I only waited tables for five years, but it was just long enough to learn that all line cooks are stoners, sex in a freezer isn't what you'd expect, bitches are bitches and $2.13 an hour is a travesty. It made me kinda hate people, but it also made me understand them: their struggles, their dreams, their shitty taste in wine.
Oddly, managing a toddler is a lot like running a section of four tops at your average chain. That's because your average restaurant customer is a lot like a toddler — demanding, impatient, needy as hell and possibly constipated — only you really, really like them anyway. And just like parenting, you don't really find out how good of a job you did until the whole thing's over.
Meet and greet in under two.
As my pediatrician recently remarked, "Think of a toddler as an extremely narcissistic person." This has been, hands-down, the best parenting advice I've received so far. If your toddler were an acquaintance at a party, it'd be like you walking into the room and having them stand there waving HELLO HELLO HELLO like an idiot until you finally acknowledged them. Restaurants typically train their servers to greet your own little narcissists in under two minutes for this very reason: the difference between a little drink order and nothing is a Grand Canyon of prevention in the free meal wars.
Master the art of the cold read.
Knowing which gross lap to sit in your bar section means the difference between moving a bottle of Dom or a bottle of Dos Equis. Likewise, calling it like you see it on a toddler can be the difference between a momentary whine and a full-scale meltdown. It's all about figuring out how to figure out your baby as fast as humanly possible. Less work means more chances for your baby to say adorable things, like "I found the moon!" while pointing out the window.
Drinks and bread stay refilled and replenished.
If you've ever worked somewhere that serves free bread or chips to every table, then surely you've experienced humanity at its barrel-scraping basest. Toddlers are so much simpler than power-hungry diners, but the principle is the same: who knew just giving a kid a snack can mitigate the meltdown better than a basket of a fries to a table of raccoons?
Stay away. No, come back. Now go away.
Toddlers don't know what they want, and neither do hungry people out for a meal on the town. They think they need you, and they do, but just for long enough to feel like they've been served, catered to, cared for, fawned over, satisfied. Then they want you to go to the fuck away while they vacuum up a spinach and artichoke dip app, looking up only long enough for you to refill their diet coke and bread basket. That goes for the restaurant customers too.
Fluff it up.
Just as an even decent server will compliment your most mundane, conservative menu selection ("Chicken tenders? A personal favorite!"), so do parents tend to applaud even the most rudimentary toddler skill: going down a slide, taking a drink of water, clapping, pooping, laughing. Once I think we even said good job when she slapped me. Hey, she was asserting herself! A good server finds everything about his or her tables thrilling, fascinating and intriguing, even when it's a pair of accountants discussing the latest tax law, and so should you about your baby, because otherwise you're horrible.
At one restaurant I worked at, I was trained to "sizzle" everything on the menu on command. "Tell me more about the mozzarella sticks," someone would actually ask. "Stuffed with mouthwatering cheese, they're then deep fried in a delectable mixture of"— "OK, I'll take those." Likewise, you will sizzle the shit out of everything you want your toddler to partake in. Medicine: "It's squishy-wishy pink sparkle surprise!" Broccoli: "Look at these tasty yummy little fun trees!" Naps: "You're drifting off to the forest of Wookamazoo." Whatever it takes, people. Whatever it takes.
Know when you're in the weeds.
Some servers like to martyr themselves for the cause and transform into raging psychos before admitting they've been overseated by a vindictive hostess, but waving the white side of mayo flag when the going gets tough is the mark of a pro, not an amateur. It's taken me a while to figure out that I can just stop what I'm trying to accomplish — still trying to get her to nap after two hours, the 4th iteration of Horns to Toes and in Between and ask my husband for help. Sure, you want to just prove to yourself that you can pull it off, like balancing a huge tray of filet mignons, but no one actually sees and you forgot to get that guy's second beer anyway.
Act like you're not in it for the tips.
There's a reason a good restaurant manager will advise you to never count your tips before the night's over, because somehow you always, always lose a couple of $20s somewhere. Valentine's Day dinner shift 1998 anyone? The point is, the unspoken agreement with waiting tables is that even though everyone knows you're doing it for the tips, you treat your guests like you're waiting on them because you like it, that you'd go this far for nothing because you're just that kind of service-oriented gal, that you don't even know what a tip is. Who, me? Giggle, twirl.
But more importantly, nobody likes an Eddie Haskell, especially your baby, who can smell your desperate need for a narcissistic parenting payoff better than she can smell cookies. Best to get zen about this shit, and think of it as a selfless exercise in being a good ancestor. Or better yet, every time you pull off a particularly good save in the parenting trenches, just tip yourself.
Tracy Moore is a writer living in Los Angeles. She'd wait tables again for fun if it didn't require so much standing.