I don’t know what caught my attention first – the arms and legs flailing, the yelling and screaming, or the hushed voice begging, “Please don’t do this!” I watched the situation for about three seconds before telling my two kids to stay put, that I would be right back.

Crossing the toddler gym I maneuvered around the large multicolored mats and beams. I dodged a kid on a trampoline wildly enjoying open gym time and passed the tot-sized rock wall keeping my eyes on the woman in the hall. 

Her son looked to be a long, gangly five-year-old. He hit her on the arm three times before I made it over. “I’m not leaving!” he screamed. “You can’t make me!”

Other moms walked by trying not to look, trying not to judge. Attempting, I’m sure, not to embarrass this already very embarrassed mom even more as her son visibly ignored her directions to stop hitting and to leave the gym. Directions turned into pleas, turned into promises, turned into begging.

I knew exactly how she felt. I’ve been that mom many times, leaving a place full of happy kids with my head low and cheeks aflame with embarrassment while my son thrashed at me. My son has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and sensory integration disorder. I didn’t know if this other little boy had a similar diagnosis, but I knew for sure that he was not being naughty or rude on purpose. He had become overwhelmed and fully overloaded and he was crawling out of his own skin.

When I got to them I saw that the mom held a little girl in one arm and worked to gently persuade her son to  follow her out with the other arm. Her face looked utterly desperate. Everyone could hear and see the struggle. Everyone made a deliberate effort not to pay attention.

“Can I help you?” I interrupted with as much compassion as I could muster. “I’m happy to hold your daughter if you want.”

The look on her face screamed relief mixed with pain, embarrassment, and fatigue as she immediately handed over her daughter to me. She scooped up her son and I followed her out to her car, peeking in through the window at my kids as we went.

I thought it would be a quick deal but as soon as we got outside the boy bolted. And he ran fast. He started running over the grassy hill towards the busy highway. The mom chased after him while I watched, panicking, her small daughter still in my arms. She caught him and I took a deep breath.

I stood by the building so I could watch my own kids through the window while I sang nursery rhymes to the little girl knowing there was little else to do to help. When your child is distraught and out of control the worst thing is a stranger or another person coming up and talking to them thinking they can do a better job. She did the best job.

For the next 20 minutes this mom showed a level of patience that I have never before seen. Her son circled the car refusing to get in, swearing at her, telling her he hated her. She followed him at times, stood aside at times, tried to gently move him in the car at times, but all of the time she spoke to him with love and compassion.

She never yelled, never scolded, never threatened. She didn’t blame him or accuse him, or try to manhandle him. When he was combative she moved with him and toward him. Every ounce of her body worked to calm and contain him. She did not look calm. I know that she did not feel calm at all. I could see that she teetered on the edge of completely losing it – a place I’ve been many times when you think all hope is lost and your kid is never going to snap out of it and you are either going to start screaming like a madwoman spinning in circles pulling out your own hair, or melt into a puddle sobbing because your body has not a single shred of energy or muscle left to hold you up any longer. But her voice radiated calm.

Noticing that the boy slowed down and his energy waned I tried  to offer words of support to the mom, asking if I could do anything else to help. But she was so engaged in her son’s struggle and so connected to him that she barely heard me. At some point one of the gymnastics staff members brought my kids outside. I’m sure she intended to scold me for leaving and tell me to come back in and parent my children. But instead she looked at the other mom, looked at the boy, and then at me.

“I’m helping this other mommy right now, are you guys okay?” I asked. They said yeah, Miss Sara just wondered where I was. I asked Miss Sara if it was okay if I finished up with the other mom and would be right in. She scurried my kids back into the building without a word.

“Your kids!” the other mom said suddenly as I turned around, still holding her daughter in my arms. “I’m so sorry! You have your kids in there!” she looked flustered and embarrassed again, as she had been so wrapped up in her plight that she had possibly forgotten we were even standing there. “You’re doing an amazing job,” I said. “My kids are just fine.” She started to cry.

Her son had worn himself out and worked through to the end of his anger. After she got him in the car, then buckled her daughter in, I gave her a giant hug. “That was the most amazing thing I have ever seen,” I told her. “You are amazing.”

We cried together as she told me they had just started seeing a therapist and she thinks something might be wrong. I knew she needed to explain, to defend. Many times I’ve done the same for my son when I think someone doesn’t understand.

“I’ve been there,” I told her, and I offered her my number. “I am so sorry you had to go through that today. You are an incredible mom. The way you talked to him was beautiful. You did such a good job.” She wiped her tears and looked completely spent with worry and exhaustion. “He will be fine,” I reassured her, playing back in my mind her love and attention and patience for her son, and thinking about my own who himself has come so far. “He will be just fine.”