Tonight I sat in the Panera Bread parking lot for 2.5 hours after they had closed. What was I doing in my car for 2.5 hours on a Friday night? I was catching up on a week’s worth of texts, I was googling cotton candy makers and woodland decorations for my son’s 4th birthday party, I was text-fighting with my husband who I felt had been exceptionally inconsiderate and ungrateful the past few days…
I was just… sitting: alone, surrounded by quiet, with my own thoughts, doing nothing, really. And doing it in the Panera parking lot because I couldn’t do it at home. At home, I’d have to put the groceries away that were currently in my trunk. At home, I’d have to talk to my husband, or listen for if my 1.5 year old woke up, or vacuum popcorn off the couch, or complete some other monotonous and mind-numbing chore that apparently nobody noticed needed to be done, but me.
So instead I sat in my car: oblivious to the time-passing, ignoring my “responsibilities,” and embracing the rare opportunity I was allowing myself to simply zone out.
Just as I was finally preparing myself to finally head back to reality, I was approached by police officers. “Hey, how’s it going? You know the businesses here are closed now?” Yes, I knew that, after all, “I have been here since Panera closed,” I said while alluding to my Panera Bread lemonade with an awkward ‘air-cheers.’ I was subconsciously implying: “See officer? My presence in the parking lot 3 hours after closing is completely normal because I *was* a paying customer earlier in the night when there was staff here… and… ya know, lights on…” but my attempts proved ineffective.
“Everything ok?” the officer asked.
“Yeah,” I replied. “I’m just… taking a break from my kids.” I was immediately consumed with guilt and embarrassment as I heard myself say it out loud. “It’s just that… I have a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old, and I own a business, and… I… just needed a break…” I tried to explain, stopping because I felt ready to cry. I didn’t mention that my 9-year-old step-daughter had also been in town the last week, that my husband had been working from 8pm-8am all week, that I was simultaneously trying to plan a 40th surprise party for him in a different town, that we re-homed our dog earlier in the day, and I had a stack of work I should have been doing at that moment, but instead I was filling my Amazon cart with useless crap that I definitely shouldn’t buy but probably would.
“You have a lot on your plate,” the officer said, and I nodded as another officer shone his flashlight into my car to check the contents: groceries picked up 4 hours prior, a car seat, goldfish crackers strewn about, my computer bag, which was a metaphor for what summed up my life at this moment. “No worries ma’am, there’s been a lot of break-ins to businesses around here, if you don’t mind if I take a look at your ID we will be on our way.”
I handed the officer my ID, relieved for the situation to be ending, relieved that I held it together enough for them to just assume that I was only a shitty, friendless-mom, but not one that might require a mental health evaluation. Then, the officer said, “Ma’am, do you know your license is expired? You cannot legally drive right now.”
At that moment, my attempts to suppress my tears failed and I immediately began to cry. I cried because of my underlying feelings that, no matter how much I tried, how much I did, my efforts were never enough, and the fact that my license was expired proved that. It proved that I couldn’t keep my shit together, that I was failing. What was I supposed to do? It was midnight. My husband was home with our sleeping kids, my friends were home with their sleeping kids, I had $200 worth of groceries in the back.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said through tears. “I just wanted some time to myself, and I can’t even have that,” I continued, despite that it had nothing to do with this officer or the fact that my license was expired.
“We’re going to go,” the officer said. “What you decide to do is up to you, but if you get pulled over, you’re not allowed to drive and you will get a ticket. Is there anything else I can help you with?” The officer handed me back my license and I shook my head. The 2 patrol cars left the lot and I sat and cried. I cried for 15 minutes, alone and feeling sorry for myself. I cried because I didn’t know what to do at that moment and I cried out of self-pity, exhaustion, and stress. Then, I decided to drive home.
I pulled out of the parking space and through the lot, past the closed businesses and bank. I made my way to the street, where I immediately saw the patrol cars and they saw me, too. They had obviously been waiting for me, and when I turned onto the street, they followed behind me. My heart dropped and I began to cry again, convinced they had just been waiting to see if I would drive and sure they would now pull me over and give me a ticket. These assholes, I thought. Why didn’t they just give me a ticket 20 minutes ago?! They would’ve rather played mind-games?! Thanks a lot! Not only am I terrible mom who would rather sit alone in a parking lot than be with her family; now I’m also a criminal who will have to get my car towed and show up to court and pay a fine because I’m too irresponsible to ensure that my license remained current. I considered pulling over and simply turning myself in. Perhaps a night in jail would prove to my family exactly how much I did, and how much they needed me, and how grateful they should be.
Instead, I kept driving. I came to a stop sign and turned right, one of the patrol cars turned left. Hey, at least I’m not considered enough of a risk to need back up, I concluded. A quarter mile later, to my astonishment, the other patrol car turned and drove away from me in the opposite direction.
They aren’t pulling me over.
The realization made me cried some more.
I cried out of relief, and I cried because they showed me compassion. I cried for appreciation that they saw I was obviously under stress and didn’t want to add more. I cried because I didn’t know why total strangers could see this, but my own husband couldn’t.
This is the reality of motherhood, and although it’s not every day, and it doesn’t sum up life as a whole– the reality still exists. We are constantly burning the candle at both ends, we’re constantly giving every ounce of energy so our families can have an abundant life. We are constantly putting the needs of others before our own, and sometimes ignoring ourselves altogether. Sometimes, we just need a break, we just need a quiet space to zone out, we just want to be alone for a bit without being made to feel guilty about it. Sometimes, we just need someone to acknowledge our efforts and to show us compassion: if not from our partners, or children, or jobs, we’ll take it from just a stranger.
So to all the parents in this world who are struggling, or feeling guilty, or feeling like you’re failing– you are not alone. To all the parents sitting alone in their cars taking a break before resuming their responsibilities, that is ok: you deserve it, you’re human. And to all the people who show these parents understanding, who realize they’re doing their best, and who choose to treat them compassion, as opposed to judgement, thank you: we promise we’ll go back home soon, we just need a couple more minutes of quiet.
Nikki Bergman is a mama with a mission to keep it real in the #PinterestGoals modern world. With 1 and 9-year-old daughters, a 3-year-old son, and a 3-year-old contracting business, Nikki’s current hobbies include failing to keep her houseplants alive, writing Amazon reviews, and making To-Do lists. While her current social presence is lacking (both literally and online) she can be found on Twitter @MamaNeedsMargs
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