Monsters start to take center stage once children reach the preschool and elementary age. Never mind that they’re imaginary; how on earth can we expect children to comprehend that the monsters they see in their favorite shows are simply pretend?

But I’ve learned that monsters can freak parents out too.

Let me backtrack.

My weekend started off rough. I’d stayed up later than I’d hoped on Friday night and didn’t sleep well. I don’t like staying up late. I’ve never been a night owl, and in an ideal world I’d rack up about 12 hours of sleep per day.

My husband had to go into work at 7 a.m. that day. A textbook insomniac, I was awake half the night waiting for my alarm to ring (though, of course, these days, my body jerks awake long before the alarm goes off).

I was solo with the kids on a cold Saturday morning feeling tired, lonely, and a little depressed.I decided that even though it’s challenging with two young kids, getting out of the house might help ease the pain. It was too cold for the park. So, being the typical American mom that I am, we made a beeline for Target!

Like all parents everywhere, I’m always in need of groceries. The plan was to head to the store once it opened, or after breakfast, bickering, and fighting over shows. The kids simply wanted to get out of the house, and they missed having their dad around on a weekend morning.

We eventually arrived at our ever-so-familiar destination. My 3 year-old considers herself grown-up enough to walk, instead of riding in a cart. The days of buckling the baby in and walking at my natural (albeit frenetic) pace are long gone.

My kids were hanging on a side of the cart, and that was fine with me. They were “helping” and adding things to our cart. They were loud, yes, but we weren’t in church, or the library, or a movie theater. We were in Target. Is it so awful that they were laughing and singing, enjoying themselves and feeling happy? I didn’t think so.

My spunky little 3 year-old has a way of bringing out the silly side of my serious son. She can make him belly laugh and this is one of my great joys in life. She was thoroughly enjoying cracking him up as she made up songs about food and poop (of course).

All in all, it’d been a pretty standard Target run. But the checkout is the hardest part. Evil powers-that-be place shelves of colorful, sugary candy directly in front of little faces. Right where you’re held hostage by needing to pay and tiny hands can grab everything within reach. The lines are long on Saturday, so there was waiting to endure. The kids were starting to lose any ounce of self-control they still had.

After I paid, my two little ones ran ahead of my cart towards the door. They know to stop before leaving a building without me, so I wasn’t concerned, but I quickened my pace to catch up, sighing at the ridiculousness of it all.

A lady walked by. I didn’t see her face, but I heard her loudly say to no one in particular, “Yikes! Monsters!” She was talking about my kids. Not in a cute way. In a judge-y, callous, careless way.

I was completely deflated. I felt proud of myself for our successful trip to Target on a busy Saturday with both kids. Her comment instantly took the wind out of my sails.

Yes, I know I shouldn’t care what other people say about my kids – especially people we don’t even know, and will likely never see again. However, already feeling down and sleep-deprived, her criticism sunk right in.

By the time I got the kids in the car, I no longer felt proud of myself. I felt lousy.

Before I knew it, I was lecturing my children about stranger danger and the importance of not running away in public. Their sweet faces turned serious, and my contemplative son staring out the window. I could see his wheels turning. He had never heard the term kidnapper before.

Was this really the right time to have that conversation? No. But the stranger’s comment made me question my parenting skills: Maybe I’m not strict enough! Am I really raising little monsters? Is everyone else a better mother than I am?

Am I failing. I am failing.

It took me all day to finally shake some of the shame I felt up when the woman at Target spoke her mean and critical words about my family. It took me all day to re-establish what I know, and sometimes forget: I don’t have to take the random and unsolicited comments of strangers to heart. I needed time, I need to calm down, I needed to remember that I’m ok. 

Monsters are scary. They’re in our stories and fairy tales. And, sadly, they’re in our lives. People who mean children harm can be considered monsters. But words from a mean stranger can feel also feel like a monster on the attack. And so can the way we accept or reject those words.