Bear and I spent time in a waiting room last week.  T-man had an appointment, so we were killing time while he did his thing.

We come prepared.  (It wouldn’t be far off the mark to call me a sherpa.)  I’ll typically show up with a bag holding my iPad (in case I can blog), a notebook (in case of technology writer’s block or internet glitches), a novel (in case I can’t concentrate), and any deadline projects I’ve got going on for school or church.  Bear somehow makes do with her iPad and headphones, but whatever.  It works.

We were there around 4:00 which, as any parent knows, is far too close to the witching hour for comfort when it comes to littles.  We walked in to find a woman with her three kids already waiting – kindergarten, preschool, and a little boy who looked about 18 months old.  Three kids under five.  Holy moly.

I could sense this mom’s growing agitation as Bear sat there quietly playing her iPad.  The mom was on her phone but tried to rein in the rowdy kids with stern corrections and fierce looks.  At best, she was periodically successful; at worst, she was completely ignored.  Things weren’t looking good.

Everything came to a head when the mom called over her oldest daughter.  The younger kids tried to follow and she sent them back with a harsh “Did I call for you?”, then pulled her daughter closer so she could fuss without yelling.  When she abruptly leaned toward the girl, though, her daughter swiftly pulled back in an instinctive reaction that was heartbreaking.

I stared blankly at my book as I listened to this mom tell her daughter that things had just gotten significantly worse.  Now it wasn’t just no tv.  There would be no treat after their appointment and no special outing that weekend.  She went on with more consequences but I faded out, trying hard not to tear up as the toddler kept trying to get to his mom, getting rebuffed over and over again.

Bear had begun looking extremely uncomfortable so I moved to the chair next to hers while I continued arguing with myself.  Just play with the kids, I thought.  She’ll think I think I’m better than her, I replied.  It doesn’t matter, just help them keep busy, I shot back.  I don’t want to come off as some snotty, holier-than-thou, what kind of mother are you person, I whined.  (I can be really mouthy when it comes to fighting with me.)

But then I looked at this woman.  I mean, really looked at her.  She was pale, and tired, and had circles under her eyes.  She carried her end of day exhaustion like an oversized backpack, hunching under its weight.  I have to admit that my own first reaction had been shoot, lady, why are you playing on your phone when your kids just need some attention?  Then I looked harder, and I saw a mom who needed a break.  Fifteen uninterrupted minutes to check e-mail or surf the web or play a game.  A small break from the near constant “Mama! Mama! Mama!” that is the looped soundtrack with young kids.

Ah, the hell with it.  And I looked up at her.

“I remember.”

She looked up at me curiously.

“Mine are only 22 months apart, and I remember how exhausting every single day was when they were that little.  Always underfoot, always needing something.  It’s exhausting.”

Then I sat down on the floor and played with her kids.  We pulled out the blocks and built castles and stables and a princess and something unintelligible from the 18 month old.  The mom talked about her kids.  How the oldest had started kindergarten and her other daughter would be in preschool soon, so things would be much easier then.  Bear joined us on the floor and I chattered away with the littles so they would stop chirping “Mama!”

I stepped out for a bit, and when I returned the mom was trying to manage checking out with her oldest daughter while convincing the younger kids to pick up.  Talk about juggling chainsaws.  I waved her off and kicked into cheerleader mode, telling the kids we were gonna have a race to see who could put blocks back in the containers the fastest.  Bear and T-man looked at me like I’d sprouted a second head as I cheered them on.  (Oh, how soon they forget.)

As we were leaving the mom looked me straight in the eye and gave me the most heartfelt “thank you”, and I felt it to my toes.  I remember the days when I thought I couldn’t deal with the kids for one more second.  The times when the tenth tug on my leg made me see red.  The desperate belief that I’d feel so much better if I could just get ten lousy minutes to myself.  I remember the times others extended kindness to me, how a seemingly small gesture can breathe enough life back into someone to get them through the day.

After we left Bear asked me why I’d played with those kids.  I tried to explain the struggle to carry it all, how exhausting it feels to have little people pull at you all day, and that even a small break can make you feel better again.  I told Bear it had struck me that my kids are old enough and I can find times to take breaks now.  Once I realized that, it was easy to put my book away and give that time to someone else.

Pay it forward.