The young woman sat bolt upright, her chest supporting the lolling, bald head of the tiny infant wrapped against her chest in layer upon layer of soft, navy fabric. A piece of quiche sat in a to-go box on the café table in front of her. In one hand, she held a fork, and in the other, she held a book open on the table. It was unseasonably dry for August, and a slight breeze made the air almost cool, despite the bright midday sun. Her hair was pulled into a loose ponytail that shimmied over one shoulder, a few wispy pieces escaping with the breeze.
I passed her on the sidewalk as I approached the bistro door, heading to pick up a quick lunch during the break from an all-day conference I was attending in an unfamiliar town. When I first saw her from a distance, she looked too young to be the baby’s mother, but as I got closer, I realized she was older than I’d thought. Still young, though, and definitely younger than I’d been when I had my first baby.
I bought my lunch and went back outside to a sidewalk table a few feet from her. I opened my sandwich, laid my own magazine on my table, and began to read.
But I couldn’t help glancing up at the pair every few seconds. I watched, mesmerized, as the young woman took one careful finger and gently rubbed what must have been a spot of dirt on the baby’s cheek. I felt a keen sense of recognition as she rocked back and forth, almost imperceptibly in that way mothers do, often without even realizing they are moving. And my smile reflected hers as she smiled down at her sleeping baby.
I couldn’t stop looking at her, because as I watched her, I remembered so keenly the first time I ever took a baby to a restaurant on my own as a new mother. Hudson was born in the winter, and also at a time when all I knew of babywearing was the uncomfortable Baby Bjorn, so whenever we went out, she stayed nestled down in the bucket of the infant seat, the top of which was wrapped in a warm fleece pouch. On this particular day, I was breastfeeding and hungry, so I took her to our local Five Guys to satisfy an intense craving for french fries and Coca-Cola.
I remember feeling brave, maybe even a tad heroic, as we struck out in the blustery winter wind. I lugged the heavy infant seat inside the restaurant with me, setting it down on the floor by my feet as I waited in line, instinctively rocking it with my toe to keep Hudson asleep. I grabbed my food and took the car seat over to a table. I set it on a chair beside me, and then realized I didn’t get any ketchup for my fries. I remember feeling frozen for longer than a moment. Could I leave her sitting on the chair while I walked the dozen or so feet back over to the counter to pump some ketchup into little plastic containers? Or did I need to lug the infant seat back over there with me? If I left her sitting there, would someone think I was a careless mother, leaving my daughter to be seized by an opportunistic kidnapper who just happened to be passing through the Five Guys right when my naïve self left my daughter alone at a table in her infant seat?
I left her there and hurried to the ketchup dispenser, glancing back every step to make sure no one was approaching the table. I pumped the ketchup and ran back over to the table and sat down, looking around to see if anyone had noticed.
Needless to say, no one was even looking.
My proximity to the young mother—with her nonchalant ponytail, her unworried air, the cocoon of lightness that seemed to surround her and her baby—gave rise to a deep ache within my core. I recognized it immediately as an all-too-familiar longing for that time in my life when I felt heroic just for taking my newborn out to eat on a cold day. For that time when my biggest fear was not that someone would actually kidnap her but that someone would judge me for leaving her alone for five seconds while I walked ten feet away. For that time when I didn’t know that my baby could—and would—die.
I watched as she finished eating and struggled to bend over to pick up the floppy handles to her tote bag. She couldn’t bend over far enough to grab them without risking her baby’s head flopping backwards, too. She tried a deep bend in her knees, but to no avail. I jumped up and asked if I could help. She smiled sheepishly and thanked me as I handed her the bag. I told her I had been there many times myself.
She said, “Who knew that adding one little person could be so difficult?”
“I know,” I said. “Believe me, I know.”