• Sat, Jan 18 - 3:14 pm ET

A Tired Mom At The Grocery Store And Her Cranky Toddler Gave Me An Epiphany

I saw a really gut-wrenching scene at the grocery store this week. It was maybe 2pm on a Friday afternoon, and the store was busy, but not overly packed. I went about my business, and then got in line to pay, and did what we all do in the grocery store line nowadays – I fiddled with my phone so I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody. That’s what it happened.

I noticed a woman in a line close to mine who was clearly having a bad day. She had a cart full of food, and a very, very cranky 2-year-old in the seat of the cart, just bawling. The look of desperation on her face is one I know all too well. Do you leave your cart filled with a week’s food and walk out so you don’t disturb anyone? Or do you grin and bear the judgemental stares until you can get through the line? I think this has happened to every parent at least once. No matter how well you plan things, how many naps, snacks and clean diapers you arm your little bundle of joy with, sometimes kids just snap and there’s nothing you can do.

Eventually the woman got through the line, and managed to pay. By the time she got to the front of the line, her (otherwise adorable) cranky baby had even calmed down to a category 1 tantrum, from a category 5. Why did the baby calm down? Because the sweet, understanding older lady behind this tired mom took the time to talk to them, and even gave the kid a candy from her purse. In a semi-crowded place, surrounded by people either giving her the stink eye, or people like me, trying to be sympathetic but also averting our gaze, one woman’s kindness was enough to defuse the situation so the mom could get done what needed to be done and get the eff out of there. I will admit, I was a little ashamed of myself for not trying to help too. I mean, I’m socially awkward as hell, and probably would have come of like a weirdo, but still.

It’s so easy to judge parents who are in these situations. It’s easy to say “I would have planned better,” or “I would have left the store,” but life is messy and sometimes stressful, and I don’t think I’m in a position to judge. Maybe this mom only had a two hour window to shop. Maybe her child has developmental delays, or wasn’t feeling well. Or maybe she’s just a bad planner who should’ve waited until the kid was less cranky. Either way, it isn’t my place to judge. Parenting in general would be less stressful and isolating if we’d all try to be a little more understanding. So the next time I see a parent in that situation, I’m going to try to show support (as awkward as I am). You never know the difference it could make.

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  • Bethany Ramos

    Yeah I have felt smug in the past, but there have been so many times where we try to take out our toddler and baby to eat in the afternoon when there are less people because we want them to learn how to behave in restaurants. Just yesterday, it was my son’s birthday, and he had a terrible cold, so he was a monster. Our birthday meal was out on a patio where there were few people, but he still had a major tantrum. It happens to the best of us!!!

  • Kay_Sue

    It happens. And there’s a marked difference, at least from what I’ve seen, between parents that are struggling and parents that are oblivious. We’ve all been on the receiving end of a tantrum at the most inconvenient time, I am sure.

    • Ddaisy

      Struggling vs. oblivious is *absolutely* the difference between whether I am sympathetic or annoyed.

  • FormerlyKnownAsWendy

    I have been known to make silly faces at random cranky toddlers. They usually get distracted by the weird stranger and stop crying. Sometimes they parent doesn’t even notice why.

    • keelhaulrose

      I once calmed a cranky toddler (not mine) in Target by singing the Mickey Mouse clubhouse song. I noticed he was clutching a Mickey toy, had a Mickey shirt on, and had a Mickey book in the cart, so I thought it was a safe bet. No kidding it took that kid three seconds to go from crying to laughing. The mom just gave me a look, and I said “Mine does the same for any song from Doc McStuffins”. I heard her ten minutes later singing a Clubhouse song to her delighted son. I don’t even mind the guy behind me in the checkout make a Simon-Cowel-esque comment on my singing (I know I suck, but it can’t be any worse than crying toddler, right?)
      It’s amazing what will work.

    • Melissa T.

      You sang a toddler to happy and somebody criticized your voice? It couldn’t have been THAT bad if it was able to calm a kid down, regardless of the song choice FIRST of all. Second of all, that guy deserves to have a million crying toddlers serenade him nightly. <3

    • keelhaulrose

      I seriously sound like a cartoon when I sing. And not in a good way. He was just being mean-spirited.

    • FormerlyKnownAsWendy

      That is a very sweet story. And that song is seriously catchy. Someone got my kid a birthday card that played it and he kept it for like 3 years. It still made him giggle up till the day the card finally died.

    • keelhaulrose

      All those Disney Jr songs will stay with you if you’re not careful. I seriously started singing one from one of the latest Doc McStuffins episodes while cooking the other day… my kids weren’t even in the house!
      At least I owned it… *singing^ I shake-a my hair, woah-oh, woah-oh-oh!

    • Allyson_et_al

      I do that, too. If I have one of my kids (ages 13 and 11) with me, I sometimes suggest they try to distract the baby. Parents are less wary of a strange kid than a strange adult, generally, and toddlers and preschoolers, especially, seem to be fascinated by big kids, so it usually works. Even if I can’t help, I usually try to say something to make it clear that I’m sympathetic, not annoyed. After all, almost all of us who have kids have been there at one time or another.

  • aCongaLine

    WHen my second Daughter was a newborn, and my older was 20months, I needed to go to the grocery store- so I took the girls with me. One had a meltdown that caused the other to melt down… and my postpartum self was fighting off a panic attack in the checkout line. We were almost done, and I picked up my newborn so calm her. The store was pretty empty, since it was the middle of the day, thankfully.

    THe (little old lady) cashier started to give me a lecture about how I should be careful not to drop the baby, and that my toddler was probably feeling neglected. I paid for the groceries as quickly as I could, and shoved them in the cart, all while she was lecturing me. After I loaded my groceries into their bags (since the bagger left, because baby crying), and the bags into the cart, I interrupted her lecture with

    “Lady, even people with cranky babies need to eat. I’m doing the best I can, mind your own damn business.”

    And I left. Never to return to that particular store again.

    I totally get averting eyes, and sympathetic or even annoyed glances. I would have cried from relief if someone had been kind. Instead, I cried in my car because I felt so horrible… There’s no controlling young babies and toddlers sometimes. Sometimes even our best does nothing to stop the meltdowns. When I’m done with this baby and toddler season of motherhood, I’ll be doing my best to show kindness to other mothers in this situation. It’s so stressful.

    • Andrea

      I would have complained to her supervisor. I get it that wailing kids are annoying, but it wasn’t her judgey place to give you a lecture. Her fucking job was to scan your groceries as quickly as possible so you could get the hell out of there. I’m sorry this happened to you.

    • aCongaLine

      Thanks. I called the next day- when I had calmed down, and had a moment to make the call. It was surreal. And insane. And thankfully hasn’t happened again- though, we’ve had our fair share of meltdowns :)

    • http://fairlyoddmedia.com/ Frances Locke

      Ugh, that lady sounds awful. I always want to step in and try to help parents when I see them struggling, but I end up feeling like they would think I was a weirdo or bothering them. Reading stories like your makes me realize that it might be more welcome that I think.

    • SmrtGrl86

      I had a checker at a local home improvement drop something on my sleeping newborn and not apologize once. He woke up (duh) and started crying and then she rolled her eyes. I left and called the store manager on the way home, employees that act badly need to be reported so they don’t do it to other people and also because a throat punch is assault.

    • Shelly Lloyd

      What I hate is when parents let their child sleep or play in the back of the shopping cart, or if they put their baby seat back there. Then expect me to load all the food around the child or baby without touching said child. If the baby or child is in the front part I have no problem with loading your cart. But if your child or baby is in the back I will not load your cart so that I will not inadvertently hurt or even touch you child. I will hand the parents their items, and they can pack their stuff around their baby or child.

    • SmrtGrl86

      The stuff was five smallish items in the child seat part of the cart. She got grabby and didn’t give me a chance to put it on the counter for her she then lost her grip and dropped it on my kid, who was nowhere near the stuff I bought. An apology also would have gone a long way, accidents happen. The eye roll was out of line.

    • Sara610

      Ugh, I’m sorry you had to deal with that. I had the opposite experience–when my daughter was about 6 weeks old and colicky, I had to take her to the store. She started to cry in the checkout line and I apologized to the checkout lady, who just smiled and said, “Don’t apologize. Babies cry. We’ve all been there and it gets easier.” I was so grateful (and the exhaustion and hormones probably came into play, too) that I almost cried myself.

    • C.J.

      A mother with two crying babies trying to check out and get out of a store does not need to hear criticism from a cashier. She needs the cashier to hurry up and get her groceries scanned and not waste time giving a lecture. If she was that worried about you dropping the baby while trying to bag groceries maybe she should have helped you bag them or called for the bagger to come back and do their job.

    • brebay

      Ask her why she’s working as a checker with her PhD in child psychology…

  • Andrea

    While I really hate putting up with anyone’s tantrums, I really REALLY REALLY!! feel awful for moms when kids go batshit at the grocery store. Cuz the thing is, no one likes grocery shopping (wait, do they? no one does right??) and no matter how well you plan, they get bored and lose their shit. I have been known to leave A LOT of situations because my kid couldn’t act like a civilized human being: playgrounds (which prompted my other kid, who was being great, to burst into tears), stores (and badly needed necessities), restaurants (and half eaten food), etc. But, dang it, I just won’t abandon a week’s worth of groceries at the store. I’ll grit and bear it and put up with The McJudgesons. I don’t care. Publix isn’t a resort. I’m sure there wasn’t an “experience” people missed because of my kid’s display.

    • keelhaulrose

      I’ll admit to getting overly exaggerated about things in the grocery store. It’s the only way to keep my sanity and my girls while I’m in there. Sometimes you just have to do something funny to keep from losing it because grocery shopping is the worst.
      Plus it usually makes someone laugh when I wonder aloud where the Costco-sized Box-o-Words is, because my five year old must be running low after talking so much.

    • Allyson_et_al

      I agree. Back in the baby/toddler days, I left many a restaurant or playground prematurely. But groceries? No. You need groceries. Besides, getting a baby (or babies) out of house is such a struggle sometimes that it’s almost impossible sometimes to face having to do it again. I always feel such sympathy for the parent in those situations.

    • brebay

      Agreed. No one goes to a grocery store for the ambiance or a night out. Restaurant? Pick up the baby and step out until it calms down, grocery store? Just deal.

  • Momma425

    It’s happened to me before. Sometimes it is a situation that I can learn from and let her nap a little longer, or leave a little earlier, or remember a snack/toy in my purse. In some situations, even the most creative, thoughtful planning couldn’t have prevented a tantrum. That’s part of the journey that is kids.
    Anyone going to a restaurant (especially family friendly ones), the mall, or the grocery store should be well aware that this is a possibility if there are kids. It’s not fun to be around or listen to. But it’s not fun for the parent either. It’s very easy to judge, but it’s just as easy to give the mom a sympathetic smile, plug in your iphone headphones, and keep on shopping. Or smile at the baby, offer them a distraction, and let the mom know that you’ve been there. Even those who aren’t parents…come on! We were all babies at one point, most of us have siblings…chances are either you or your siblings have been the screaming baby in the grocery store, on the airplane, or out somewhere.
    Some days, I am definitely THAT mom who has the tantruming toddler in isle 4. But what a good reminder for days where my daughter is the perfect angel and someone else’s isn’t- I can still be kind and understanding.

  • arrow2010

    It takes a village to calm down a tantrum.

    • http://fairlyoddmedia.com/ Frances Locke

      No, but it takes a village to be human beings to each other and maybe help a new parent not to tear their hair out, lol.

    • Simone

      Fuck off, the adults are talking.

  • Melissa T

    This is a lovely, thoughtful post. Just wanted to put that out there.

  • Joye77

    Years ago I remember shopping with my toddler late in the evening, I was physically exhausted and sleep deprived and a lovely grocery store bagger helped me to my car and not only helped load my groceries but placed my son in the car seat ( with my permission, of course) and buckled him in for me. Such a minor thing was such a huge help to me that I even called the store to compliment her kindness. I’ve always been afraid that I got her in trouble though for her doing that. I hope not.

  • anon

    It isn’t just toddlers. Today the computers went down in the grocery store I was in. The poor cashier was getting the FU eye from the lady who didn’t have cash to pay. FU lady storms off. Cashier has to go get cart, put groceries in it to be put away, etc. She looked like her day was really bad, so I loaded the cart for her. You could tell it prevented her from having a meltdown on the next customer :)

  • Hibbie

    I was in the same situation with my daughter once and I was close to tears myself! Then an older gentleman came over and started talking to my daughter, immediately calming her down so I could pay. I thanked him profusely. He just smiled and said this wasn’t his first grocery-store save, because babies love grandfathers and that he was happy to help.

  • kay

    We have a fairly happy baby who one Sunday was NOT into church. We spent the whole service taking turns walking in the lobby…And as much as you feel like no one should judge you in church you also feel like an asshole when your child is crying in the middle of the eucharistic prayer, let’s be honest.
    After service an old man who had been sitting by us told us how it was so great that we could make it to church with our baby, and he remembers how hard it was, and that it we should never feel like we can’t go because the baby might cry. It was one of those moments you need when your baby is a fussy mess (and a reminder why we picked the church we go to-people are nice! not to mention into recycling and gay marriage and social justice and such)

    • Sara610
    • kay

      no! I love it, and I’m sending it to my pastor right now!

    • FormerlyKnownAsWendy

      I freakin’ love sitting by little kids in church. I have a short attention span, and watching them question their parents to death and drop cheerios on the floor and then eat them and listening to them say, “I have to poop” loudly right when everyone else is silently bowing their head is my entertainment. I’ve been there, and it’s embarrassing when it’s your kids, but I miss them being so little, and I know a lot of other people feel that way, too, cause they told me so when the littlest ones were mine. Their antics keep me from having a tantrum when I get bored.

    • brebay

      That’s the only way I could get through an entire sermon either!

    • Sara

      When I was little my GranBeck took me to church. The foolish woman had previously taught me that if you don’t have clothes on somewhere you have to leave (this lesson learned at Walmart). So in the middle of our very quiet church I ripped my floofy dress and declared, “I NAKED! WE MUST GO!” This is also how you make your priest giggle madly in the mide of a sermon.

    • Sara610

      Bahahahahaha! Awesome.

    • kay

      I now want to teach my niece and nephew to do this (but not my own child…)

    • Sara

      I think the kid has to have a problem with authority before you teach it to strip in church lol. We ended up staying until the end of Mass and later after I had been thoroughly punished my mom asked me why I had started stripping I told her, “If I can take my clothes off at Jesus’ house (I didn’t understand church lol) I can take them off ANYWHERE!” Which is a rule to live by.

    • Simone

      I’m going to try that in my partner’s office….

  • Sara610

    This is very well put. As another commenter said, it’s often pretty easy to tell the difference between a parent whose kid is, despite all the best efforts and preparation, just having a random meltdown and one who is completely oblivious to her child’s annoying behavior. I tend to judge not nearly so much based on the kid’s behavior as what the adult is or is not doing about it.

    I’ve told this story on here before, but last summer I flew across the country with my two-year-old alone. Partly due to a boatload of snacks, toys and DVDs, but mostly due to pure dumb luck, she did pretty well both ways. But on the way out, there was a mom a few rows back flying, by herself, with a toddler and an infant. The infant screamed pretty much the whole time, and the mom was desperately doing everything she could–nothing was helping. Maybe he was teething, or overtired, or his ears hurt, who knows. That would have been bad enough, but about 45 minutes before landing the toddler joined in too. I don’t think anyone was judging this mom who was clearly trying her best under very trying circumstances, and I think most people just felt bad for her.

    On the way back, there was a five-year-old flying with his parents and before the plane even took off, he started throwing a screaming fit that didn’t stop for about 45 minutes. The parents’ reaction to this was to put on their headphones and alternate between ignoring him and giggling about how loud he was being. You’d better believe they got a whole lot less love from the other passengers.

    • Allyson_et_al

      My son once cried for two hours straight on a red-eye from CA to NY. It was AWFUL. I tried absolutely everything I could to quiet him, but he was inconsolable. He was also only 8 months old, and thus impervious to logic, pleading, and threats, but I walked him, rocked him, nursed him– everything I could think of. By the end, people were being openly hostile towards us. At one point, some (young, presumably child-free) asshole actually asked me, “Can’t you shut him up?” I was so fed up by then that I just said, “Yes, I have that power, but I prefer this.” I mean, I felt terrible that my baby ruined so many people’s flight, but there was literally nothing I could do about it– why make me feel even worse?

  • Fireinthefudgehole

    When I worked in retail I saw adults and teenagers throw WAY more tantrums than the babies and toddlers. People act like like listening to a baby scream for a minute or two is THE WORST THING TO EVER HAPPEN. Being in a public place= dealing with small annoyances

    • ChickenKira

      Agreed on the adults and teenagers.
      I used to work at an ice creamery, and sometimes during heatwaves we would run out of particular flavours, yes we always made sure we had extra stock during heatwaves, but there is only so much ice cream you can fit into one freezer in a small store. Anyway, it always amused me that most small kids could be persuaded into a different flavour without any problems (and when all else failed, stick a little umbrella into the cone and all is well again), but adults used to argue the point, and sulk, and occasionally stomp their feet, as if stomping their feet and sulking would make a new box of mango sorbet magically fall out of the sky.

    • ted3553

      Even before I had one, a crying baby wasn’t really a big deal. I’d rather deal with a crying baby or even a toddler meltdown over a lady behind me ramming her grocery cart onto my ankle several times-where do you think we’re all going?

  • Alicia Kiner

    I always want to help because I know some kids just need to deal with someone who isn’t Mom or Dad. But then I think, what if the baby/toddler doesn’t like new people. It could always make things worse. So I never know what to do.

    • Sara610

      Personally, I don’t think the specifics of what you do matter so much as long as it’s encouraging and in the right spirit. A smile, a kind word, offering a toy or snack, offering to hold mom’s bag if she’s struggling with a squalling baby and a heavy load, etc. Even if it’s not helpful, the parent will probably appreciate that you’re trying to help and not being a judgey asshole.

    • footnotegirl

      As a mom, I might be a bit iffy if someone did more than smile and wave to my child BUT would so forever appreciate a “Can I help, would it help if I try to distract your little one?” and would then be like.. have at! Honestly, even a simple “Oh honey, don’t feel bad, kids do that and you’re doing your best.” would take the edge off SO MUCH.

  • Mims

    It makes me feel ill to think that people have such insane standards that hearing a kid scream in public is shamed. In the country I’m from, kids are still allowed to act like kids and the parents aren’t automatically blamed. I say fuck ‘em. Kids are a nature’s sound box. You can’t always stop them when they wanna play.

  • lin

    This is so true and perfectly said!

  • Lindsay4

    I work at a grocery store and i see this all the time. When other customers step in to actually help in a kind way it’s the best. Of the tantrum has to play out, so be it. It’s part of the day. Not infrequent, not totally unexpected. I never think to ‘judge the parent’ nor have i ever heard a co-worker say something judgey (trust me, employees will gossip about annoying customers to no end). I just try and ring the groceries quickly if we’ve got a crying kid, and be real friendly to the adult involved. Basically, i do what i can to make it easier on everyone and i think other grocery store workers usually do the same. We’re on your side!

  • C.J.

    There is a big difference between a baby or toddler crying in the checkout line and a toddler or child misbehaving in a store. I always feel bad for the parent and the child when I see this happen. Usually I will try to talk to the child and distract them or say a kind word to the parent. I don’t have a lot of tolerance for children running wild and parents not doing anything to try to stop them. I have a ton of sympathy for parents trying to do everything they can to soothe an upset child in a situation where they are desperately trying to get what they need to get done and get out. Nobody wants to be in that situation.

  • Tinyfaeri

    I’ve always tried to make goofy faces at small children and babies in stores. Maybe a little less now that I have my own (I can only summon up just so much peppiness), but I still try to. I like little kids, they don’t give a crap if you’re awkward.

    Also, I agree with others that in a grocery store everyone can suck it up and listen to a baby cry while a parent (especially one there alone) checks out. It isn’t a restaurant or a movie or the library or a show. It’s the grocery store – no matter what, people have to eat.

  • Alfreda Wells Morrissey

    I don’t think I could ever bring myself to leave a carts worth of groceries because my toddler started to cry. I had to strap my toddler once into the cart because she kept running away. She cried for a while. I ignored her and got my groceries as quickly as possible and got out. Luckily she calmed by the time we got to the cash. Nobody really looked at me funny. It is not like it’s a restaurant. Then I would leave to calm the kid. Luckily my kids love restaurants and love coloring so that has never been an issue.

    I always try to cheer up crying kids from a distance and give the mothers looks of empathy because I remember that shame. Once my kid went in full melt down on the floor in IKEA. I let her go and sat back patiently. The people just smiled at me as they walked by. Maybe it helps if they see you have everything under control. Or maybe it is more relaxed her in Canada.

    I worry about it most in the planes though, because I remember being single and hearing babies cry the entire flight. When I flew with my kids as babies it is the only time I would give them junk food to distract them.

    The sad thing is I am actually scared to help in some situations. Once I saw a mother trying to put stamps on her christmas card at the post office, with a baby in her arms. I would love to offer to hold her baby, but then she might think that was weird. Once a baby stood up in the baby seat of the shopping cart. I was scared to grab her because the mother might not know what I was doing. I kind of got ready to catch and called the woman’s attention.

  • ted3553

    My little guy got cranky as we were almost through the checkout at the grocery store and instead of ignoring him or chatting as most cashiers do, this one who I’m guessing was a grandmother herself asked me if he went to daycare to which I replied yes. She then told me oh, that’s why he’s cranky, do you work weekends? I just started to clue in to what she was doing and replied no and then she stated “that’s good, at least he gets to spend some time with you”. I was floored and replied that he was cranky because he had a cold and it’s nearly supper and yes actually, he does get to spend lots of time with me. Then I reached out and shoved her face backwards with the palm of my hand. Well, maybe not but I wanted to.

  • Jen

    I worked retail for a while and found that the uniform made me a “safe” person in the parents’ eyes and so I used that to calm small kids with random conversations (“those are neat pink shoes – do you like pink? I like pink. So many good things are pink”) or funny faces or (when we had them) light up toys that mesmerized the stroller set. A few were impervious but the vast majority, no matter what the cause of the melt down, could at least be distracted into silence for a bit. Some remembered their complaints and picked them up again after a moment but usually at a lower pitch and a lot forgot completely and went on their cheerful little ways.

    It really doesn’t take much and doesn’t mean you don’t get to silently judge the parents who are being doinks about it but it does make a huge difference to your eardrums. And the kid. I guess they’re important, too. :)

  • rrlo

    People are so weirdly cranky at the grocery store. This middle-aged man threw a mild tantrum the other day because my husband positioned the grocery cart in an angle that he did not appreciate. When he made a comment, my husband said “I’m sorry, I’ll get out of your way” – to that the man said “you’re an idiot”. Granted it’s possible he didn’t hear my extremely polite but fairly quiet husband. But still!

    Point being – adult jerks are EVERYWHERE. And we cut them slack all the time – because we don’t want to get punched in the face. I fear parents of young children are picked on by others because they are an easy target – low hanging fruit. And unlikely to shoot you (like that guy in the movie theater) during an altercation.

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