Why Did I Fall Out With Shopping Centres?

Image by Author - All The Cheeses

“I think I may be experiencing some sort of post-traumatic stress,” I said to my husband when I staggered into the house with my bag-for-life, stuffed with random delicacies I’d plucked frantically from the shelves. I had a fish platter under my arm. I’d been keen to get round and escape again as quickly as possible. There were too many bad memories. Stepping inside the building had resurfaced them. I hadn’t made many rational convenience food decisions. I never made any rational decisions there, I just filled time. “You’ve bought a lot of different cheeses,” he said. I wasn’t sure if we could construct a meal from any of it - camembert for starter, burrata for main course. It had been a spur of the moment madness to head there on a Friday afternoon. I couldn’t have picked a worse point in the week to face my past. Everyone in South Belfast was stocking up for the weekend. I’d been to get my eyes tested, it was vaguely on my route home and I was a little emotional after coming through the annual distress of the air puff test. “You don’t look like you have glaucoma,” the optician had said, looming over me, “but you are reading a bit high”. It was white coat syndrome on steroids. Each time, she approached me with her instrument of torture, I couldn’t breathe. Glaucoma tests made me feel old. We had discussed reading glasses. Maybe, a nice ciabatta and a pot of extra-smooth houmous would help me recover. The little M&S only did the standard one, but I fancied extra chickpeas and a layer of olive oil. So, I needed to go big. I was returning to a shopping centre.

As I drove into the underground carpark, it all looked so familiar, disturbingly so. I could feel the hovering ghosts of my past. Our battle will only ever be against time and since I was last there, whole childhoods had disappeared. There was nothing I could do to slow time down. I started to get flashbacks. There I was, still in my thirties, tired, resentful, agitated, wondering how on earth I was going to survive another long and tedious day with no adult company and a fractious toddler. A bizarre anxiety was settling in the pit of my stomach. I realised I was sub-consciously steering in the direction of the parking spaces closest to the baby trolleys, the ones wide enough to extricate a car seat. I didn’t need to exercise back then, muscles appeared all by themselves. There was a physical tightening in my throat as I remembered how stifled, how restricted I felt. I thought motherhood would bring fulfilment. But, it wasn’t like that at all. It just brought me tears - angry, frustrated ones. “I was made to do things I wasn’t any good at,” I told my husband as I processed my shopping centre experience.

But, it was the smell that got me most, that aroma of petrol fumes, trapped in a confined space. It summed up everything I felt about my existence back then. I was choked by it. I contemplated getting back in the car, running away. But, I was here. I could do it. I could find a ciabatta. It was easier than looking after small children. It was just me, now.

“Why did I fall out with shopping centres?” I thought. They served me so well, yet I haven’t been back since 2012. They were a major part of my life for the best part of a decade. They were somewhere to go when I had sole responsibility for those small children and I didn’t know what to do with them. Shopping centres were dry and manageable. They had seats. They were safe. They had nothing to jump off, fall off, swing on. They weren’t a soft play area. I could strap a child into something. The Toddlers’ group on Wednesdays saved me from insanity, but it wasn’t enough to fill a whole week. I’d work my way from one end of the mall to the other, starting at the Sainsbury’s end if I needed to pick up a few groceries, the Dunnes one, if I was intending to brave the café for a coffee and a ‘Fruit Shoot’. I’d choose the lift or the escalator depending on the fragility of my mood. I’d check my watch repeatedly. It was still hours and hours until my husband would be home from the office, until I’d have someone to share my parenting load. I never expected to do so much on my own, to have my ambitions so abruptly stop while his continued as normal. I’d browse and buy ‘younger girls’ outfits in Next, bypass the ones in Monsoon, we weren’t going to a wedding, try on jeans in River Island, hoping for a miracle, knowing they would never fit, use my Advantage card to stock up with nappies in Boots. I still have a lovely coat from A-Wear. I put away my brain and my intellect. I wheeled a trolley. I lost my voice and my wit. I handed back my confidence and my hope. I wondered when I’d feel light again, when I wouldn’t have that weight to constantly push around.

What struck me most when I returned to that shopping centre today was how little it had changed, but how much I have. Retailers have moved in and out, but essentially it is exactly the same. Despite advances in technology, its square footage is still intact, its presence still felt in the local community. And that’s how it is. Much of what we see around us remains fixed. It is we that move through it, onwards, forwards, towards the next stages in our lives. I’m grateful to have made it through those shopping centre years. I look back with defiant un-nostalgia. I have no desire to return. I doubt I’ll need big M&S anytime soon. Shopping centres were simply a rite of passage, a resting place, a temporary respite on that journey of bringing up children. Bring on the glaucoma tests. I may be older, but I am definitely in a better place.

“You’ve always been a good mum,” a friend said to me over lunch earlier this week. It took me by surprise, I looked at her, I didn’t know what to say. No-one has ever said that to me. It was all I ever wanted to be, all I ever wanted to hear because it was all, I never felt I was. I thought I just filled time in shopping centres.

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Deborah Sloan

I’m a mum of four girls who recently left a career to focus on writing. I write about leaving, change, career, motherhood and life. @deborahjsloan on Twitter