I couldn’t believe my ears. The conversation in the booth behind me was so out of place that I thought surely I was imagining it. As my three kids were finishing up their ice cream (earned as a reward for completing the word search on the kid’s menu) my littlest one let out a bit of a screech when I took the empty bowl away from her. She is just shy of two years old, so this type of behavior kind of comes with the territory. It wasn’t a prolonged scream nor was it ear-shattering by any means. It was a toddler, angry that she could no longer wrap her sticky fingers around the chocolate syrup smudged spoon. Yet, based on the language wafting over from the adjacent booth, you would’ve thought I was dining with three rabies-infested wild dogs.
The first woman said, “It’s hard to enjoy a nice meal when you have to listen to that noise.”
To which the other replied, “She should learn how to control her rugrats.”
The first, nodding her head in agreement, added, “Children shouldn’t be allowed to be in a restaurant if they can’t behave, they should be left at home.”
Did they honestly think I couldn’t hear them? Rugrats, really? (Somebody watched a little too much Nickelodeon back in the day.) I was literally 12 inches from their faces. I heard every word.
Not known for biting my tongue, I turned around in my seat and said, “I can hear you and I don’t appreciate you talking about my children like that.” I think I caught them off guard. Perhaps they weren’t used to being called out on their shameful demeanor.
The main perpetrator quickly regained her nastiness and retorted, “Maybe you should learn how to control your children. They don’t belong here.”
Now let me pause the story right here for the purpose of providing some context. I will be the first to admit that sometimes my children need to be reminded to act in a civilized manner during a meal out. They are 7, 5, and 1 and sometimes they talk a little too loud (It’s harder to teach the concept of “inside voices” than you might think) and occasionally crawl under the table to retrieve a runaway crayon. But tonight, my children surpassed all of my expectations for a family meal in public. They said please and thank you to the waitress, they ate all of their food (using utensils for most of it), they colored their placemats and told me all about their school day, and they even remained in their seats the entire time without the assistance of any electronic devices. I didn’t have to bribe them with my phone, and I didn’t even have to pull out any of my usual threats. They weren’t loud, they weren’t rude, and they certainly weren’t misbehaving. The short outburst from my baby was about the only non-amazing thing that happened during the entire 45 minutes. So, not only was this woman out of line. She was wrong.
Being a former teacher, I felt the need to educate her that this was, in fact, a family restaurant. Exhibit A: Kid’s Menus, Exhibit B: coloring pages and crayons handed out to child-sized patrons, Exhibit C: advertised free ice cream for a finished academic activity. Perhaps it was my tone, but she didn’t agree. Call it intuition, but this impasse led me to believe that our conversation was heading downhill faster than a metallic sled doused in cooking oil.
I don’t think she caught my sarcasm when I congratulated her on being a perfect mother with plastic mannequins for children. Nose in the air, she confirmed that her children were never taken out in public until they could “act properly.” Maybe she thought I was going to back down from defending my three little ones. Perhaps she thought I was going to plunk right down by her in the booth and ask her to share the secret to impeccable child rearing. Or maybe she was waiting for me to fall to my knees before her, hands held high, loudly proclaiming, “Oh, wise one, please teach me of your perfect parenting ways! For I am but a poor excuse of a mother and there is so much to learn!”
I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear that I chose a different tactic. As I was escorting my children past her table, a to-go bag in one hand and my sweet baby’s fingers in the other, I told her she should be ashamed of herself. I then turned back to my children and, loud enough for the other patrons to hear, told them that I was proud of them for being so awesome. With one last jab, this bitter excuse of a woman responded with a mockingly sick, “Thank you.”
That was it. That was the last straw. One might argue that my action following this provocation was wrong, but there is only so much a Mama Bear can take when she is defending her cubs. I leaned into her booth, inches from her face, and called her a word that rhymes with “witch.” Call me a bad influence. Tell me I should’ve risen above the fray. Say I should’ve just turned the other cheek. But a grown woman who thinks it is acceptable to openly criticize another woman’s children needs to be knocked down a peg or two.
Despite getting in the proverbial “final word” on the matter, I barely made it to the checkout counter before the tears started flowing. I wasn’t sad; I was angry. I was angry that I let someone so small get the best of my emotions. I was angry that my children had to hear a stranger describe them as “bad.” I was angry that our family dinner was ruined by a Bitter Betty who was incapable of keeping her thoughts to herself. I just wanted to pay my bill and get the hell out of there with the one remaining shred of dignity I had left.
But my daughter, ever the grazer, stopped at the counter to pick out a sucker from the basket of rainbow colored treats (like I said, FAMILY restaurant). This gave the owner enough time to ask if everything was okay. Mascara now running down my face, I shakily replied that the service was great but the woman behind me…not so much. I gave her the abridged version, signed my receipt, and sprinted out the door. To my surprise, the owner followed me outside. She caught me in the parking lot and I gave her the play-by-play with every dirty detail, including the part where I called the woman (earmuffs!) a word that starts with B and ends with ‘itch.’ With determination in her eyes she said, “Good for you for sticking up for your family. You were right to do so and I’m proud of you. This is a family restaurant and you and your kids are always welcome.” She then gave me a big hug and said, “You are a good mother. Don’t worry about her, I will take care of it.”
She could’ve looked the other way. She could’ve feebly apologized and watched me walk out the door, thankful that my messy brood was gone. But she didn’t. She sided with me and reassured me that my family and I did belong there. And although I can only repay her with frequent visits, positive referrals, and multiple orders of chicken strip kid meals, I will never forget that hug in the parking lot.
What started out as a fun day at the park and an enjoyable meal on the town ended with a very quiet ride home. About 10 minutes into the drive my son quietly piped up from the backseat and said, “I’m sorry if we were bad at the restaurant, Mom.” I chocked back a few remaining tears, called her another not-so-choice name under my breath, and quickly reassured him that they were the best kids ever and that sometimes people can just be mean, even when they have no reason to be. Not exactly the lesson I wanted to be teaching from the driver’s seat of my van on such a beautiful spring day.
But, since we are handing out lessons today, here are a few for those callous women riding high on their horses this evening:
I want them to know that the only way to teach children how to act in public is to actually take them out into public.
I want them to know that the last thing Moms need these days is more criticism.
I want them to know that sometimes toddlers throw a fit when you take away their ice cream.
I want them to know that my children are beautiful and smart and kind.
I want them to know that little ears heard their hurtful words and little eyes saw their spiteful faces.
I want them to know that the only party not “behaving” in that restaurant tonight was theirs.
I want them to know that we are all just doing the best we can and the best we can hope for most days is just to make it to bedtime without a nervous breakdown.
I want them to know that the angry daggers they throw aimlessly into the world around them might occasionally hit their mark, but the damage they leave is merely a flesh wound.
I want them to know that, even though I left in tears, I didn’t leave remorseful.
I want them to know that, on behalf of all mothers with small children, I am not sorry for what I said in response to such misdirected meanness.
I want them to know that their judgment falls on deaf ears. Their opinions are of no use. Their claims of perfection are nothing more than a cover-up for their own insecurities.
I want them to know that we are done listening to their whispers. We are over their exasperated sighs. We are immune to their disapproving stares.
Don’t mistake our tired eyes for weakness. We are Mama Bears. We will stop at nothing to defend our pack. We will turn around in our booths with the ferocity of a grizzly ready to pounce. And just when we think we can’t take it anymore, we will be lifted up by a fellow Mama Bear in the parking lot and live to fight another day.