The woman behind us is talking about me. I can’t see her but if I sat with a sketch artist I could easily describe the color of her blouse and the cut of her hair. When my kids and I entered I took three seconds to scan every table, every face, and every possible exit. I searched for vulnerability and danger. The person currently speaking about me is a late-middle aged woman with a gauzy purple blouse and short brown hair. She's joined by two younger women and a man, and there's a baby as well. I don't believe this or any of the ten tables on the restaurant patio pose a threat, not with the current occupants. I'm more concerned about the large open space before me. Anyone could come right up to my table, take something and be gone in a flash. And the only thing I brought worth taking are people. So I'm keeping my eyes there, on what I am mentally labeling “the big escape route” and I’m letting the table behind me believe I can't hear them.
I know how I must look to the other guests. Standing there like that, all risen up. My stomach is loose and weak, a great sigh in the middle of my body, but my legs are sturdy and my back is flexed and my shoulders are commanding as ever. There, in all black like some rebel ballerina, hovering over the table with my fingertips pressed against the wood, my lips in a tight line, I look like a bird of prey, like a predator, at the very least like a woman not to be trifled with. And with good reason. I've come alone to the zoo on a Wednesday morning. It's a fairly large facility and I've brought along 4 children, all 5 and under, one only 6 weeks. There is no other adult. I have no back up, no net of safety to catch any mistake I might make.
So I can't make any.
The woman behind me of the purple blouse tells her dining companions when they bemoan the hardships of coming to the zoo with one child and four adults—again that is a one child to four adult ratio—, "well when I went to the bathroom there was a woman with four kids by herself. Four kids! And I don't think anyone else was with her—
“Mom! Mom, shhhh, mom—
She clears her throat and changes course. “Derrick, tell me about your new job.”
I smile though they don't see it. I puncture a juice pouch and adjust a stroller awning. Then the children’s food is ready. In a display of flexibility and ingenuity any gymnast would admire I walk as few steps as possible away from my children— I can no longer brush the table with my fingers but only just, then lunge the rest of the way to the counter to retrieve the loaded plastic tray.
Our talker, a woman apparently watching me as much as I'm watching everyone else today, says in a low, admiring tone, “Wow, super mom.”
I get that a lot I'm afraid.
I refrain from turning to the woman and saying you've got it all wrong. You see a woman alone managing lunch with three small children and a baby but you don't know my weaknesses.
Sometimes I don’t either; if only kryptonite always came conspicuously green and glowing.
Two months ago, in the trenches of January, I took another trip alone. Just me and three kids. I've heard people describe themselves as very pregnant, but this was something more. I'd gone beyond very. I was pregnant in the extremes. And it was raining, had been for days and days. So I took my kids to an indoor playground.
Indoor playgrounds weren't around when I was growing up. But someone somewhere, some genius, concocted the idea of bringing jungle gyms and snack bars and wifi inside the confines of an otherwise industrial space and when it's a little too hot or too cold or too close to cabin fever, that's where you'll find us.
The problem is that they feel safe. Preteens singing cloyingly sweet covers of Call Me Maybe blare through speakers. Everything is painted in primary colors. The workers stamp hands with codes only visible under black light and they all wear matching shirts. What could go wrong?
I carry with me just enough baseline anxiety and have liturgized myself with just enough true crime documentaries to know what could go wrong: something. So instead of bringing a book or tablet and putting to use the tables and chairs meant for weary parents, I mostly revert back to my old lifeguard days. I choose a pattern in which to rove around the room with my eyes: abc or figure 8 or stripes. I memorize my children's clothing. I count heads. A b c, there's Ridley, d e got Kajsa, f g Ridley again, h i j k l m Caleb in toddler room, n o ... I walk along the perimeter and count this as exercise. I bring headphones and listen to audiobooks and count this as down time.
I don't ever imagine I'll slip up and lose one of them. After all, people don’t call me super for nothing.
On this winter day, I believed I could order groceries while standing there reading and exercising and having fun with my kids. I believed I could do one more thing. I took my phone out of my pocket, Ridley, Caleb, Ridley, Kajsa. Raspberries, Kajsa. Bananas even though they’d only been taking a couple bites and it was probably a waste, but one more try and then I’d take these off the list for a while. Caleb, Ridley, eggs. I wondered if there was any peer reviewed research about the health benefits of expensive ethical eggs versus the regular eggs that will allow my kids not to have to take out student loans. I really needed to land somewhere on the egg thing to avoid doing this every week. Kajsa. Okay, ethical eggs were $1.50 off, so the choice was made. Honestly we should just get chickens and settle the debate. Caleb, Ridley. Yogurt, but not that kind. Not that kind. Searched again. It had to be full fat, low sugar. Why did the stupid app keep showing yogurt with cartoons on it? I didn’t want the kind that tastes good, I wanted the healthy kind. Full fat low sugar! Crap. They only had low fat, medium sugar. I hated for my kids to get twelve grams of sugar per serving when we usually only do nine but we definitely needed probiotics after being in this germ vortex. When did yogurt become so agonizing? A few years back and it was fruit on the bottom or mixed in. The good ol’ days. Ridley, Kajsa, Ridley, Kajsa, Ridley … wait where’s Caleb?
I dropped my phone in my pocket without closing the app. I could’ve accidentally ordered Twinkies and who cares? Sugar seemed like the pettiest possible reason to have lost track of my child. I looked up in the twisting maze of huge plastic pipping, I looked down into the trampoline and ball pit. I knew he wasn’t in the under six section, I’d already checked.
I looked left. A man I’d never before seen held my son near the exit. He wore a baseball cap and a scowl. Caleb looked something like disappointed.
I raced over. Beyond very pregnant and it didn’t matter because in my panic I became lithe. On occasion, mothers are supernatural.
Now I faced this man not knowing exactly what to say. So I said um and uh and put my hands out toward my child. The man glared at me, made no motion whatsoever to handover the boy I birthed not two years ago, and asked are you the parent?
Might as well have been, are you even a parent?
Why yes, sir, yes I am. A mother actually. And you see I was just over there calculating the risks of three grams of sugar because I want to be a mom who feeds her kids nutrient dense foods but I also want them to know the taste of a perfectly executed chocolate chip cookie. And I brought them here to play not so I could exercise reckless negligence, but because they love this obnoxious warehouse and I want to be a mom who does fun stuff for her kids even if it is quite grating. Sir, I am trying very, very hard to be a great mom and had you not come along right when you did I might have lost a child because of it.
I say none of this and instead feel wave after electric wave of terror for what might have been. The man proceeds to describe exactly what I am picturing.
My son walked out in the middle of a large group that was exiting. The workers didn’t even notice him. So all that hand stamping and gate locking, it only works when it works. He was headed for the automated doors that lead right to the busy parking lot. In a bad storm. Visibility was terrible. He could have been snatched right up. He could have been hit by a car. He could have … something.
Important to note: the man is still holding my child. He still hasn’t deemed me worthy. I remain defeated before him, looking between my son and the blur of winter outside that would have swallowed him.
Finally he softens. “I have kids, I’m a dad too.”
The moment is too serious for me to laugh at his calling me a dad but I note it.
“My boy is not much older than him. He does this kind of thing. They can get away from you.”
He hands me Caleb and thank him as profusely as I have ever thanked anyone.
My husband shows up. I tell him the story. I point to the man. We gather our children and go home.
There is one more person to tell. My mother. My own super mom.
I could round up some perfectly useful verbs and adjectives to put together a picture of cookies after school, presents beautifully wrapped, years of family dinners and made beds, back rubs when we threw up, and unceasing cheerleading. But it still wouldn’t do her justice. When you’ve been raised by a super mom, you know it, and it is almost impossible to describe.
She certainly wouldn’t lose a kid.
I tell my mom and a part of me hopes she lambasts me. I want someone to say out loud the things I’ve been saying in my head. I’ve become the antihero of this story, so please, let me have it.
“I lost your brother in a JC Penny’s. They shut down the store to help me find him.”
I am aghast. “You what? Was I there?”
She tells the whole story. My brother Zach was around 3, which puts me in first or second grade. We went shopping, and Zach decided to hide in the middle of one of those round racks of clothing. My mom, while certainly not looking at a six-inch computer and feeling crippling doubt about glucose, was momentarily distracted. She turned around and he was gone. She looked, she yelled, she panicked. Our family crisis shut down the store; the clerks sealed the exits. And then what should she hear but a little giggle not five feet away.
She doesn’t lambast me. We laugh. Turns out my super mom was a dad too.
Eight weeks later I text my mom: Headed to the zoo with all four. By myself. Should be an adventure.
I wonder if she’ll text keep an eye on Caleb or be careful or are you sure you don’t want to wait for Daniel.
I deserve it.
Will she call me super mom? I wish people wouldn’t call me super mom.
I wish instead of saying “your hands are full” people would say “your arms are strong.”
I wish instead of saying “you’ve got a lot on your plate” people would ask “what’s on your mind?”
I wish instead of asking “are you guys done” people would remind me God never is. He’s never done with me. Even when I prove time and time again there is nothing super about me. He said He isn’t done with me yet. He meant it.
My mom texts brave. As in me, I’m brave.
I smile at the screen and back out of the garage. That’s what I needed to hear.