I like to think of myself as someone who generally has her sh*t together. Someone who is skilled at multitasking, who keeps her cool when things get stressful. Which is how I found myself at Target last week staring at one cart full of children squirting poop and tears and another piled high with cartons of diapers and wipes. Oh, and three huge containers of animal crackers mixed in there for good measure.
My plan had seemed foolproof. (Okay, at the very least, doable.) Feeling too guilty to have a huge order of mega-packs of diapers shipped when there was a store nearby and I had a day off from work, I had placed my order online and selected in-store pickup. The next day, I loaded up my sons, two-year-old Bean and three-month-old Teeny, both freshly fed and changed, and headed out. Bean’s naptime still loomed a good two hours away and Teeny usually snoozes happily on and off throughout the day, so conditions seemed ripe for success.
All went smoothly as we circled the store to grab a few small items and made our way through the checkout line. We headed over to customer service and the guy behind the counter pulled up our record then wheeled out a shopping cart filled with large boxes. He eyed the cart I was pushing, the main section of which held Teeny in his infant carrier and the front section of which held Bean. “Do you need help?” he asked halfheartedly, as I started loading the boxes underneath. I waved him back toward the counter where other customers had begun to line up because, I figured, I’ve got this.
The tipping point was when I tried to snug two of the containers of animal crackers in the front with Bean. He didn’t want to share his space – in fact, he suddenly wanted out of the cart right now – and began to whine, which escalated quickly to a wail. Teeny, who had woken up a few aisles back but until now had remained quiet, decided that he, too, was done with this expedition and would prefer to be held and fed. It was around this time that he also let out a poop explosion that not only blasted out of his onesie but, as I would later discover, puddled into the carrier, soaking the seat cushion and dripping through the cracks to the coat the plastic base.
I tried firmness and then bribery with Bean, trying to coax him into letting me stuff several items in the seat beside him as I simultaneously tried to shove another carton of diapers onto the shelf below. I’ll just squish everything together, I thought, as the boys’ cries continued to escalate. It will be fine, I reasoned, with less and less conviction.
“Can I help you?” a new voice asked. I looked up to see a petite woman eyeing our situation with concern.
“Oh no, it’s all right,” I said, waving a hand at the general chaos before me. “We’ll be fine.”
She frowned. “There’s no way you’re going to fit all of that. Here, I’ll wheel the other cart out to your car.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “I mean, only if there’s nothing else that you need to do.”
“Only return a pair of shoes,” she said, “and I can do that after I help you.”
I sighed. The boys’ chorus continued. I acquiesced.
“I remember having young kids,” she said as we headed out to the parking lot.
I wanted to explain that it’s not usually like this. That during residency I resuscitated babies while swollen from belly to ankles as I carried my own; that I managed the ICU with no in-house fellow or attending. That I pride myself in working full time, raising my kids, and keeping our house and lives in order. That complications and multitasking are kind of my thing. And yet as we wheeled our way down one row of cars, stopping so that I could survey the lot in search of my vehicle, realizing only after I spotted it that I driven my husband’s car and not my own (and moments after that that while I was now searching for the correct model of car, the one I was currently steering us towards wasn’t actually ours), I felt like my sh*t couldn’t be less together. I hurried along, willing this interaction to end so I could return to at least pretending to be a competent parent and adult.
We parked the carts once we reached the right car, and I hustled the boys into their seats, promising Bean that he could have some animal crackers if he would just wait a moment longer. I began loading boxes into the trunk, praying that the woman wouldn’t notice that we were also barely going to be able to fit everything in the car around the clutter already there and wondering from which of my sons the scent of stool was now wafting.
As I thanked her, perhaps too hurriedly, the woman paused and held my gaze. “This was my random act of kindness.”
I must have given her my best What, now? look because she quickly pressed on. “One of my friends just lost a baby. Her other friends and I are doing random acts of kindness this week as a tribute.”
I don’t know what I said next. I’m not even sure what I felt. I know that the woman wished us well and that, sitting in the parking lot with the air conditioning blasting, no longer in a hurry, I ate animal crackers with Bean. I stripped Teeny down, sopping up the poop as well as I could but also knowing that whatever I missed could be washed out later. I nursed him until he calmed and then buckled him back into his seat. I drove my boys home. And I hugged them hard.
*Cross-posting with Mothers in Medicine