the parking lot.

The first spring after we moved to Richmond, our family of five ate out frequently, often at the big town center that was located just up the street from our house. Our young daughter wasn’t crawling yet and tolerated being confined to a high chair for the duration of a meal. The town center had lots of restaurants with patio seating, plenty of open space for our two older children to roam, and all of our favorite stores. 

One Saturday afternoon, as my family and I were walking back to our car after grabbing a bite to eat at the mall, we heard a child screaming. Not the kind of screaming that comes from being hurt or injured or threatened, but the kind of persistent, perpetual shrieking that emanates from a massive temper tantrum. The closer we got to our minivan, the louder the hollering became. On a scale from one to ten, this temper tantrum was ramped up to fifty. When we arrived at our parked car, we realized we were just a couple of empty spaces away from the source of all of that distressa mom trying to handle her extremely upset young daughter.

As a parent myself, I'm perfectly accustomed to toddler meltdowns. The tears, the dramatic fall to the floor, the flailing. I understand. Kids don’t have a say over much and their outbursts are their way of attempting to gain control. However, this woman’s little girl was simply beside herself. She was sobbing and thrashing and uncontrollable. I watched the mom try unsuccessfully a couple of times to close the latch on her daughter’s car seat harness only to have her daughter buck her hips to pop out of the seat and avoid capture. It appeared they had been carrying on in this manner for a while. 

As the yelling continued, my husband and I gave each other a glance that wordlessly exclaimed, “so glad that’s not our kid,” and went about the process of securing our own children, a stroller, purchases and leftover food in our car. Since that process isn’t lightning fast, the scene in the SUV next door had a chance to unfold further. By the time we were packed up, things between the mom and her daughter had become impossible. The woman was on her cell phone, in frustrated tears, explaining to the person on the other end that she couldn’t get her daughter buckled into her car seat. From the one side of the conversation I could hear, I surmised that she was talking to her husband since she repeatedly requested that he leave the game he was attending to come help her.

At this point, after witnessing many minutes of true distress between them, my internal shrugging at the girl’s behavior turned to genuine concern. You could tell that both of them were in a bad place. 

It felt wrong to drive away. In a distinct departure from my history of avoiding all awkward situations, I walked over and asked that mom if there was anything I could do to help. It took a few seconds for my presence to register so I repeated my question. She avoided eye contact but tearfully explained that she couldn’t get her daughter into her car seat. I remember reassuring her that it was okay—explaining and empathizing that I knew how difficult kids can be. Then, I told her to stay there, next to her daughter, while I walked around to the other side of her car and climbed in the rear passenger seat. As a complete stranger, I terrified the little girl when I introduced myself and explained that I was going to help her mom get her buckled in. But, we persevered through the tantrum and between the two of us, we were able to get the girl in place and the car seat straps secured.

I climbed out and headed around towards my car. The mom didn’t say a word. I could see she was taking deep breaths and trying to collect herself, possibly a little embarrassed. By the time we backed out of our parking space, she was already driving away. 

The story of the mom in the parking lot has stayed with me. The situation was so dramatic, so desperate. If I’m being honest here, the story hits close to home in a really uncomfortable way. That mom looked like me. Her daughter was acting just how my kids act sometimes. I could have easily been in that situation. Her behavior mirrored how I know I’ve reacted to problems in the past. It’s tough to witness what one must look like when all rationale gets pushed aside.

Because, as parents, we’ve all been there. At one time or another, we’ve gone to that place of no return. Peppered with problems and barraged with issues and fighting, tears and tantrums and why won’t you stop talking and who peed on the floor and what is that smell and who broke this thing over here and did ANY of your food actually make it into your mouth and it just piles on and on and on until… BOOM! That final push over the edge, like a car in a cartoon suspended halfway over a cliff, a little girl that refuses to get into her car seat, and it’s all over. The train goes off the tracks.

We just can’t deal anymore.

My children are wonderful, delightful little people that demand all of my time, most of my energy and every last bit of my patience. Some days are amazing. Other days head in the wrong direction from the minute they wake up and emerge from their rooms. Every day is an opportunity to keep the train on the tracks.

This parenthood business is brutal but beautiful. Solidarity, sister in the parking lot. 

Guest post written by Joanna Serth. Joanna Serth writes a little bit about everything at Prior to freelance writing, Joanna worked in resource management, product marketing and, for the briefest of moments, in television news. She lives with her husband and three children in Virginia.

Photo by Kate De La Rosa