When my son was about two, he bit me right on the butt in the cafe of a gourmet grocery store. He wanted a cookie, I said no and he sunk his irate little maw right into the first part of my body he made contact with. (I'm short.)
Having both a bruised rear and ego, I snatched Hannibal-in-the-making and hauled him out of there before anyone seated nearby could see my flushed face and the hot tears that had started to stream down it. He yelled the entire way out the door. To say I was embarrassed would be an understatement.
What followed was not my finest parenting moment. If I recall correctly, I thrust him into his car seat, slammed the van door and leaned against it willing myself not to turn and run in the other direction. A few deep breaths later I got in and delivered a very stern lecture about why kids who bite can't do fun things ever like eat cookies, have friends or be allowed to live inside my house. (Ok, maybe not that exact lecture, but whatever I said he knew I was serious and never bit me or anyone else again.)
Parenting a toddler means you're always one shift of the wind away from total embarrassment. Someone misses a nap, gets too hungry or simply wakes up flexing some Samuel L. Jackson-eqsue attitude in a pint-sized body and suddenly a fun afternoon outing ends with a meltdown of epic proportions. In front of other people. Who are totally judging you.
Or so you think.
But hold up. Do you want to know the secret no one told me all those years ago? No one cares about that tantrum more than you do.
Let's think about this for a second. There's a .001% chance any one of those people sipping their latte that day remembers a curly-headed little sprite taking a chomp of his mom's hind end. (If they do, I hope they laugh about it. It was kind of funny in retrospect.) What endures is the relationship I have with my now 15-year-old son. He pushed a boundary and tested a method of communication/emotional expression that clearly didn't work. I kept my act together (enough) and didn't drop him off at the fire station on the way home. What mattered most at that moment was my reaction. We lived through it and if not for immediately becoming part of family legend, I might have forgotten about it too.
Now that my kids are far beyond the toddler stage, I want to say from the other side, that tantrum isn't a reflection on you. And anyone around who notices is just glad it's not their problem—especially if they're a parent, too. (And if they act like their kid would never, they're either lying or have mentally rewritten their history. Trust.) Toddlers gonna tantrum. It's what they do.
Recently I was on vacation at a small country inn, perched on the wraparound porch with a friend and some cocktails. From around the bend we heard the familiar/unfamiliar cries of a small child who clearly was not living his best life. As he kicked and yelled, his mom hoisted him up over her shoulder and carried him off to their cabin completely non-plussed. As my pal and I clinked our glasses together toasting the fact our pre-teens were somewhere requiring nothing from us and happily making friendship bracelets, there was not one drip of judgment. Just a silent nod of solidarity and good wishes for a restful nap.
And guess what? I won't even remember this by the end of the summer.