To the Young Mom in the Grocery Store Checkout Line,
I see you with your cart and your cute baby sitting in the front who is looking at my 2 year old in my cart behind you.
It’s 8:30pm on a Monday evening in a small town, and for some reason all of the grocery store’s self check-out stands are shut down and there is only one line open with a checker and you are at the front of it.
There is a long line of impatient people behind you waiting to check out. I can hear the woman behind me let out a loud obvious over-exaggerated sigh to inform you and the checker that she is not happy, and I can hear the people behind her grumble at how long it is taking.
I can also see that you are using food stamps and WIC checks to buy your food, and the checker is meticulously going through each item in your cart in a loud and somewhat condescending way.
“Is this whole grain? It has to be whole grain. It says here that you are only allowed to get whole grain.” He loudly says to a nearby employee, “I need you to verify a product please.”
I see you answering questions calmly, but I can tell you feel embarrassed, and I just want to give you a hug and tell you that “It’s going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.”
In 2008 during America’s economic crisis when many people lost their jobs, my husband was one of those. He had a master’s degree in real estate development, and at the height of the housing bubble crash, he was in a market that could not sustain employees.
At the time we had a 5 month old baby (our first), and I was teaching piano and violin lessons while my husband was searching for a new job. I had released my first album the year before, but my music career was not really a career then…it was a hobby that I worked on while our baby slept and when I wasn’t teaching.
We didn’t have much debt other than student loans, but we had rent to pay, doctor appointments, and food to put on the table. We found that we qualified for Washington state food stamps and WIC (Women Infant Children), which is a program to ensure that mothers and babies can be provided with healthy food and care while under financial stress.
Being in the WIC program meant showing up for mandatory appointments with a nutritionist who would weigh both myself and baby, ask health and nutritional questions, and baby would get a checkup to check all signs of healthy growth. Then we were discharged with “WIC Checks”, which were checks that we could take to any grocery store and get the food items listed without any cost to us. These checks were only for certain food items such as milk, baby cereal, baby pureed food, cheese, whole grains, peanut butter, and some fruits and vegetables.
(Example WIC check)
Even though I was so grateful to have help from the government with our grocery bill, I soon learned that going through a checkout line with WIC checks was no small feat.
I quickly learned that as soon as I stepped in a grocery line and the checker saw me pull out WIC checks, most times I was met with eye rolls, sighs, or “You’re going to have to go to a different aisle.”
Not only had I spent twice as long shopping in the store trying to make sure that my allotted jar of baby food was exactly 4 oz and not 6 oz, and that it was pureed vegetables and not pureed meat, and that my bread was whole grain and not whole wheat white, and that every item in my cart was spot-on with what was written on my WIC check WHILE also trying to entertain a 5 month old baby, but I also then had to go through checkout.
I remember one time being particularly humiliating because I had chosen organic kale, instead of non-organic kale.
“You can’t have this.” the cranky checkout lady told me. “You’re not allowed to buy organic.”
No where on the WIC check did it specify organic or non-organic.
“Well, you are actually out of non-organic kale, and so organic is the only kind you have left.” I answered her.
“I’m going to need a manager on aisle 3, please. Manager on aisle 3.” She called out over the speakers.
Apparently buying organic was only a luxury afforded to the rich, or employed.
The line of people behind me were growing restless, my baby was starting to fuss. I turned to the man behind me and apologized, he just looked unhappy in general. Many were taking their carts and going to another line.
I remember how embarrassed I felt not only because people were waiting an extra long time in line behind me, but now the entire store was informed that I was on food stamps and WIC, and apparently some people felt like people like me were entitled because we don’t have to pay for a portion of our food.
I left the store with tears in my eyes that day.
There was one time though, toward the end of our year-long unemployment, when I got into a grocery line and was already dreading the experience and ready to start apologizing to everyone in advance – when the checker looked at me very compassionately and said, “Isn’t it great that the government does this WIC program? I think it’s fabulous and I’m so glad that young moms like you are getting healthy food for you and your baby.”
She was so patient, she didn’t make a scene, and I got through checkout relatively fast. She really made my year and I haven’t forgotten her.
My husband eventually found a job after the housing crash as a manager with Microsoft in their real estate division. He worked there for over 4 years, but eventually quit his job to help me at home with our children so we could concentrate fully on my music career. Because, well, my “music hobby” had grown into what is now a career that pays for our mortgage and puts food on our table.
But I see you, young mom. I see you trying to remain unscathed by the obnoxious checkout man, and I see you aware of all of us in line behind you.
I want you to know that you are going to be okay. This won’t last forever. It is just a temporary place to get you on your feet, and you are going to be okay.
But until then, I’m going to entertain my baby in my cart to distract the ones behind me, and put on the happiest attitude to show everyone in line that we aren’t affected by how long it’s taking, we aren’t staring at your WIC checks or thinking about your food stamps. I will shield you for a bit until you are done checking out. And you know what….the woman behind me, despite her resistance, finally let out a chuckle at my little redhead and his giggles…
May we all shield each other a bit from the rains of the world, and remember a little kindness goes a long way. A little kindness might be just what someone needs, you never know.