Tiny T-shirt karma

I wanted my son to ace his pre-preschool interview so I went on a hellish shopping mission in the snow.



Rebecca Land Soodak
September 7, 2000 11:25PM (UTC)

So here's what happened. Here's how I, a perfectly diplomatic woman who many would call kind and polite, found myself on the eve of my son's preschool entrance interview, heart pounding and enraged, in a famous artist's T-shirt store in Nolita, Manhattan's North of Little Italy neighborhood.

First, some background -- you know, the basic information that will get you to see it my way, because after all, when one displays episodic rage at complete strangers, the only antidote is a little understanding from other complete strangers. It's the "Did you see what just happened to me?" cure.

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The day is Tuesday. The place is New York. I am a mother of two boys; one is 3 and a half and the other turned 1 about five minutes ago. The season is midwinter. To many people, midwinter is a superfluous detail, but to other mostly stay-at-home mothers, midwinter is a special kind of hell. I have known some mothers to send out risumis in midwinter in an attempt to escape their children (OK, it was me).

Midwinter, when the wonder and novelty of snow have worn off. Midwinter, when the hats and gloves are no longer adorable. Midwinter, when images of lying down on a sunny public playground blacktop with my dirt-smudged bunnies inspire the kind of longing I used to experience when I saw snapshot images in all-inclusive spa vacation brochures. But I digress.

In addition to it being midwinter, it is also two days before my son goes to an interview for a terrific public nursery school. I have convinced myself that if my son wears a bright, hip, non-Gap T-shirt to this encounter, he will be noticed above and beyond all the other brilliant, cute boys, and thus, presto, he will be accepted into the be-all and end-all of public schools for the gifted.

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There is only one problem with my plan. He has no such T-shirt. The only one that comes close -- a red shirt with a blue Tyrannosaurus rex that we got at the Springfield, Mass., science museum -- we left at my sister-in-law's. So after much thought, I decide to get him a new shirt and thus solidify his future at Harvard.

I decide I will get him a Keith Haring T-shirt. It is hip, it is political, it is downtown and it is bright, bright, bright. So after I change one diaper, insist that my older boy go to the bathroom, pour a juice-water sippy cup, pour milk into a bottle, stick a bippy in my jeans pocket, dress my boys in two sweaters, four shoes (all double-knotted), four gloves and two hats, put on my own shoes and jacket, grab my phone and stick my legacies into a 12-pound double stroller that pulls to the left, we dash on out the door.

Mostly the walk across town is heavenly. We talk about the things we see: a playground, graffiti on buildings, dogs with their masters. It is "coming home time" for many of the people out on the street, and we talk about the bustle and the phrase "rush hour." The air is cold, the sidewalks are still icy from a recent snow and we are together, content and in love.

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This is how we enter the T-shirt store. At first everything is fine. My older boy is excited by the colorful shirts and children's objects. He is exploring. My little guy is less amazed. He is hot from his winter gear and fussy at being inside. He likes the outside air, the frenzy. I start the dance. It's bippy/toy/bottle/shopping/look for my other kid, bippy/toy/bottle/shopping/look for my other kid, bippy/toy/bottle/shopping/look for my other kid, cha-cha-cha. This all takes about 47 seconds and I am starting to sweat. I have made my decision and narrowed it down to nine shirts. From across the store, my 3-year-old explains the various toys to me. "Look Mommy, this pad has three faces on it, and look, this one has four faces, see Mama? One, two, three, four. Four faces, see Mama, four faces. Mommy, Mommy, you're not listening to me."

Meanwhile, as I bring the shirts to the counter, my little one is really crying. I try to eliminate one or two shirts from my stash, when my older boy runs over to me and says, "PEE-PEE!" I judge from the volume and economy of expression that I have about two minutes, maybe less. I ask the woman that I am about to give my credit card to if my son can use their bathroom.

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"No, I'm sorry," I'm told.

"We really can't," I'm told.

"It's against store policy," I'm told.

"We could lose our jobs," I'm told.

With each excuse, with each, "No," I am in disbelief. I start to reason. I say things like, "He's only 3" and "He can't hold it very long." and "Please, can't you just this once?"

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Then one of the women suggests that we "just run on over across the street to the Puck Building, they have a bathroom in there." This casual remark puts me over the edge. Just run on over, just run on over. Doesn't this woman understand that there is no just running on over anywhere when one has one screaming kid, one kid about to pee, a 12-pound stroller, an icy sidewalk and huge snow banks that prevent jaywalking?

As my heart starts to pound, my tone becomes bitchier. I look at both of the salespeople and ask cuttingly, "Do either of you have children?"

Surprised by the question, they both answer, "No."

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"Do me a favor," I hiss. "Someday when you have two kids, remember this moment. Remember how you wouldn't let this kid use the bathroom."

We leave the store sans T-shirts. I am fuming. My littlest guy is thrilled to be out of the store, but also seems to be wondering why happy-go-lucky mommy just lost it with the T-shirt people. My older guy is hopping around and asking where he can make a pee-pee.

I have been pushed over the Mommy edge. I am not angry at my kids; I am just plain angry. Meanwhile, my biggest boy still needs to pee, and as I look up and down the block, I think to myself, We're not going to make it. "You know what, honey? Just pee in the street," I tell him as I glance around to see who is judging me for this uncouth, out-of-control behavior. I put on my "I don't care what anyone thinks" face and the pee-pee moment passes.

My son is relieved. I am left with swirling emotions. I am furious at the store, ashamed of my rage, sweating from the past four minutes and still, after all that, longing for the T-shirts. I call my husband, but he is unavailable because he is "in a meeting." I contemplate divorce as I dial my friend's number. She reels me in.

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"Will purchasing the shirts give you peace of mind on the morning of the interview?" she asks.

"Yes, yes it will, yes." I sigh at being understood.

"Then buy the shirts," she reasons, "and write a letter to the store's manager."

I hang up and walk back into the store with a mission. I will do what it takes to get my kid noticed at the interview, even if it means swallowing my pride and walking into the very store where I have just been so misunderstood, so victimized.

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I go in and ask to speak to the manager. Why didn't this occur to me only minutes ago? A manager is presented to me, and I plead my case. I am far less angry, but still indignant. The individual kindly mumbles something about policy, about zoning, but I don't really care. The Mama Bear in me has retreated. No child is crying, no one has to pee, and I am about to leave with the shirts.

Fast forward two days. It is the morning of the interview and my son picks a new shirt that features a red figure riding on a gray dolphin. I look at this perfect little being and my original anxiety and need for control start to melt as the shirt takes on new meaning. It is no longer merely a hip shirt that will get my son noticed at the interview. Suddenly, the red figure is my son and the dolphin represents some sort of divine connection to the universe. Perhaps he is being taken care of in ways that have nothing to do with me. This idea is a calming one, but it also scares the hell out of me. After all, as Mama Bear, I am wedded to the idea that my son's destiny is in my hands.

We get to the school in time to do all the things that make me feel in control and safe. We are early, but not too early. We have time to check out other people, chat, use the bathroom. I cannot help noticing what all of the children are saying and doing. I wonder if the other parents were surprised to find out that their children were so smart, so "gifted." I wonder if any of the other parents obsessed over what their children would wear.

I decide to only befriend the parents of girls, as they are not competing for any of the other boy spots. And then before we know it, a woman calls all of the children's names and places a gigantic square sticker on the front and back of each kid. This is for administrative purposes, but this administrative purpose has just covered up my son's artsy, downtown, dolphin shirt. I cannot believe it. I see the humor and still I cannot believe it -- it is one more reminder that, as with so many things in motherhood, I am all-powerful and utterly helpless at the same time.

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Rebecca Land Soodak

Rebecca Land Soodak is a psychotherapist in private practice. She also supervises graduate students in family therapy at New York University Hospital.

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