“Every parent has a low and humiliating parenting experience,” I tell myself when the memory of my own failure creeps into the forefront of mind. I’m not normally so hard on myself but the residual trauma of failing to protect my son continues to haunt me- partly because fairly new to this parenting gig, partly because it happened at a familiar place, and partly because I am in no way shy so there’s no excuse for what I didn’t do.
It was a Friday afternoon, I stopped by my go-to grocery store to pick up a handful of items only to walk in on a Fiesta themed “Grand Re-Opening” party underway. Apparently all the remodeling my store had performed in recent months was being celebrated in a full-fledged party with prizes, music, and employees greeting patrons at every crevice of the store.
I was bagging some limes when I heard my 1 year old co-pilot, Dylan, laughing hysterically. An employee to the side of me was juggling avocados for Dylan’s entertainment. “How nice.” I thought. The employee was an older man, a Santa Claus type that I deemed harmless and quite kind to perform circus acts for a random carted toddler. I instructed Dylan to say bye to his new friend before moseying on to another aisle to grab bananas. But as I began pushing the cart out of the aisle, the same man was standing at its end, waiting for us to pass. The extra attention was odd but seemed fitting since it was a grand-reopening fiesta and all.
But then it got weird. The man picked up a sealed bag of packaged grapes, ripped it open, and began tossing them in the air and catching them in his mouth. This immediately confused me because it was the first time I’d ever witnessed an employee shamelessly tear open a product for their own consumption on the store floor, but whatever. Maybe he’s a manager and can do whatever he wants, I hypothesized as I neared him. But before I could pass him, he leaned into my cart and put a grape in my son’s mouth. And before I could even react, before I could even think to remove the grape from my one year old’s mouth (grapes are a choking hazard for 1 year olds), the man proceeded bring a grape my mouth.
I instinctively moved my head back and let out a, “No thanks!” His produce hands were coated in dirt as he brought his fingers back towards my mouth and said, “Are you sure?”
I saw nothing but brown residue encrusted in his nail beds. “YES! I’M SURE!” I mustered.
In a daze, I pushed the cart into the nearest aisle and pulled half of the unwashed, filthy grape out of Dylan’s mouth. “What was that? How did that happen?” I thought over and over again, puzzled and drunk on the abominable encounter. I’m not shy. I’ve been known to speak up one too many times. No one bulldozes over me or anyone in my presence. And yet here I was, completely powerless and without a voice in the bread aisle.
Fearing a second dealing with the strange man, distrustful of my protective instinct, and disappointed with myself, I hurried out of the store. I didn’t know how I was going to tell my husband what had happened. Maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe I couldn’t. There was shame in admitting that I did nothing when a stranger put food in our son’s mouth. I’m Dylan’s mom, I should’ve done better. Done more. Or have done anything other than stand feebly as a strange man approached. I had failed my husband, too.
I was unusually quiet when my husband arrived home from work. And after I put Dylan to bed for the night, he asked me why. I responded like built up pressure from a shaken can of soda, blurting everything out all at once, uncontrollably purging the emotional experience. “Wait, what? Start over, what happened?” He asked. “I don't even know.” I conceded.
And before my husband could even talk me off the bad mom ledge, insisting that I wasn’t at fault, I was already free falling through the guilt. I deserved to feel bad, this could’ve been worse. And what if it had? I froze when I should’ve risen. I wanted to hide my face and never talk about the experience again. I didn’t want to be judged and yet I so badly wanted to rid of the feeling that I was a crappy protector and therefore a crappy mother. So I did what any writer does for therapy, I wrote about it. And then I reluctantly shared the story on my blog.
Not a single person who read and commented on my story blamed me. I soon realized that every parent has had or will have a low and humiliating parenting experience at some point. It’s how humans learn. And parent or not, super mom or not, I am only human after all.