t remember all the details of exactly what happened, but it started with something along the lines of me casually saying to my son, “Don’t throw the gravel, honey.”
And then he looked directly at me and threw it. At me.
It got in my drink, on my plate, and I think it contaminated the beverage of the stranger next to me.
I took a deep breath and calmly, but firmly, told him we were leaving immediately. He started crying and pseudo-apologizing. In the moment, I was so embarrassed at how he had acted and it was incredibly hard to stay calm and not yell. (Looking back, it seems within the range of normal for a two-year-old, but at the time, I think I felt extra judged as a single-parent, and was more sensitive to people’s critical stares.)
I calmly repeated myself to him and collected our things. Thankfully, I’d already paid the bill so I was able to follow through without delay. I apologized to the people next to me, who laughed and told me it was fine. And on the way out of the restaurant, we stopped at the restroom.
When I walked out of the restroom, one of the mothers who had been standing there when the gravel was thrown was waiting for us. She put her hand on my arm and said, “I just wanted to say that I thought you handled that really well.”
I almost cried.
I sort of half-smiled back at her in shock and appreciation, unable to say anything. She smiled, turned around, and walked back to the kids’ area, and I left the restaurant with my still whining/crying two-year-old.
I don’t know if I can adequately describe how significant her words were for me at the time and for years to come. When I say “years,” I am not exaggerating. Depending on your own experience, it may seem like nothing, or you may understand why it mattered so much.
I think that was the first time I felt seen in a challenging public parenting situation. There were certainly times where I was proud of myself for having self-control, and being consistent and intentional instead of reactive – but no one else had ever been a witness in that way. Ever.
Photo by London Scout
It had never even occurred to me how deeply I needed it – until that experience. And although, as a single parent, I sometimes envied stay-at-home-parents with a partner to financially support the family, I hadn’t even considered that they may occasionally get this type of acknowledgment and how helpful it is for a parent’s survival.
I am now married to a man who excels at verbal appreciation. When I’m discouraged and not achieving my parenting ideal, he listens, tells me I’m a wonderful mother, reminds me of true things, encourages me in all the ways I need.
Single parents don’t have this. And of course many married parents don’t have this, either. Point is this: all parents could use more encouragement, right?
That woman at the restaurant who sought me out to acknowledge me… I cannot tell you how much her small act impacted me. I held it close to my heart so often during some really hard years. I was exhausted and burnt out from being the primary parent and only financial provider for my child.
So, here’s my challenge: be on the lookout for actions worth complimenting in your friends, spouse, and even in other parents you don’t know. Instead of looking at other parents with judgment or envy, look to encourage.
Of course it’s a risk. They might think you’re weird. Or they might be a little awkward like me. I wasn’t able to express my appreciation for her comment at that time. I basically just stared at her. But, writing this story is my appreciation for her small act of bravery.
Wherever you are, dear woman, thank you for seeing me in a challenging (and maybe even embarrassing) parenting moment and speaking a kind word.
Photo by Stephan Hochhaus