There was a time when I enjoyed going to the mall. I would push my stroller through miles of air-conditioned, window-dressed bliss. No matter that my stroller didn’t fit in my favorite stores. No, it was treat enough to let my mind wander while my babies slept.

Then the babies got older. Old enough to get out of the stroller. Old enough to need to try on clothes. At risk of repeating myself, I now face a trip to the mall with about the same measure of delight as I might approach a shower at the Bates Motel.

But the kids need clothing every so often, and James generally needs plenty of advance warning before he is willing to wear new things. So, to the mall we went. Chris and I had agreed to go tomorrow, but while he was napping, I suddenly realized that I had plans tomorrow. (Had Chris been awake, sadly, he would have reminded me that these plans were for Thursday. Such is my life.) So, hurrying so as not to awaken Chris, and also because naptime for the children was fast approaching, I loaded the kids in the car and zoomed off to the mall. Leaving, in my garage, that extremely critical component in any trip to the mall: The stroller.

Ten minutes later, as I unloaded the children, I realized my mistake. In the horror movie that will be based on this post, some fictional character who is killed off early will interject, “It’s not too late to go back for the stroller!”

Sadly, there was no one present in real life to point out this fatal error in judgment, so into the mall we headed, the older children following me hand-in-hand, their preternatural cuteness foreshadowing our doom like one of those excessively sunny days on which, laughing and horsing about, ill-fated travelers head into Big Bad Nature in the aforementioned cinematic genre.

The failure to pack our trusty stroller was but the first in a series of ill-advised decisions in this most horrific of all mall debacles. At our particular mall, there are adorable little fire-truck strollers available for rent. However, because They Are Different From Ours, James refuses to ride in them without a screaming, snot-streaming, security-is-being-paged freakout, and therefore I did not opt to rent a mall stroller. Not a double stroller, for both boys, and tragically, not a single one for Thomas. (This is, perhaps, where the second ill-fated short-term character would have suggested that containing an 18-month-old while shopping might have been the smart thing to do.)

So, with my too-sweet big kids holding hands and (gigantic, increasingly heavy) toddler on a hip, I traversed about 50 meters through the mall to The Children’s Place, where thrifty mothers are guaranteed to find affordable navy slacks and white polos pretty much all year ’round. And indeed, there they were. Oh, it was almost too easy!

But I had to do it. I had to screw it all up by having James try things on. The third — and maybe stupidest — mistake of this complete horror show.

Now, if this had been Maddi at 3-and-change, she would have been delighted to strip down and dress up in an entire SERIES of outfits. All by herself, while I played with Thomas. She would then have insisted she try on and then purchase not only the selected articles, but everything else in sight. But James is not Maddi.

“James,” I began, as we headed for the fitting room, “We’re going to go try on your school pants to see whether you’re a 2 or a 3.”

“NO!” James screeched, unobligingly, eying the curtained room with caution.

“We will go into the change room and Mommy will take your jeans and shoes off. I will see how these pants look on you, and then you will get to wear your jeans and shoes again! It will be SO EASY!”

James glared.

“And THEN we will go to the PLAYGROUND!” I squealed in an amalgam of mock excitement and slight desperation.

“I NO WEAR DOZE PANTS!!!!!” James told the entire mall, and flung himself dramatically to the floor. I wanted to sink into the floor only the slightest bit at this point, because this is by no means the first time he has had a psychotic break in public.

“James,” I said faux-calmly, holding a wriggling Thomas in one arm while dragging my other son quickly behind the curtain by his armpits with my other, “This is not optional. You have to try on your pants so you can go to school with Maddux. If you let Mommy put these pants on you, you can go to the playground. Otherwise, you will go right home for a nap.”

“I no wear pants! I no go school! I no nap! I go playground!” James screamed at a volume that approached shattering The Children’s Place’s windows. He flailed and kicked as though he were fighting off an invisible squad of ninjas. I glanced around for bouncers, but apparently The Children’s Place has not found a need for muscle. Yet.

I uttered such helpful advice as “We don’t scream in stores, James. You are hurting people’s ears,” but apparently James had hurt his own ears so severely that he was now deaf, because he just kept thrashing and shrieking at top volume.

At this point, I was finding my weather-appropriate corduroy jacket extremely hot, and Thomas had somehow escaped my grasp, leaving behind a shoe. Where WAS Thomas?

“Thomas!!!” I yelled (as much as one can yell in a store without actually yelling, because James doesn’t need any encouragement in ignoring the “indoor voice” rule).

“He ‘scapeded, Mommy!” Maddux told me, wide-eyed. I noticed that James had somehow managed to crumple the pants and throw them under the curtain. And beyond the bottom of the curtain, Thomas, cackling with glee, had crawled off into the infants’ section and was playing chicken with a double stroller. (Apparently, he found his antics so hilarious that his laughter rendered him completely incapable of walking.) Maddux raced off to carry Thomas back, while I struggled to stuff a simultaneously limp and thrashing 32-pound boy into pants he didn’t want to wear.

(This is where, in the horror movie, the girl would look into the camera, snot dribbling down her face, and intone, “I’m SO SCARED!”)

So, with Maddux playing catch-and-release with the baby, who has gotten a taste of freedom and decided to go Braveheart on us, I played my own game of tug-of-war with James’ legs, stuffing one into a pant leg only to find that the other leg had come out of its pant leg … ad nauseam. James was as hot and red and sweaty and crazy as Jack Nicholson in the last half of “The Shining” at this point, and was losing his voice from his voluble protestations of the offending slacks. Tags were torn. Stickers were removed. Shoes and shirts were thrown. Playground privileges were indefinitely revoked.

Oddly, not only were mall cops not cuffing us and removing us from the premises, but nary a store clerk had intervened. And I suddenly realized that this was a horror movie that moms of boys everywhere could have starred in themselves. And that the salespeople in children’s stores have become completely desensitized to the sweaty, ear-splitting, mucus-producing thrashfest that is dressing a little boy who really doesn’t like new clothes. Oh, the humanity!

Miraculously, after what felt like hours of wrestling and bribing and threatening and playground-revoking and looking around for Thomas, I somehow managed to pull the offending pants up over his bottom.

“Put your feet on the ground, James,” I said, and was answered by more wailing and furious airborne bike-pedaling. No matter. Once he got tired of pedaling the invisible bike, I quickly ascertained that a 3 was way, WAY too big.

So we grabbed a 2. The same size I would have purchased had I not had James along for the fitting, because that is what he currently wears (slightly short though it may be).

Utterly defeated both as a mom and a human being, I scooped up my errant baby, put his shoe back on, smoothed my hair back from my now-drenched forehead, gathered up my precious little duckies and headed to the counter with my head as high as the legendary awfulness of James’ very recent tantrum would allow.

Nobody glared at us, so I’m guessing they had already finished their mental “What a horrible boy! And what a mess that mom was! Here’s what I would have done …” dialogue and now viewed us merely as objects of pity. Or maybe they thought, as I’ve occasionally been lucky enough to have the opportunity to think — when confronted with such rare, egregious misbehavior that it trumps the crimes of my own children — “Better her than me!”

The only comment came from the clerk ringing us up, who glanced at a cherubic Thomas (smiling, no doubt, in recollection of his many glorious games of stroller chicken) and said, “Well, you seem a lot happier now!”

“That was actually the 3-year-old,” I confessed, dying ever so slightly within.

Of course, as soon as he was clad in his familiar clothing and I told him how disappointed I was that he had screamed and yelled in the store, James had said, in a soft voice, “Sorry, Mommy.”

The Scourge of the Mall had been tamed … for now. But as with any horror movie, there’s always room for a sequel.

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