Mom guilt: a state of emotion often characterized as a rushing series of shamed feelings regarding time, money, energy, or patience in relation to one’s offspring.
After leaving work one afternoon, I ran into my local superstore for a few essential items, particularly of the paper variety. My, I do miss the days when “running into” a store was a possible, inspired commission. At 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, I did not expect the store to be empty of shoppers and, yet, I twinkled with delight when I saw one of four open checkout lanes with only one checkout patron. Let’s call her “Betty.” I could wait behind Betty, no problem…her cart consisted mostly of 24-count bottled water. I loaded my seven items onto the belt and chatted with Betty about dividers when questioned if I had enough room to fit my nine-count pack of toilet tissue on the conveyor. Betty was kind in the way that small talk with a stranger goes.
Betty swiped her card to complete her purchase. Declined. Swiped again. Apologized. Declined. Cynthia, the cashier, expressed empathy and gave Betty the instruction that she would suspend the purchase until Betty went to retrieve an alternate payment method.
Cynthia was fair-skinned with white hair and a welcoming smile. I do not recall having seen her as a cashier before, as I frequent this specific store at least once a week, but did not find this process alarming. At this point, there were two families parked in the line behind me, the lady immediately behind me wheezing in frustration like her oxygen was running low.
Cynthia alerted me that it would be “just a few minutes,” then told the shopper behind me, who told the shopper behind her. They hastily escaped to another lane. Betty sped off towards what I assumed was the parking lot. I just stood there, #1 in the lane queue. I did not want to unload my items from the conveyor, only to further delay my checkout by getting behind others in another line. So I clamped my lips together and waited with Cynthia for the manager to come and suspend the purchase.
I looked at the candies, deliciously loaded alongside the row as an “Oh, by the way, you need me, too…” to tempt me. I picked off a bag of individually-wrapped chocolates and plopped them onto the belt with my other items. I looked at the headphones and lip balms and sodas in the case, then pondered if I wanted a soda: “No, I need water. But I need the sugar. Oops, no, never mind…there was a Dr. Pepper in the car. Would this be enough chocolate to get through the evening?”
The manager jogged up, Cynthia explained the situation, and the manager typed into the register system to stop the purchase in progress.
Ah, okay, good, my brain thought. She’ll go ahead and ring me up so that I can be freed from this hostage moment. My items were right in front of her…Betty’s items were bagged in a cart nearby. There is no excuse for this affecting me. I breathed and smiled pleasantly.
Cynthia just stood there and looked around.
I pushed my items up a bit on the belt towards her and smiled really big, intentionally, with no teeth, like a crazed woman, wide-eyed and tired.
“I feel so bad for her,” Cynthia started. “I know what it feels like.” I blinked.
“Sure?” I answered. I played with the plastic on the tissue packaging and glanced around me. The lady who was formerly in the lane behind me was being checked out by a cashier two lanes over.
“She is here with a friend who owned that card. I guess she’s going to go get another one…” I tuned Cynthia out. I didn’t know if I should have asked to go ahead and get checked out, if maybe her register was frozen with the suspension, or what. Should I really have to ask to be checked out, though? It was a weird position of non-choice.
Then she turned her back to me and just…propped up. I felt aghast. To avoid physically displaying my frustration, I crossed my arms across my chest and kept blinking. One would have thought I was fighting flyaway eyelashes. The joy I felt for the little crowd in the store seeped out of my ears in the form of a light steam. I am quite a patient person, but the lack of customer service was surprising. What was going on here?
Then, here comes Betty, with a barrage of apologies, waving her supposed “working” card. She swipes. Declined.
OH, MY FATHER IN HEAVEN. I smacked my lips and a huff projected by mistake. It just flew out of me. “Oh, I think I need to transfer money,” Betty told Cynthia. Cynthia nodded enthusiastically.
I started running through scenarios that got me to that moment. I was a young woman being held hostage by two other older women who acted like they personally knew each other and didn’t care the least about me and my life. I was receiving no apology for the situation and felt, honestly, that I should not even had expected one because customer care at that level was nonexistent here. I could wait…I had nowhere to be, quite obviously. No one asked me about my two babies who I hadn’t seen all day…about the 40+ hour work weeks I run…about the fact that I only wanted some damn toilet tissue and paper towels and pork chops quickly.
Betty got on her cell phone and fiddled around in her bank account. Cynthia held a jovial conversation with her. I watched other shoppers come to my lane, then slid to another because they must have seen the storm on my face. I rolled my eyes and considered just sitting my butt on the conveyor belt in a tantrum.
Betty exclaimed, “Try it now!” She swiped…it magically totaled out. Wow. Betty then tried to get my attention frantically: “Ma’am? I’m so sorry. I’m sorry for your wait, ma’am. Ma’am, I’m truly sorry.” I gave her a face worthy of mannequin blankness in hopes that she got my mental wave of “Just get the hell out of the way.”
As Cynthia scrolled my items across the scanner, I swiped my card and replaced it in my purse. The transaction was successful. It took 45 whole seconds. I tried to swallow and offer some advice for anyone listening: “That’s something she should have done before she came into the store to shop.”
Cynthia replied: “Well, she said she was going to, but forgot. I understand. It’s an age thing.”
I didn’t hear it this way, though. All I heard her say was, “It’s your fault for not going to another lane.”
I respect my elders, but I really wanted to give this lady, this lady I hope never to see again, my longest middle fingers for wasting so many minutes of my life. Were it me in her spot, I would have started a kind banter with my waiting customer if my register was, in fact, rendered inactive. I would have tried to get her priority in another nearby lane. At any case, she could have alerted me the process: the register would be back up once the manager activated it, then, just check me out and make Betty wait until I was out of the way. I was the only idiot in the line.
But no. I wasn’t afforded that type of consideration.
It wasn’t until I got to my car after a stomping session across the parking lot that I reconsidered my anger. It was only, what, 15 minutes…was my time that specifically precious? Betty was incredibly embarrassed and was older and probably did forget to transfer her funds, which I have done before myself. I should cut her some slack.
Then I thought about my children, waiting for mommy to get home to…play. It was a nice warm day in winter. I left as the sun was rising that morning…I was returning home as dusk settled.
I was guilty because the day had gone by and I hadn’t seen my children. I hadn’t talked to them, hadn’t hugged them, hadn’t been a mom.
My anger at Betty and Cynthia was actually a product of my own unadulterated mommy guilt.
There was no reason to mentally strike out against this woman, someone’s grandmother. Cynthia could have done things differently, but she didn’t, and it wasn’t that big. The lady who had been in the line behind me had just exited with her own items, so I wasn’t years of people behind.
I was angry because I was guilty that I had worked all day and had to delay playing with my children because we were out of toilet tissue. The admission of that guilt was enlightening and confusing. I couldn’t blame Betty for her memory, for not checking her bank account, for having to hold a lane up as she tried to purchase things to create happiness at her own home.
I couldn’t blame Cynthia and the hourly wage that does not make, plus what she potentially has to deal with every day from shoppers, and what she probably expected from me. I’m glad I kept it together and wasn’t too rude. I was expecting too much from people I’d probably never see again.
I couldn’t tell this woman how to do her job any more than she could come to me advising about human resources. I made a mental note that I was going to focus on me. I was being a bit too individualistic and selfish. It wasn’t about me.
It was okay that I freaked out for a second, but thinking through with a clearer head and recognizing the real reason why I was upset gave me the freedom to accept the humanness of everyone.
No one is perfect. Everyone is on the same rock, working through billions of purposes.
Stop being so critical.
The world needs more of that.