It was a rough day.

I’d been up all night with a new baby and was on day 3 of a migraine. I hadn’t showered and my hair smelled faintly of the garlic chicken dinner we’d made two nights prior. My husband had just returned to work after baby bonding leave, and it was one of the first days I would have to wrangle an infant, 2-year-old, and 4-year-old all alone.

The morning started with a bang – literally – as my toddler shattered a coffee mug and my preschooler spilled milk onto the dog and the floor. The kids fought over who would get the purple plate for breakfast and this ended with tears, a time out, and me admonishing that hitting is NOT acceptable.

The baby was suffering from his first cold à la his big brothers and couldn’t quite figure out how to nurse and breathe at the same time. He cried and bit in frustration, and I responded with yelps and pleas. Meanwhile the older boys unraveled an entire roll of toilet paper throughout the house – in order to “get a tissue for the baby’s nose.”

I took a deep breath and glanced at the clock, praying that afternoon nap time was near.

It was 9am.

I decided to walk to the park. The boys needed to burn off some energy and the fresh air would be good for the baby’s cold. Thus ensued another forty minutes of finding shoes, putting them on the right feet, going potty, dressing an angry baby, and mitigating fights over who would get to bring the McDonald’s Happy Meal toy with them.

Finally – FINALLY – we were out the door. I wore the baby in an infant carrier while pushing the toddler in a stroller. The preschooler was firmly instructed to hold onto the stroller as we lumbered down the alley two blocks to the neighborhood park.

We arrived, shutting the gate behind us, and the boys let loose like released bulls. The baby and I followed them, spotting, watching, and pushing on swings. I chatted with a couple of moms and nannies and not one commented on the spit up all over my shirt. The kids all shared a snack. And it seemed like the day was getting better. I could do this!

Then. A toy stroller was brought into the park. And all hell broke loose as the kids fought over it. Guardians rushed over to intervene and it was then that I noticed my son had wet his pants. We would have to go home and change.

He didn’t want to, and made sure the entire park knew it. He howled as I tried to coax him to the stroller. Dug his heels in as I took his hand. Ultimately forced me to carry him under my arm as he screamed and flailed like a fish out of water.

The commotion woke the baby who also began bawling in the carrier. My third son decided he wasn’t going to sit in the stroller. Another meltdown as I forcibly buckled him in while all three wailed in unison.

The nannies looked at me sympathetically as I struggled with three crying boys. One of them held the gate open for me as I tried to maneuver a toddler dragging his feet beneath a stroller and a preschooler screaming under my arm – with a baby strapped to my chest. My head pounded from the migraine.

I glanced back just in time to catch a mom shaking her head and whispering something to another. My cheeks burned.

We made it out of the park and I stopped a few yards away, out of earshot. I placed my screeching son down and gripped his shoulder while I told him he needed to calm down and walk. He ignored me and bellowed louder. I threatened the loss of privileges. It didn’t work. He refused to walk.

I bent my head down and took a deep breath, tears of frustration pricking my eyes. I struggled to pick him up again and trudged slowly, awkwardly, into the alley. My toddler’s dragging shoes left skid marks on the street. The baby’s sunhat fell over his face. And the sorrowful cries of all three echoed off the walls of houses.

Then of course. OF COURSE. An SUV turned into the alley and headed our way. On a one-way narrow street. I rolled my eyes and cursed under my breath. It took all the strength I had to force the stroller and a fighting preschooler over to the side of the road. I stood there impatiently, willing the SUV to just hurry up and GO BY already.

But it slowed down. You’ve got to be kidding me. Surely the driver saw me struggling. I was standing there on the verge of losing my shit and someone was going to ask me for directions!?

As it got closer, I saw that the driver was a woman. And then suddenly it occurred to me that perhaps she was going to make a comment, a judgment, about my screaming kids. A “friendly” piece of advice about how to make them stop misbehaving. Something to make me feel like more of a failure than I already did. I remembered the mother in the park. The condescending look. The whisper.

A pit in the middle of my stomach grew.

The SUV stopped at my side and the driver rolled down the window. I turned towards her, annoyed, and lifted my eyebrows impatiently.

She smiled at me kindly. “I just wanted to tell you that you’re doing an amazing job, Mom.”

I blinked. Confused. Instinctively looked behind me.

The woman nodded. Warmly. She leaned forward and said it again. I could barely hear her over the howls of my kids.

“You are doing an amazing job. You really are. Hang in there. And know that you’re a wonderful mom.”

The pit in my stomach dissolved. I began to breathe. And I looked up at her and shook my head, wondering how to convey my gratitude.

“Thank you SO much. Thank you.”

She nodded and told me to take care. Even the boys finally took notice as their cries began to peter out. The woman rolled up the window and drove past.

I stood there. Still stunned. And a weight was lifted. I was in awe of this woman, this stranger, who took a moment to change the course of my day. I felt new resolve and new strength. Forgot about the woman in the park. Straightened up. And gathered the kids to continue the walk home.

I doubt this woman even remembers me. That she even gave the encounter a second thought. But for me, it is something I will never forget. The kindness of a stranger that lifted my spirits during an ordinary moment. But a moment when I needed it most.

And for that, I thank her.