It was Sunday. Our family had pulled itself together, dressed and pressed, all in clean underwear, and ventured to church. This doesn’t happen every Sunday. It doesn’t even happen every month, but somehow, we got ourselves spit-shined and into the car on time. The boys were excited to play with other Sunday schoolers, and I was excited for 45 minutes of kid-free time and a hot coffee…and the Lord’s message, of course. My tired soul needed it.
The littlest one started screaming before we hit the door of the 2’s room and continued his hysterics across the vibrant carpet to the corner where he stood sobbing into the wall. The stone-faced woman assured me all would be fine. She wasn’t convincing. But that hot coffee…we slowly backed away and moved on to the next room. He was young. He wouldn’t remember.
My oldest, the one most apt to cling to my leg, strolled right into his classroom, barely offering a nod our way before diving into a stack of giant cardboard bricks. Two down, one to go.
The final child, our middle man, is easy and sociable. We marched him into the center of the room, introduced him to the smiling, gray-haired woman reading to a small girl snuggled on her lap, and turned to walk away. He was still holding my hand.
I heard a sniffle. Then a snort. Another sniffle. Not my brave middle man! I was never getting that coffee.
I leaned down to have a chat. “What’s wrong, bud?”
“I don’t wanna stay, Mama. I wanna come wif you.” More sniffles. Tiny, sweaty hands grabbed at my neck and his dress shoes dug sharply into my thighs as he wrapped himself like a hairless spider monkey around my shoulders.
We entered into negotiations, lots of hugging and reassuring. The gray-haired woman came over to intervene, and it looked like he was buying it. “Snacks,” she said. “Blocks and songs and games,” she said. The sniffling waned.
My three-year-old perked up, wiped a hand across his snotty nose and headed to the blocks. My husband and I made our escape but lingered outside the door, peeking in the window to make sure he was settled. The baby we could leave, but this one would remember if we walked out and let him cry.
We watched him pick up a few blocks, set them down, look around. He started to walk over to the kitchenette where two small girls were playing. He thought better of it and went back to stand in front of the blocks another moment. I held my breath as he started back toward the center of the room where we had left him. The kind nursery lady was busy talking with another mom who was dropping off her happy tribe. An older kid, the helper for the day, was occupied filling snack cups. A few other children played together at the table, coloring and talking.
I saw my brave boy turn in a slow circle, taking in each option and then looking to the next until he was back where he started. Alone.
He sat down and cried. I stood outside the window and fought hard against the urge to do the same, my throat tightening, cutting off the deep breath trapped inside my chest. I thought of my own childhood, the quiet girl staring deep into the floor or tracing the lines on the ceiling, afraid to make eye contact but hoping someone would notice me. Save me. It had happened to me often as a child and often enough as an adult. It had happened to me not that long ago actually, in the same exact room he was sitting in now, sobbing on the floor.
Two years prior, I had worked up the nerve to take my three kiddos to a “moms morning” at church. We had visited a few Sundays but didn’t know anyone yet, so I would be walking into a space of strangers. I was not excited.
Mom groups are a special form of my own personal hell. The awkwardness of deciding where to land, the sizing up, the side eye glances and half smiles…but I wasn’t making many “mom friends” since I’d transitioned into the stay-at-home world, and I was sick of drinking cold coffee alone every morning. Plus, my kids needed to socialize, right?
I would do this for my kids. That’s what I told myself as I wandered through the halls holding a six-month-old in one arm, a thirty-pound diaper bag over my shoulder, and my two toddler aged sons next to me, their fingers smashed together tightly in my other hand. I had read in the church bulletin that I could “enjoy a cup of hot coffee” at this gloriously uncomfortable event, but now I realized I had no hands left to hold it. Strike one.
Multiple classrooms were open, offering games and bounce houses to eager children and their smiling, laughing mothers. We walked into the first room I saw and headed toward the back wall, to the blocks. My oldest sat and played with another boy whose mother avoided my eyes. My middle child, not even two and with an obviously limited vocabulary, squabbled with a young girl over a kitchen set. Her mother spoke to her in a way that was actually meant for me, telling her that the little boy just wasn’t sure how to properly share and directed her to the opposite side of the room. Really, chick? Strike two.
I rocked the baby in my arms and fed him his morning bottle while my older boys played with one another. We could have been doing this at home.
It looked like our trip was starting to pay off when the oldest decided he would give the bounce house a go. He jumped while my middle child looked on curiously from the safety of solid ground. I stood and watched, holding the baby, waiting for someone to approach me, ask my name, comment on my obvious aptitude for procreation, chat about the unseasonably warm weather. Nothing.
Eventually, the baby needed changing. As I ransacked the overstuffed diaper bag, my oldest decided it was time to poop and ran barefoot from the bounce house toward the bathroom across the hall. He walked in on another kid before I could stop him. Mothers looked around wondering who this shoeless heathen child belonged to.
“He’s mine,” I smiled and motioned for him to come stand by me and wait his turn. My middle son had returned to his place along the wall and was back to haggling over toys. I kept watch through the window as I stood with a crying baby and an empty bottle, waiting for the bathroom to open. My oldest danced around nervously. The moms in the hall pretended I wasn’t there. The moms sitting near my middle son whispered, nodding as he pulled yet another toy out of some poor thing’s hand. One of them pointed to me standing in the doorway. I pretended not to see.
My oldest rushed into the bathroom as soon as the door opened, his bare feet slapping loudly against the tiled floor. I ran back to grab my middle child, the youngest still in my arms, screaming at this point. As I reached down to snag my son’s hand, I realized that the left side of my bra was completely out of my shirt given the weight of the baby wriggling against my chest. How long had I been flashing these women and their children? And why hadn’t anyone told me? Strike three. I pulled myself back together – well, all but mentally – and shoved us into the bathroom. I needed a breath.
By the time we finished up in the restroom, I was done. I had spent the obligatory hour coffeeless and helpless and friendless. I wanted to sit down and cry but held it together until I reached the safety of my car.
I knew exactly how my little guy felt that Sunday morning, sitting in the middle of that room, unsure and unseen, sobbing as his father and I watched silently through the window.
“Nobody see me, Mama,” he said when we got into the car after the service. “I in the room and nobody see me,” his squeaky voice on the brink of cracking. Sweet boy, don’t I know it? We all feel that sometimes, standing in a room of 10 people or 100. Invisible.
“But the nice lady came and picked you up, didn’t she?”
“Yes,” he conceded. “And we play with blocks and have a snack!” He grinned.
I left my brave middle man crying on the floor that morning and walked away when the gray-haired woman scooped him up in her arms. He had been seen. He would return the next week a little more confident that he was not, in fact, invisible.
Those feelings of invisibility and insecurity haunt me from my youth well into adulthood. They come back with such ferocity as I watch my children wear that same cloak of loneliness, wanting to disappear but praying someone will see them. I can’t save them from the heartache, not every time. If I do, how will they learn to fight past it and try again?
It took me nearly two years to return to a mom group, but I eventually gave it another shot. Taking a different approach, I attended with another mother and dared myself to be a little more open the second time around. It proved far less painful, and I have been back nearly every week since.
Slowly but surely, I am finding commonalities and comfort among this new group of women while my children adjust to their own playgroups, each of us a little more self-assured with the passing weeks. The shroud is unraveling, and we are coming alive. More importantly, we are watching for others who stand back, who turn their eyes to the ground, who try to vanish into air thick with strangers. We make ourselves visible and answer their silent plea to be seen. It’s good for my kids, and it’s good for me, too. I finally got that hot cup of coffee.