Stamped feet and hands on hips, my three-year-old and I were locked in a power struggle across the daycare parking lot. I am the parent and he is the child but I was a lifeline away from being a clear-headed adult.
“Get in the car!” I snarled through gritted teeth.
“No!” He yelled back.
A light, yet firm hand touched my back.
“Can I help?” my son’s preschool teacher, Erin, asked.
I reddened, embarrassed that she had seen me arguing with my son. I anxiously looked for judgment on her face but her eyes and voice were gentle and accepting. Because of her kindness, I felt my shoulders relax and my anger melt.
“It’s Okay,” I said. “Thank you though.”
She nodded, smiled at me, and walked into the school. I turned back to my boy and saw him as a small, needy three-year-old rather than an enemy.
“Come here,” I said to him. “You missed me today, didn’t you?”
He jumped into my outstretched arms and I rocked him with tears streaming down my face. My son had just needed a hug but I hadn’t seen that in my anger. I whispered a silent thank you to Erin for giving me a lifeline of empathy back to my own heart.
Two years later, I met another three-year-old and another angry mom.
“Stop crying! You’re not a baby!” the mom yelled.
I looked up from my phone. My own son, now five, was happily climbing on a bouncy house at an indoor play area. I wondered what kind of a woman would talk the way to a small child. Then I saw a mother with dark circles under her eyes and unwashed hair in a ponytail. She had a nursing pad peeking from her tank top, a baby on her lap and a crying three-year-old in front of her. I could tell that she hadn’t had an uninterrupted night of sleep or even a trip to the bathroom by herself for quite a while.
At my very core, I recognized her exhaustion. Even more, I knew this mother didn’t need my judgment, she needed a lifeline. I felt Erin’s hand on my back again, remembering the gift she had given me those years ago.
“That’s a tough age,” I said to the mom with a kind smile. I was trying to throw a nonjudgemental lifeline. Would she take it?
“Yes,” she said, gesturing to the small boy still crying in front of her. “He’s whining and crying all the time. And you can’t give in to it or it will just get worse. His brother wasn’t like this.”
“Three-years-old is so tough,” I repeated. “And you have others wanting you. You must be so tired.”
“Yes,” she said. “It’s constant crying, whining, needing. Of course, it’s good but it’s all the time.” Her body was beginning to relax. She smiled at the baby in her arms. I could tell that she had taken the lifeline I had thrown.
“It’s so hard,” I said. “And the new baby needs you. Your son was just the baby in the family and now there’s a new baby in the house. It’s hard for the little ones to understand that.”
She nodded and reached her hand out to her son.
“Are you hungry?” she asked him. She struggled to open her bag with one hand.
“Would you like me to hold the baby?” I asked. “I don’t get much baby time these days.”
While the baby sat in my lap, the little boy ate his snack with his hand on his mother’s arm. In a few minutes, he went back to play and she took the baby again. I went back to scanning my phone, and we both watched our happy kids bounce and play.
She may not remember our conversation, it may not mean much to her, but it was a milestone for me. That was the moment when I took that lifeline of empathy from Erin and handed it to another mom. I know that we’re all doing our best, and I know that we’ll do better if we reach out our hands instead of judging with crossed arms.