We Are Less Alone Than We Believe

It was our final day of Disneyland, and I was feeling like a world champion. I had planned and paid for this trip, arranged for pet care with my standard multiple pages of instructions, packed for every possible mother-son contingency, spent a full day traveling in which I served as human snack vending machine and then, for three endless days, schlepped through every crawling line and ridden every dizzying ride that appealed to my small son. In blinding crowds and sweltering heat, I never let go of my child’s hand, never took my eyes off of his little curly head in one of the most elaborate human inventions of happiness on earth.

We were seated at IHOP anticipating our final breakfast as we strategized about which of our four syrup choices we’d use when the pancakes arrived. With several groups of 20+ people seated around us at enormous tables, service was slowed to a crawl. As Teddy practiced varying strengths of high-fives on my outstretched hand, I studied the table closest to us. Two sets of parents, a swarm of siblings, maybe cousins, and three grandparents. Such a different kind of experience than my little family of two was having. Their happy clamor brought me back to the multi-generational celebrations of my own childhood.

Our pancakes arrived, and we settled into the serious work of dividing Teddy’s into quadrants so that he could execute his four-syrup strategy. When the waiter checked in on us, I asked for the bill.

“There is no bill today,” was his reply.

“What do you mean there is no bill?”

“It’s already been paid.” As the waiter beamed at me, he pointed over his shoulder to the large man at the head of the large family’s table.

Tears welled up in my eyes.

“Happy tears,” I reassured my son.

We crossed the aisle to thank the family. I was trying so hard not to bawl, I don’t know what I said, exactly.

“You look like you’re having such a good time together,” said the man. “We wanted to make sure you have a really special day.”

Traveling alone with my son, despite the fact that he is absolutely delightful, underscores for me a deep parental loneliness. The pleasures and labors of parenting unshared can be a kind of echo chamber.

Being held for a moment in our joy, something in me let down. Teddy and I went to the bathroom together and while he peed, I cried and cried.

That kind and generous family gave me a far more powerful gift than pancakes. They reminded me that we are never as alone as we think we are. Our joy and our loneliness are a part of the great chorus of pancakes and strangers. Everywhere we go, people are waiting to welcome us. The trick is to learn how to let them.

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Have you had parenting experiences like this—where the generosity of strangers stretched your heart and made you feel a little less alone?

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10 Comments on “We Are Less Alone Than We Believe”

  1. Thank you. Sometimes I forget to let myself cry, but I allowed myself a little catharsis, here. I’m a fellow traveller on this path. Good to have company and Love.

  2. I do a lot of traveling alone with my children, these days most typically with just the younger of the two, my eight-year-old son. I don’t remember anyone buying me pancakes but when we set up the chess set at little rural cafés in North Dakota and dally over a game, we often get friendly greetings from others around. It is as you describe it here. On one hand it’s sad because it’s never the whole family; my wife can’t relax into the kind of unhurried, rambling trips my son and I like to take, and my daughter, soon to be a teenager, dislikes car trips now. At the same time, it is wonderful how our attention to each other and the fun we have draws others toward us. We meet the most wonderful people on our adventures. It reminds me that the world is a friendlier place than I typically think.

    Thanks for sharing this story.

    1. Yes, WM, two people delighting in each can be quite magnetic. I’m delighted to hear your friendly world story. And delighted that you get to spend such special time with your son.

    1. Kate, Just reading the words “Company in the echo chamber” got me choked up all over again. There’s nothing like it, is there? Thank you. xo

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