We work side-by-side, taking yogurt and peanut butter out of the cart and placing them on the conveyor belt. They roll away towards the counter and we place bananas and almond milk in their empty spots. His dark brown hair is not quite as black as mine, but it is thick and straight. We high-five when the grocery cart is empty and wait on the man in front of us to pay. It is a regular Tuesday afternoon.
The man leaves and we step up. The cashier, an older woman, smiles at us and asks the typical question,“How are ya today?”
“Doing well, thanks,” I reply.
She scans and bags. We wait and smile occasionally.
“You know,” she says. “It’s so sweet you brought your brother with you to the store. Most moms would kill for a daughter who helps out around the house.”
I smile and nod, hoping he hasn’t heard. I look down and casually glance his way. He’s looking at her with a furrowed brow and squinted eyes.
“Who were you talking to?” he asks, real question in his voice.
“Your sister,” she says. I hold my breath.
“I don’t have a sister,” he says. After a pause, he asks, “Do you mean my mom?”
The cashier looks like she wants to crawl under a rock.
“Oh, yes. Your mom,” she corrects herself then looks back up at me. “You know, you must be graced with aging well. I knew you were related because those eyes, but you just look so young.”
She finishes bagging. I pay and my receipt prints.
I smile a sad, apologetic, embarrassed, honest smile. “I am so young,” I say, take the receipt, and walk out of the store while he rides on the back of the cart.
When we get to the car, he recounts the scene and laughs. It’s the funniest thing he’s ever heard—that someone would think I’m his sister. Of course I’m his mom. What was she thinking?
I smile and laugh, too. I don’t want to cry about it anymore.
My son and I just moved into our first place together four hours away from my parents. I started graduate school, he attended the local kindergarten, and I felt the insecurities and transitions of a new mom all over again, minus cluster feeding and diaper changes. We survived on my school assistantship, barely, but I determined we would make it. So we did.
Maybe it’s part of living in the deep south, but when you get pregnant at 17, everyone stares at you with wide eyes. People question everything about you and frequently feel they have the right to say, You’re too young to be raising a baby. Most of the time, they don’t even know the whole story.
This grocery store exchange is my story, one that happened more times than I remember.
Later that night after the grocery trip, I wound up in a burst of emotions. I wasn’t even angry at the cashier. I was only 23 and looked like I was 16, never having given up t-shirts and all-stars. I never wore makeup and had my nose pierced. She just assumed what I probably would have as well.
Even though I understood others struggled to understand our journey, I was angry and sad for my boy and the situation I had put him in. I always knew growing up would be much different for him than it was for me. I lived a typical childhood with both parents. And while Ethan’s dad loved him, we never married, and our child never knew us together in one house. Even with the support of all my family and friends, I was the one person who had always been there.
I was Mom.
I figured once we moved out of my parents’ house, things would seem more “normal.” I would be authority and advocate, but things felt just as difficult as before. Truthfully, life was harder. Graduate school and work demanded much of my time, and the same little boy who adamantly declared me to be his mother at the grocery store also adamantly wanted to play or read together. I wanted to succeed in school for our future and be a great mom in the meantime.
I sat on the tiny back patio of our little place after he had gone to bed. I felt defeated, as if the whole charade was up. I could pretend it was easy to balance single-parenthood and school. I could pretend the cashier’s words didn’t sink into my heart. I could pretend I didn’t fear they pierced my son’s heart as well. But it wasn’t true. I drank a glass of wine and prayed. I thought we were going to be fine on our own, but I was questioning, asking God if I could really do it. Was I too young to be Ethan’s mother? Could I pursue my dreams and love my son well?
As I sat there, frustrated and doubting, I got a text from a friend back home who knew life was hard.
This is the only plan He has ever had for your life. Trust Him. You got it!
If I trusted Him, then I had to believe this was exactly where Ethan and I were supposed to be. This four-room house was meant to be our home, and home was a place to grow. And growing was exactly what we needed. I was still in school, still in my early twenties, still trying to figure out a career. He was just starting school, growing inches each year, and learning to let others have a turn.
We ate popsicles together on the front steps and raced down slides at the park. We had dance parties and jumped on the bed. In truth, we were more like siblings than I wanted to admit.
In that moment, I realized every relationship was about growing and learning together. Ethan and I were on the same journey as everyone else, our route just looked a little different.
If I didn’t let the difficulty make me hard, I would be able to give more grace and understanding, and in turn, Ethan would as well. It was this hard providence, this weird, non-traditional mother-son thing that would enable us to love others in a unique way.
I cried then, my heart broken open with tears of relief, of sorrow, of joy, of hope.
I glanced in his room on my way to bed then stopped to reposition and cover him, his head at the foot of the bed and his blanket in a heap on the floor. He briefly opened his eyes and said, “Mommy, I love you,” and wrapped me in a big hug. Then he drifted off while I pulled him closer, because time did nothing but push us forward so quickly we could barely open our eyes.
“I love you, too,” I whispered, and though he wouldn’t hear me, I spoke the words aloud so I would know they were true, “We’re right where we’re supposed to be.”
Guest post written by Melissa LaCross. Melissa is a wife and mother who spends most of her time chasing three boys and drinking black coffee in Charlotte, NC. She loves a well-prepared meal, red wine, a real conversation, and can often be found hiding in a corner with the other introverts. Melissa writes to make sense of the world around her and contributes to Darling Magazine.
Photo by Annie.