10/08/2014 01:54 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2014

The Moment That Made Me a More Compassionate Mother

Amy Heinz

The other day, I was walking through the grocery store parking lot with all three of my kids. Because I was distracted by the usual chaos of reminding everyone to hold hands, look for cars and get their fingers out of their noses, I was surprised to hear a voice behind me.

"That was me, 30 years ago."

I looked back to see a woman with a smile in her eyes. She seemed to be traveling through time in her mind, seeing herself in me. She didn't offer stories, words of wisdom or even an empathetic facial expression. Instead, she was gone as quickly as she arrived. The simplicity of our interaction got me thinking. Not about how I should really cherish each moment -- or any other lesson most older moms like to impart -- but about what it would look like to quietly observe myself 30 years ago. Without judgment, comment or counsel.

And right there beside me, I had the answer. Three decades ago, I was in my oldest son's shoes. (Well, a smaller(?), prettier version of his shoes, at least.)

30 years ago...

My heart swelled with each smile, kind word and tender touch my parents sent my way. Just as my stomach dropped with each disappointed glance, harsh response and simple reprimand.

I ached to fit in with each thread on my body, word out of my mouth and birthday party invitation in my mailbox (or not in my mailbox, for that matter).

Blue ribbons decorated my walls, defining what I assumed was my purpose and my future. My desire to win -- to be the best -- fueled my every dive, kick and pull.

While I walked a straight line, too afraid to fall from my parents', teachers' or God's grace, I couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to simply tiptoe a bit off to the sides.

Being a big sister meant responsibility I didn't want, messes I didn't make and parents who were needed elsewhere sometimes. That is, when it didn't mean having someone to do my dirty work so I could keep my hands clean (and my "good kid" badge of honor).

As my grin grew into jagged, awkward angles, smiling lost a bit of its ease. The whole being the big kid thing was equally exhilarating, unnerving, and clumsy.

Some of my favorite "kids" to play with smelled like a pastry shop and lived in a strawberry mansion. Mostly because they did whatever I told them to, and they never, ever called me "bossy" or "boring."

I threw pennies in the air as I danced, not having a clue what a material girl or a virgin was, but knowing that I absolutely wanted to be both if it meant I could wear lace, fingerless gloves for just two glorious minutes.

My storytelling soul was stirring, so the lines between fact and fiction blurred as I recounted tales for my friends.

It didn't matter what my parents were talking about, it was the most interesting conversation in the world. Especially if I wasn't supposed to be listening to it.

The gentle scratch of my mom's nails on my back at the end of the day was better than any magic I read about in school library books.

Yes, since that chance parking lot encounter, my thinking has shifted. I'm worrying a bit less about being the perfect mother I think I should be now, and worrying a lot more about seeing the girl I know I was thirty years ago when I look at my son.

I'm trying to take a step back to remind myself of the child who wanted so desperately to be loved, to be cherished, and, goodness knows, to be right. (And I was -- all of those things, of course). I'm trying to remind myself that I thought every word out of my parents' mouths was gold. And I'm trying to be the kinder, gentler mother I know I can be. Because you see, I like to think that my son is pretty spectacular already, and I want him to walk through life knowing that he's exactly the kid that I hoped I would have -- all those years ago, and most definitely today.

A version of this post originally appeared on Using Our Words.

Amy Heinz is a San Francisco Bay Area mom of three and the writer behind Using Our Words--a parenting blog filled with lessons she's learned (usually the hard way), laughs she's enjoyed (mostly at her own expense), and tears she's shed (this mama's got heart). You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.