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It is my first time in a WIC office, second time in a public health office at all. I am feeling a little superior here, I must admit. I have grown accustomed to the diaper bag again, after an 8 year break from carrying around half my belongings everywhere I go. I have three other children who have, thus far, turned out pretty great if I do say so myself. I have a degree in Psychology, emphasis in Child Psychology. I have spent years reading the labels on everything my family eats, cooking most things from scratch, planning menus and sharing meal planning ideas. I could, if I chose, teach any of the classes offered here. That’s my attitude as I sit down at the desk to get the boys’ WIC temporarily switched over into our name.
I set Toddler on my lap and eye the waiting room critically as the person behind the desk takes information, examines guardianship papers. I vow to avoid letting these two babies touch any of the toys in the corner, which are clearly seething with a variety of viral filth sure to bring on any number of illnesses within a week of even the slightest contact. Toddler babbles and points. Baby squirms on my lap. The paperwork takes twice as long as it should, the employee on the other side of the desk is the only person working this area of the office and must answer phones and direct people who are coming in, while she is entering our information. She answers the fourth phone call, speaks in fluent Spanish. As I shift the squirming Baby on my lap, I wonder…not for the first time…why I took French in College.
Thirty minutes later, the office has filled up. There is a general chaotic noise around us that makes it difficult to hear, our answers and questions are vaulted over the desk in tones only slightly softer than a shout. There must be 50 children under the age of five here, I marvel. Or maybe it only seems that way. More keep coming in through the door, most of their parents must stop to ask the woman behind the desk what to do. My patience is wearing thin, I feel a claustrophobic panic start to rise in my chest. Toddler has exhausted every brightly colored plastic item in my arsenal of diaper bag boredom-busters. Baby has chewed on my keys, my smartphone, my arm, and his brother. Both are fussing, squirming, and in constant need of re-direction. I am sweating in my tee-shirt and hoodie, wrestling with a combined 57 pounds of baby boyflesh while trying to keep all our belongings from being spread throughout the office and continuing to answer questions…many of which seem increasingly arbitrary considering the mounting stress of the current situation. I stare hard at the plastic, germ-infested baby-nirvana calling to the boys from across the room. Thirty-five minutes have passed before my resolve breaks and I send them toddling off to contract three weeks worth of booger-noses and sleepless nights, playing with the waiting room toys.
As the woman behind the desk is explaining to me that I now need to watch an orientation video (with two squirming children on my lap in a room where the decibel level is only slightly lower than a runway at the airport?), the room becomes strangely silent for a moment. Then, filling the silence, a woman shouts in a shrill voice: “You can’t do that! That’s abuse!” I turn and see a young woman with a little boy, perhaps three years old, her hand clamped around his shoulder. Another woman stands and points accusingly at her. “Did anyone else see that? Did you see her drag her child across the room by the ear?!?” Murmurs begin to float across the room, and the woman with the boy shouts right back. “None of your damn business, lady!” she snarls. “He was taking a toy from that other kid.” Her friend is standing beside her, glaring savagely at the other woman. The babies, sensing the shift in mood, abandon the germ-infested toys and begin to toddle back in my direction. The two women continue to fight, and tension mounts in the room. Several other people saw the incident, and everyone seems to be ready to argue. The lady behind the desk makes a quiet phone call, and a bored-looking police officer comes from the front of the building to intervene. The lady, her child, and several witnesses are escorted to a back room and the noise level gradually rises back up to fill the empty space.
I turn back to the employee behind the desk, with what must have been a bewildered look. “Happens all the time,” she says with a shrug, and answers the phone for the fifth time. The florescent lights, the noise, the whole situation start to close in on me and I feel suddenly so lost; a speck of person afloat on a vast and uncertain sea, clutching a pair of sticky hands and trying to touch something within myself…anything!…that feels normal.
“What will happen?” I ask, when she hangs up the phone and hands me back a stack of paperwork. She sighs. “Nothing, probably. DCFS is so overloaded with cases that they don’t do anything unless the situation is serious. Not enough foster families, not enough funding.” I pull the boys off my leg, tote them over to watch the inaudible video in another area of the office. I can’t get the little boy’s face out of my mind, his mop of dark hair, chocolate-brown eyes. He never cried, just stood there looking.
Over an hour later, I finally have everything I need to purchase Baby’s expensive allergy-free formula and Toddler’s cases of milk substitute. I have vouchers for a month’s worth of babyfood, cereal, and produce. The babies are past their limit and I am, too…both boys need lunch and a nap and I need to get out of this building as soon as humanly possible. I yank sweaters over two bobbing heads, track down a missing shoe, re-pack the toys into my diaper bag and fish my keys out of my purse. I am exhausted, emotionally and physically, overwhelmed and feeling dangerously close to tears. I sling the diaper bag over one shoulder, hoist one boy on each hip, and push out into the crisp fall air.
As I am buckling Baby into his carseat, I hear her. The woman with the three-year old has been released and is walking her car, the boy tripping along behind her as she speaks staccato bursts into the fresh afternoon, her friend agreeing with every obscenity-peppered word.
“None of their damn business how I raise my kid! Who do they think they are, telling me what I can do? What do they know about my f—ed up life, anyway?” She walks past me, opens her car door, lights a cigarette. The child climbs into the back seat. They drive away, and I try not to think about where they are going.
I put the key into the ignition, turn the car on, sit back in my seat. I press a hand to my forehead, the space between my eyes, but the tears come anyway. I try to picture Jesus at the WIC office…his lap is full of children; his hand touching their faces, brushing back curls and wiping away tears. I try to listen to what He says to their mothers, yes, even to that mother. But I can’t quite hear Him over the noise of everything else, over the sound of my own angry tears.