08/14/2014 11:19 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Stranger Saw What I Couldn't

I like to have a good plan. I like everything all worked out. Of course, it isn't always, but I like it better when things are. So when we realized that my wife and I both had meetings on the same night that wouldn't overlap but would come really close AND that the near overlap would happen at dinnertime, I decided to hang out with my 5-year-old near my wife's meeting and then hand her off before mine, just as my wife's ended. It was one of those moments in scheduling that feels like a really good idea, but you can't hold onto it too tight because the potential for the whole thing falling apart is too great.

My daughter and I chose to spend our almost-hour together going out for burritos. Because dinnertime. With a quick reminder that the restaurant was busy and she needed to be sure to "turn your ears on," we were in the door. She was out of my sight within minutes, helping herself to a cup of water, so I ordered our dinner to go so we'd have a bag in case we needed a quick escape.


We sat down at the window. We waited for our number to be called. Then we waited some more for our burritos to cool off enough to eat. We played The Restaurant Game. It's our new favorite. We usually order milk and water and while she closes her eyes, I put the straw in her mouth and she takes a sip to "guess" which one she is drinking. She thinks it's hilarious. The burrito place serves blue and yellow tortilla chips. Perfect for The Restaurant Game. Blue and yellow tortilla chips taste the same so it's extra hilarious when I get my guess wrong.

We chatted. We played. We ate dinner. And chatted some more. I didn't look at my phone. She listened and didn't argue with me. It was really close to being perfect.

After dinner, the woman next to us turned to me and said, "I'm sorry. I don't mean to eavesdrop here. But I just have to say that I really love how you and your daughter are interacting. I enjoyed listening to you talk to each other. You're doing a great job."

Or something like that. I can't really remember because I had one of those moments when you sort of can't hear anything being said because you can't believe it's actually happening. Did someone sitting near us at a restaurant actually tell us that we were doing a good job? She wasn't trying to correct me? Or tell my kid to quiet down? Or judge my parenting in some way?

How does a parent respond to such encouragement? Has this ever happened to any parent ever?

The woman in the restaurant was right. We were having a good moment. She caught it. And she made sure I saw it. Because she knows that those hard moments are just so hard.

I know that too.

The woman in the restaurant didn't see me arguing with my daughter for an hour that morning. She didn't hear the shouting. The disrespect. She wasn't there when my kid tried to hit the cat and I lost my temper. She didn't hear me ask her to go in her room to count to 50 to try to calm down. She didn't hear her crying because she was so frustrated with the morning that she forgot how to count and couldn't believe that could happen to her little tiny out-of-control self.

Sitting there at a lovely dinner, I hadn't forgotten that morning. I knew how the day had started and the very careful balance this parenting act can be. The volume of our dinner was a lot lower than that of our morning. The volume of lovely is like that, isn't it? It's quieter. Smaller. Those hard moments are always so loud. So easy to remember. So easy to hold onto.

Sometimes it takes a stranger at a restaurant to turn the volume up on the lovely a bit.

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