Dark pink. Bright yellow. Dark pink. Bright yellow. My eyes searched through green t-shirts, white leggings, denim shorts and purple rompers until they landed on a dark pink tank top and bright yellow sun dress. My children. I leaned back against the glass wall, and relaxed into the cushioned bench that rested on top of the shoe cubby. The play area at Chick-fil-A was packed, probably fifteen or so preschoolers and toddlers, all eager for a chance to expend some of their energy. Outdoor parks aren’t a good option at the moment, as flooding rains have turned them into mud holes and mosquito feasting grounds.
We were enjoying a lovely day, me and my girls, despite my churning stomach, waves of hot flashes and light head. These pregnancy hormones are going through the stereotypical checklist, ensuring I don’t miss out on any of the tell-tale symptoms. “It’s a bit chilly in here, isn’t it?,” said a kind-faced woman who sat down next to me. We’d exchanged smiles earlier when she’d opened the door for me coming into the restaurant. A generous act considering she had her hands full with two young boys of similar age to my girls. “It feels really good to me,” I told her. I then confided in her about the new baby, and she congratulated me and confessed her husband was ready for another, but she wasn’t.
While she and I carried on about children and preschool and the weather, I was glad I’d decided to leave my smart phone in my purse. The two other moms/caregivers on the opposite bench were glued mainly to their devices, looking up momentarily to evaluate the scene. I’m just too apprehensive of a mother. I didn’t want to be distracted. I wanted to keep my eyes on my girls, be responsible, but most of all, just enjoy this moment. My pregnancy has made me especially sentimental, and these moments of mother/child bonding are fleeting. My girls were happy, and appreciative for the special treat.
Dark pink. Bright yellow. Dark pink. Bright yellow. Throughout my conversation with the kind woman, we both kept our eyes on the play area, a small enclosure with tubes and a slide. It’s really very safe, with only one exit door, and it’s such a small space, that it’s nearly impossible for a child to escape without you noticing. Or so I thought. Despite my attentiveness, despite my discipline to not glance at my smart phone. Despite my proximity to the door, my toddler managed to leave, and I had absolutely no idea until I saw her come back in through the door, with a casual, “Hi Mom! I came right back.”
“Oh my God Erica!,” I said, barely able to breathe as I scooped her up in my arms. She hung her head, knowing she’d done something wrong. I put my hands on her sweaty, chubby little cheeks, and sternly, but calmly and quietly, communicated my fear, worry and outright shock. “You CAN’T do that sweetie. You only leave with mommy. Where did you go? Why did you leave?” She looked up at me, then down, and simply said, “Because I like to.” My runner. My little dare devil. My little fearless child. The one who terrifies me. “Do you understand that’s dangerous? Do you understand a bad person could take you?” I asked her to repeat it back to me. “I understand, mommy.”
I set her down, and she squealed with delight as she rejoined her sister in the upper levels. I sat in disbelief. I couldn’t fathom how that could happen. To me. The worrier. The watcher. The cautious one. I’d just seen her dark pink tank top at the entrance to the top tunnel, and the only logical thing that could have happened, is that she zoomed down the slide, and followed a group of children that had just left out the door. I don’t think she could have been out there longer than a minute, but it was too long. My pregnancy-induced nausea was now tripled, sweat forming on my brow as I fought back the urge to vomit.
As I resumed my dark pink, bright yellow vigil, fearful “what ifs” were running in my mind. But instead of guilt, I felt grateful. Mercifully, nothing happened. She returned, and all was well. And counter to how I normally handle parenting failures, this time, I’m not beating myself up. I didn’t do anything I shouldn’t have. I was present, both physically and mentally. I was paying about just as much attention as I possibly could, without actually holding on to my children’s hands. I know it’s ridiculous to think that I should sit right in front of the door and block traffic, or not speak to others around me. And above all else, my toddler has shown willful disobedience. As she admitted, she likes to leave. Does it every chance she can get. But that doesn’t mean I should just keep her at home, and not let her enjoy childhood.
She will learn. She returned. She was fine. And after seeing my reaction, perhaps this will impact her. I know it did me. I’m not only grateful for the outcome, but I’m grateful that I wasn’t on my phone, wasn’t distracted. The guilt I would have felt would have been tremendous, and it’s enough to make me always want to be that present, even when I don’t have complete control of the surroundings or my children’s actions. Grateful. Grateful. Grateful.