It’s awfully easy to judge other people’s parenting skills before you become a parent. You shake your head with haughty condescension when witnessing a flailing preschooler being dragged from the playground by a frazzled-looking mom.  When you have children, you might think to yourself, this will never happen to you. Furthermore, your future child will never leave the house wearing an outfit consisting of nothing more than a tiara, a Hello Kitty bathing suit, and neon pink rain boots.  Your child will turn up her nose at refined sugar, adhere to a 7:30 bedtime without complaint – and most notably, your child will never, ever act out in public. I know what’s running through your mind, because I had the same thoughts myself once.

My daughter was nearly two years old on the day I met her, sitting quietly in her ancient wooden crib in an Ethiopian orphanage. After staring at her photo for months, I was finally given clearance to travel halfway around the world to spend a few days bonding with my new child. Timid and quiet, she had eyes as large as dinner plates and a charming, crooked smile. “She’s such a good little girl,” the nannies told me, “very well behaved. Such an angel, everyone’s favorite. “ 

If only they could see her now, I think to myself 5 months later as I squat on my heels in a supermarket parking lot, attempting to coax my sobbing child into a grocery cart by convincing her that sitting in said cart is not a punishment but, in fact, a fun-filled adventure. “Sweetie, come on, just get in the cart for mommy. It will be lots of fun, I promise! Honey, please, it will only take a minute, I swear. If you’re a good girl and get in the cart, I’ll get you some candy, okay?”

At the mention of candy, my daughter, stiff and still as a statue a moment before, suddenly perks up, turns around, and walks through the automatic doors into the market. She heads straight for the candy display located conveniently a few steps from the front entrance and selects a bag of peanut M&Ms. “M&Ms, sure, okay, I can deal with that.” I gingerly take the bag from her and rip it open, handing her a green candy-coated chocolate peanut. She watches me suspiciously, never breaking eye contact as she slowly chews the treat. I step backwards a few yards and hold out another candy, blue this time, urging her forward. Still on the verge of tears, she comes close enough to take the candy from my fingers, quickly understanding the parameters of our new game. Like the Pied Piper, I continue to walk backwards and simultaneously reach into the package for another M&M.

It takes half a bag of candy to reach the items I need to purchase – milk and diapers – and the other half to make our way to the checkout. By the time we get through the line and pay for our items, my daughter is clutching an empty M&M bag and threatening to burst into tears again. “Just one more minute,” I mutter under my breath, not caring if people think I’m unhinged.  “Just wait until we get in the car, then you can cry all you want.”

“Well hey there, sweetie! What’s a pretty little girl like you doing looking so sad?”

Great, just great. An older man, standing at the bakery display located conveniently near the registers, has noticed my daughter. And my daughter, for her part, has now noticed the bakery display. Ignoring the sympathetic senior citizen, my toddler’s attention is entirely focused on the rows of crispy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside French style baguettes.

“No, no, no, honey, no.” But I’m too late. By the time I reach her, she’s clutching a baguette to her chest like it’s her lifeline. Once again, I find myself squatting so that I’m at her level, just like the parenting manuals tell you to do.

“Honey, put that down, put it, just put it down, okay? We have bread at home, nice bread, much better than this bread, this bread is yucky, blech! Are you hungry, kiddo, is that why? We can have dinner as soon as we get home, but first we have to leave the store, okay? Hey, guess what! I have fruit snacks in the car. You like those, don’t you, sweetheart? Come on, let’s go, please?”

I glance behind me at the checkout lines, which are now teeming with customers guarding overloaded grocery carts. No way am I going through that line again, not for a two dollar loaf of bread. I debate whether to leave a few bucks on the display shelf, but a quick search reminds me that I’m not carrying any cash today. Panic starts to rise in my throat as I gently slide the baguette from her tight grasp.

“No, Mommy!  Mine, mine, MINE!”  As her screams increase in intensity and volume, I throw her over my shoulder fireman-style, ignoring the sharp kicks to my sternum and the small hands pulling my hair. I lob the crushed baguette in the general direction of the bakery display and refuse to make eye contact with the customers now openly staring at us as I make our way to my vehicle as quickly as I can.

“Where’s my stupid car? Why on earth did I park so far away, anyway?”

“Mommy, NO! NO CAR, NO!”

“Just get in the car seat, stop squirming!” Once she’s buckled in, I reach blindly into the glove compartment and grab the emergency package of fruit snacks.  I figure this qualifies as an emergency. “Here, take this, please be quiet!”

A few minutes later, I glance in my rear view mirror to see that my daughter is happily munching on the candy and singing along to the radio. When I catch her eye, she shoots me one of her patented crooked smiles, her big brown eyes scrunching up charmingly. I turn my head to return her smile and she blows me a kiss, which I pretend to catch and put in my pocket.  This never fails to make her laugh, and this time is no exception.

“I love you, silly girl.”

“Me no silly! YOU silly!”

I thought I knew everything about parenting before I became a mother. I can admit when I’m wrong, however, and I have fully conceded that I haven’t got a clue. So go ahead and judge me all you like; I happen to think that my daughter and I make a pretty good team.