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Dina L. Relles Headshot

The Judgment-Free Zone

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It's finally nice outside. I couldn't resist. It was an evening last week when I had no dinner plan, so when the older boys clamored for a bike ride to the local playground, I was all too happy to concede. I quickly slapped some cream cheese on whole wheat bread, grabbed a bag of baby carrots, three cheese sticks, and a container of blueberries. Dinner of champions.

We were off. The older boys raced the two blocks -- the 4-year-old on his two-wheeler, the three-year-old keeping pace on his balance bike. I trailed behind, pushing the baby in the stroller, trying my best to keep up.

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We arrived just as the sun was starting to sink. The boys dispersed -- even the baby took off toddling, showcasing his newfound skills. The ice cream truck paid a joyously ill-timed visit, and I treated the big boys to disgustingly drippy popsicles they managed to only half-eat before sacrificing the rest to their puddly fate. So much for carrots and blueberries.

We ran and jumped and climbed and swung. By the end of the visit, I had rocks in my pockets and no clue how they got there.

It was glorious.

It's the only playground in the neighborhood that's completely fenced in, with a single exit point. The only place I dare go with my three on my own. Still, it's a gamble.

At one point, I was helping my middle son salvage his popsicle when out of the corner of my eye, I saw the baby perched at the top of the tallest slide, poised to head straight down. Even for this hands-off mama, that wasn't quite kosher. I ran over and just barely made it to his side before go time.

There were several near misses that night. Some close calls. I was spotting the baby as he climbed up the equipment "designed for 5-12 year olds" when another mom approached.

She was familiar. Until then, we'd done our best sideways glance dance. Years ago, we sat next to each other during my first visit to the local breastfeeding discussion group I would come to frequent with each of my babies. At the time, my firstborn was only 11 days old. Her daughter wasn't much older. We became moms together. Since then, aside from the occasional playground run-in or sidewalk passing, we hadn't had much contact. We were acquaintances at best.

As she neared, I could tell she was about to say something. I mentally prepared myself. Here it comes. The judgment. Some snide, passive-aggressive remark about how I'm lucky the baby hasn't cracked his head open yet.

Instead, she simply gestured at her (only) daughter and offered,

I'm tired with just her; I don't know how you do it.

I was touched.

I don't know how YOU do it, I reply. I often wonder how moms of one have the energy to be their child's sole playmate day in and day out. At least I can step back and let the kids entertain each other.

She went on to praise how I jet back and forth among the kids, keeping them all safe.

It's all hard, I say. Whether you have one or three. All of it.

As she ran off after her daughter, she called back, You're doing a great job. So is she.

You never know what's going on with someone. You don't know that my husband is working nights. You don't know how desperately we all craved fresh air after the winter we've had. Or that sometimes it feels as though I'm barely hanging on by a thread...

Or, more likely, you totally know. Because if you just take a moment, you can put yourself in my shoes. We're all mothers, and we can do that for each other. At least that. We can relate.

We can exchange knowing glances as we chase after our toddlers; we can share cheese crackers and half-conversations while we push our youngest on the swings; we can keep an eye on each other's kids while we take one to the bathroom; we can run after one another when a kid leaves behind a lovey or prized possession; we can cut each other some slack as we witness the massive meltdown at the base of the slide; we can swap hurried phrases of empathy and encouragement...

We can remind each other that we're doing the best we can. And that it's more than enough.

It's all hard. Thank goodness we have each other. And our judgment-free zones.

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This post originally appeared on Dina's blog, Coffee, Kids, and Common Things.