It’s not you, it’s her. The one sitting over the dregs of her tea, still glaring through the window. The one that said, “You should be a better mother”.
Your children weren’t being naughty. They were being children, children waiting as patiently as children can. Jostling each other, yes, but no voices raised, nowhere near anyone’s table. You turned away from them for a minute at most to look at the cakes with your middle child. Maybe you looked oblivious to the other two. Maybe you choose to pick your battles. Maybe you looked like a careless woman who couldn’t give a damn about anyone.
But it was OK, because that lady stepped in. She told your children off for you. And when they didn’t stop, she said to you,
“Why don’t you make your children stop running around and fighting?”
You are completely blind-sided. You didn’t see it coming at all. It is so out of proportion to the actual behaviour of your children that you are stunned.
“They’re just being children” you manage to say. Mildly, not confrontationally.
“I had children. And I taught them to behave. Not like yours. You need to be a better mother and bring your children up properly.”
The café-owner looks shocked as he hands you your coffee. He knows you and your children well. Later you will think: if anyone has any right to tell them off, it’s him – and he didn’t.
Later, you’ll think of loads of clever things you could have said. But you just blubbed.
Hugged your confused children.
“Was it our fault?” asks the middle one.
“No, darling, it was mine.”
Your fault for thinking you could go out of the house in the school holidays. Could buy your regular coffee, a little treat.
Your fault for assuming that other people can keep their opinions to themselves. That they can at least choose to mutter mean things to their friend so you can pretend you didn’t hear.
Your fault for going out and not being ashamed of your family. Your fault for selfishly needing a coffee after a night spent dangling out of your little one’s bed because he had a bad dream.
She really got you where it hurts, didn’t she? God knows, when they muck around it drives you crazy too. How many times a day do you agonise over how to be a better mother?
You think, maybe she’s right. Maybe I do need to make them better behaved. Seen and not heard. Frozen rigid to the spot for fear of my censure.
Just how you feel now. Like you should go home for the rest of the holidays and stay there. Hide from society. You and your terrible parenting.
But I bet I can guess why you were in town. Let’s see, school holidays…it’s got to be haircuts. Or shoes. Am I right? Which – newsflash – are the two things that no mother, no matter how much “better” than you, can do without her children.
You tense up as another older lady approaches. No more, please!
“Are you OK?” she says.
You tell her what happened. The other woman gives you a hug. “Don’t you worry about her – she’s obviously having a bad day. I love this age, it’s such a special time. You look after your mummy now – you’re lovely.”
You smile gratefully and cry a bit more. It might take a day or two and a lot of reassurance from other people to wash away the words of that one woman.
But you must listen to them.
You must hold those beautiful children close.
You don’t need to be a better mother.
You’re already the best mother they could ever want.