I should have seen this coming when the lady at Albertsons saw me in my underwear, but listen: I cried a lot on my birthday this year. I tend to feel an expectational forcefield around holidays and special events, and I work hard to create happy, lovely holidays. This was an easier feat before we had three small children. Not that our kids don’t make life happier and shinier in exponential amounts; they are the reason we keep traditions at all. Those three beautiful faces are the reason I make pink pancakes in February, the reason I stay up late hanging decorations before birthdays, the reason the dollar section at Target suddenly seems like a very important stop before any holiday (Tiny buckets. Tiny sponges. Tiny buttons. All useless.) I love to make my kids’ lives happier, even though I don’t want to worry if they’re happy, because I know happiness doesn’t really matter or last. They have to choose joy, eventually. (This is the absolute conundrum of motherhood- to love giving them what we know does not have much to do with us in the end.)
My kids are 4, 3, and 1, which means their world keeps spinning on special days and they just keep on being themselves, which is a fast way to ruin a party, I am sorry to report. “Kids ruin birthdays,” I told my brother the morning I turned 31, hoping my kids didn’t hear me say it. But also kind of hoping they did. I was in a bad place, ok? The morning was hectic and full of fits. Then the older two injured the baby because of their wild wrestling, and I was furious. Like, wicked stepmother tossing people into dungeons, furious. I don’t like animals but I found myself wishing for a mean pet to follow me around and scare my kids straight.
On a normal day, my kids are 85% wonderful and 15% mean-pet deserving. On my birthday last week, I cried because their percentages took a dive in the wrong direction. Bear markets all around. Again, I should have seen this all coming when the night before my birthday, I ended up nearly naked in front of an Albertsons grocery store employee.
In every grocery store, there is a sign outside the bathroom that says, “No merchandise permitted in bathrooms.” Which, fine, I understand, and who wants their cart full of groceries in a public bathroom anyway? But what- and I am asking this in all sincerity, and would appreciate tips- what are you supposed to do with the baby and the cart when the other kids need to use the restroom and they’re not big enough to go on their own? I never know what to do. Leave my cart and food in the hallway and hold the baby and my bag while helping the other two kids? Leave the baby and take the bag and pray that no one wants a grumpy baby with a runny nose anyways?
On this particular occasion, I was in a very small hallway that barely fit my cart and the bathroom was small too, and only one child needed to use the toilet. So I left Clara, my four year old, in the hallway, with the baby and the grocery cart, and tried to take Sammy in as fast as I could so the girls wouldn’t be alone for too long. We went in the bigger stall together, and after he was finished I sat down to pee, knowing it would be a long time before we were home and everyone was unloaded and I was allowed a few minutes to go to the bathroom.
Here’s where the trouble starts.
Toddlers, as a people group, love two things:
-opening and closing doors
-not listening to their parents
This is especially true in bathroom stalls, I’ve found. They love to turn that shiny latch and let themselves out, I think simply for the power of it. But since I always have to be the one who pees last, and we all use the same stall, they’re always opening the door while I’m still sitting there. I’m usually sitting on a public toilet with gritted teeth while anger-whispering “Do. Not. Open that door” and slapping my kids’ hands away from the handle.
Again, my kids are actually decent human beings whom I enjoy very much.
But public bathrooms aren’t their sweet spot.
So I’m sitting there in the Alberstons bathroom with my pants around my ankles and I hear a small commotion in the hallway where my girls are, and then I hear the baby crying. I stand up to put my pants back on, and in a perfectly timed sequence of humiliation:
- Sammy opens the bathroom stall door,
- I stand up in my underwear,
- An Albertson’s employee opens the bathroom door,
- I am still standing in my underwear,
- The employee looks at me standing there in my underwear,
- I hastily pull on my pants,
- Sammy marches out of the stall,
- The Albertson’s employee apologizes,
- I apologize,
- The employee gestures towards my crying baby,
- I rush out to the baby,
- The employee informs me that the baby is ok, she’s just crying because a man who came out of the men’s restroom said hello to her,
- I finish buttoning my jeans and then pick up the crying baby,
- Clara loudly retells the whole story,
- I hustle Sammy back in the bathroom so we can wash our hands,
- The Albertson’s employee steps around us so that she can use the restroom,
- I get my kids out of the hallway and hurry up to finish my shopping,
- I field 100 questions about life and liberty and where gum comes from while in a long line to check out,
- I get out my debit card to pay for our groceries,
- and hand it to the checker,
- who in turn asks me if the baby is doing ok,
- because it is the lady who minutes ago saw me basically naked in a bathroom stall.
On our way out of the store, as Clara was singing a love song at the top of her lungs and Audrey was throwing a screaming fit because she wanted out of the cart, Sammy walked in front of me and I didn’t see him before his heel got clipped and he fell to the floor crying. Not a huge problem, of course, because he was wearing his new bike helmet that he refuses to take off, so his head was fine. This all happened right as my friend Stephanie waved hello from where she was watching us stumble down the aisle in mass chaos. I was sweating profusely at this point, from my efforts to contain Audrey’s 18 pounds of fit-throwing, and also from the kind of humiliation reserved for mothers with small children.
After putting all our groceries away that night and staying up late to clean my whole house (because the only way I wanted to wake up on my birthday was to a spotless home), I woke up tired and surprisingly surprised at how the next day went with my kids. Because really, people who bust open bathroom stalls and sing loudly in public and lay down on dirty linoleum floors to cry cannot be trusted to make sure you have a happy birthday.
Still. I had many beautiful surprises on my birthday; flowers and sandwiches and cherry pies and friends who love me; it was a sweet, sweet day. And when my little family sang Happy Birthday to me at home that night, my three year old son, that helmet-wearing bathroom bandit, was so overcome with emotion he couldn’t even finish the song- he just lovingly kissed my cheek and buried his head in my shoulder with tears in his eyes, and told me he loved me “the whole world, even to heaven.”
Happy birthday indeed.
So, now I know. This is my version of 31- sticky and exhausted, and often surrounded by bare bums- and as humiliating as mothering can be, it’s the ultimate gift. My joy is deep, and their love is as good as it gets.
Now I just need to find a new establishment where I can buy our French bread, and everything will be fine.