I’d never done it before. In fact, I had no intentions of ever doing it. And before I tell the story, let me disclaim it all with this photo,
Chicago. January. It feels like such a long, long time since this,
And at age 6 and 3, my kids desperately need this. They need to run and play and get fresh air. And in the Midwest in the winter, that is hard to come by.
And so the story goes. After a busy morning I decided to treat the kids to Chic-fil-A for lunch. We have one now. I’ve never been inside. I’ve heard nice things from my friends who live in states like Virginia and Kentucky. So we drove up and the girls spotted an indoor play-area in the restaurant.
“Please Mommy, can we go in there, please?” they begged.
Call it crazy, and I know it is. But I’ve never let them go to one of those play areas at a restaurant. It just never became a part of the rhythm of my days with young kids. They go to the gym childcare playscape and other places, but I’m always sanitizing and triple sanitizing after. (I know, I’m annoying even myself while typing this.)
In a bit of my defense, my oldest child has food allergies so we haven’t spent a ton of time in restaurants at all. But especially ones involving young kids and food and play areas because they would have been so dangerous and so off limits that we never even tried.
The closest thing we ever did was to attend a stressful birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. At the time I was appalled to see a woman with her head down on the table sleeping, while her kids popped coins into an arcade game.
I admit, I totally judged. I judged and then vowed to never return. And to this day have never returned, to Chuck E. Cheese, or any other play area in a restaurant.
So today, sitting in the Chic-fil-A parking lot I made a snap decision and turned around and said “yes!” to the delighted girls in the back seat. Without their brother’s allergies to worry about and no upcoming vacations to be spoiled by a stomach bug, I took one look at the gray outdoors and surrendered to their plea.
They squealed with delight, hopped out of their carseats and zipped their coats in record time. “Thank you, thank you, Mommy!” they gushed and I felt good throwing judgement and caution to the wind. Really good. After all, this was the right thing to do. I don’t want my kids growing up overly sheltered or in a bubble. Yes! We’d go into the Chic-fil-A, have a nice fried lunch and then play. It was all so very “everyman” of us.
As we arrived in the sparkling clean restaurant, my mind was eased. This wasn’t Chuck E. Cheese, this was fresh and nice and bright.
I chatted with the cashier about how the whole process worked and she laughed at my naivety. I said, “I’m sorry, we’ve never done this.”
“Done what?” she asked.
“This,” I replied, “eaten inside and…..played!” I mouthed the word as if describing a mythical occurrence….a flying pig, or a rainbow-tailed unicorn. “plaaaayed” I repeated.
“Oh”, she said and laughed.
I noticed that they had caffeinated Diet Coke and joked with the cashier about caffeine-free Diet Coke. I quipped, “What is the point of drinking all those chemicals if you aren’t going to at least get the benefit of the caffeine?”
Ha – ha, ho- ho. She politely smiled at me. Oh my sweet Lord above, I saw the expression flash across her face. The cashier at Chic-fil-A pitied me.
So as the girls shed their coats and hats into my arms and when the tray was too much for me to carry along with their gear, the cashier beckoned her co-worker to help me. A friendly person emerged from behind the counter to carry the tray. As the girls raced off towards a seat by the play area, I kind of breathlessly muttered to this kind person carrying my tray “Gosh, this is sooo nice!“.
I literally said that…in a Chic-fil-A. Holy moly, desperado!! Perhaps it was the funny polka-dotted cows on the walls, the promise of a Diet Coke or the Southern hospitality, but I had truly and literally fallen under the spell of Chic-fil-A and was downright giddy.
The light seemed to glow brighter and warmer inside that restaurant. Just like a welcome oasis from the gray, snowy skies outside. My girls were mannered and eager to please. Bribed with not being able to play until they finished their meal, my daughters ate their nuggets without complaint and their fruit squeeze too! I could almost hear the birds chirping in the background.
When it was time to play they raced into the romper room and I sat back, refilled my caffeine source and pulled out my phone. I thought to myself, “this isn’t so bad. Maybe I should have been doing this all along. It turns out that I am the fool!”
My oldest daughter scampered out to tell me that she had made a new friend. “Great!” I thought justifying the experience, “that’s exactly why this is so wonderful. We’re expanding our horizons and getting out of our bubble and our community”. Ok, so it wasn’t exactly a see-the-world experience, but thanks to Chic-fil-A our world wasn’t feeling so small suddenly.
This was just swell. In fact, any memory I had of any sort of disagreement with the social political beliefs of the restaurant’s president was all starting to slip far, far away. Now I understood why friends of mine in other states hosted fundraisers here, and posted photos of the Chic-fil-A Daddy/Daughter Nights and other community events on their Facebook pages.
I scanned that Facebook newsfeed and thought about how those friends of mine in Southern states would laugh at how novel I thought this trip to Chic-fil-A was. How they’d been doing this for years with their young kids.
I opened email and was even feeling rejuvenated enough to respond to a friend with a witty (…and frankly I thought pretty funny and smart) comparison of the movie Gravity to the TV show The Bachelor when the romper room door opened just long enough for me to recognize a child’s wail.
“Sounds like its getting crazy in there. Poor kid,” I thought to myself, before the acknowledgement set in, “oh sh*t, that’s my kid!”
I hurried in and heard her before I saw her. Less than five minutes in and she was lost in the primary colored tubes above my head and screaming. I had to talk her down. Before I could see her, my six year old was dramatically telling me, “I didn’t do it! I don’t know what happened.”
I snapped at her, “Lucy, you were supposed to be watching her!”. Isn’t it always the wrong thing that comes out of our mouths first? Both as a kid and as a parent. I felt the eyes of every other parent and babysitter in the restaurant on me.
She replied, “I know, but I made a friend instead!”
I sighed and started trying to coax my sobbing 3-year-old down the tubes all while thinking to myself, “I am not going to climb up in this thing! Oh come on. The germs! I don’t have time to be sick,”
Eventually I found my little Vivi red faced, hair going in every direction and her shirt half off her body, with one arm hanging out. I grabbed her, hugged her and took her back to the restaurant. Half-naked. No shirt, no shoes, no service. Whatever. Her shirt was half on.
The other parents asked me if everything was ok and I scolded myself mentally for getting ourselves into this predicament. One minute everything was going so nicely, the next it was all ab-so-f*ck-ing-lute-ly falling the apart. Crud!
As Vivi calmed down she explained that her older sister stepped on her shirt and pulled it off then went back in to play. It wasn’t any other child who had derobed my child, it was my own!
I gathered my things and told the girls we had five more minutes. Then they collapsed to the ground as I pulled on their snowpants and boots and sweated and cursed inside my head. And with that, my brief escape was abruptly ended as we sloshed our way back through the gray parking lot and to our car.
As I scolded them to stay close and hold hands, I saw the girls sneak a peak back over their shoulders at the bright restaurant with its colorful tubes and play area.
We may go back to a restaurant playscape….and we may not. (And it’s quite likely that in those five minutes of escape we caught a germ or two that will wreak havoc on our household for an entire week. But I’m trying, really trying, not to go there.)
Instead I’m acknowledging that in those five minutes I realized that it doesn’t matter if it’s a Chuck E Cheese or a Chic-fil-A. I stand corrected. I’m no different than the mom resting her head on the table. I scanned my phone while my children climbed in and out of tunnels and clobbered each other because they needed to burn off some energy…and I needed to refuel. This job is exhausting anytime, but especially on cold winter days, and we’re all just doing whatever we can to keep on moving.