Note: Posts like this one don’t get written alone, and I don’t want anyone thinking it was. I made sure that any Mama about whom I wrote very personal information knew I was going to write it, and they read it and approved it before it ever got here. Motherhood is a deep, deep river, and I could not be more grateful to these women, who all said to me, “Say whatever you want about us. We’re open books, and we’re okay.” This was especially true of Cristina, who told me, “It’s okay if you tell them I was contemplating suicide. It won’t offend my delicate sensibilities!” I’ve chosen to leave out a lot of the nitty-gritty, but just trust that it’s there, from serious illness (for mother or child) to depression and anxiety to infertility to lost pregnancies, for one or more of us Mamas, and I speak for all of us when I say that if you’re feeling alone in any part of motherhood, there are other moms and dads out there who are waiting to say, “It’s okay if you don’t have anything good to say today. Come sit by me anyway.”
I never joined a sorority. I never had a deb ball, and I’m pretty sure I’d rather saw both my legs off than be in something like Junior League. So after my daughter was born and I could walk again and meaningfully look at a clock, I hauled both of us to the local women’s wellness center to the new moms’ group and thought, “This is going to suck and I am going to hate it.”
It was, I freely admit, a really crappy attitude to have, but I had moved in the middle of my pregnancy, across the country, from a place where I had lots of support every day to a place where I had none but that of my then-boyfriend-now-husband, who spent most of the day at work at his medical residency and wasn’t able to attend any of my prenatal appointments even when my pregnancy became what the chief of OB at Penn called, “Not ‘high-risk,’ but not ‘regular risk’ either.” He followed that with, “We don’t know what to do with you.” It was awesome, and I went to lots of ultrasounds and lay in the dark rooms by myself while radiologists and nephrologists and maternal-fetal medicine people figured out “what to do with me.” Everything turned out fine, but it was pretty lonely, so I should have been psyched to meet all these women, but I wasn’t.
I was afraid it would be a sorority. I envisioned smiling and laughter, cute outfits, cooing, and chanting “B-R-E-A-S-T-M-I-L-K!!” while we all clapped. Mostly, I was afraid that I would be the only person in the room who loved her baby but thought that making her, and getting her out, and feeding her were all a grueling bad dream from which I couldn’t wait to wake. I thought I’d be the only one who desperately missed her job and wanted to go back.
So when Cristina walked in 40 minutes late, wearing yoga pants, a long-sleeve tee and a fleece vest, with her daughter’s bucket seat hooked over the crook of her elbow and a diaper bag trailing somewhere behind her, I thought, “She looks absolutely awful—like a zombie, but with more anxiety and a kangaroo pouch. We will be best friends.”
I loved her immediately, in direct proportion to the amount of dread that seeped out of her.
Cristina took her place in the circle, where we were all going around, saying our names; our baby’s, or babies’, names; their birthdays; and how much they weighed. This process was how it all started, each one of us in the circle giving the minimum information, and probably adding some bit of info by which the others might start to remember us. It was a little AA-ish. “Hi, I’m So-and-So, and I have inverted nipples. I’ve been using a nipple shield for four weeks now.” Hi, So-and-So-With-The-Nipple-Shield….
I was Ginny, who vaginally delivered a 10-pound baby. It turns out that this is not uncommon among my Mamas, even if it is globally. There was Cristina, who got post-partum depression about twelve minutes after delivering Sofia, and who couldn’t nurse because she had had breast surgery years before. There was Jen, whose daughter Zoey was born on the same day as Ellie, so they became “twins.” And Erin, who pushed for three hours then had to have a c-section to deliver Kate, who was born with a fused suture in her skull and needed surgery at six months. Tiffany, who was already in jeans with a real zipper, but whose son wouldn’t latch, so she pumped all day, every day. Alaina, who made it to the group just four weeks after her twin daughters were born. Her uterus didn’t contract after delivery and she bled a lot, so even four weeks later, she was very pale. Liz, whose husband left three-week-old Bailey in her crib alone in the house while he ran down their street to get meds for a peanut butter allergy that we’re not sure he actually has. We think it just makes him really thirsty, and that’s not the same thing. Kristin, whose son Micah was a miracle baby and whose husband Kent would eventually join our group when she went back to work as a teacher and he took a sabbatical from his ministry. Brooke, whose son Brenden was her second child (a rare find in a new mom’s group), and a devoutly Christian woman who never swears nor drinks, a way of motherly life I still don’t think is possible, even now after witnessing three years of Brooke’s wholesome existence.
The group was a revolving door of women, their babies, and their stories; some visited each and every Monday, and some came when they could, until they went back to work at 6 weeks or 12 or 16 or never. For me, it was five months of meetings, listening to each woman talk about whatever she needed help with that week and talking about my own stuff.
Eventually, we all started planning things outside of the meetings: playdates at the park, brunches at someone’s house, and our biggest monthly event, MamaDinner. MamaDinner was a treasure because it was so hard to make happen; each woman had to check with her husband, because he would have to watch the kids (which is not “babysitting”; it’s parenting). It would have to be timed so that breastfeeding moms could feed, then put their kid to bed, then leave, then get back for the next nightfeeding, which meant reservations were made on the late side, around 8 or 8:30. But, man, once we all got there. What a time.
MamaDinner was the first time many of us got a glimpse of what we might have looked like pre-baby. It was a revelation.
We’d say things like, “Are you wearing a DRESS?”
“Yes, I am! It’s from before…I’m pretty sure I’m not fat anymore!”
“Are those your eyelashes?”
“Uh-huh! There’s mascaaaara on them!”
“Oh, GET OUT!”
“And holy crap, you’re gorgeous!”
“Thank you! I dress up more for MamaDinner than I do for my husband!”
That part seemed strange but true. I’m not sure what the other Mamas would say, but I have my own theory. For however much our husbands or partners loved us, and for however much we loved them, there were a lot of ways in which they didn’t—couldn’t, even—help us. We got dressed up and made ourselves beautiful for the people who made us feel really, really good and bright and happy. We wanted each other to see on the outside the way we made each other feel on the inside. It’s cheesy, but all the typical girl talk was paid for in long conversations about cracked nipples and lochia and Kate’s surgery and painful sex and forgetting to buckle the five-point harness because we were so sleep-deprived. MamaDinner was the chance to have a martini and laugh until our mascara ran down our faces and onto our beforetime outfits.
Besides all the talking, we helped each other out. Cristina watched Ellie while I went for a job interview at a community college. I watched Matty when Tiffany and John went to their anniversary dinner. And Ally, who is hands-down the most inspired stay-at-home mom I know, watched everyone, often all at once. Katie took family portraits for me and for Erin, and Brooke photographed Glenna’s family and Michelle’s. I copyedited Glenna’s master’s thesis in sustainable interior design, and she designed a nursery for Tiffany. Jen and I did a “spring cleanse” together—we’d go to the meetings and learn to make sandwich bread out of nothing but spinach and chia seeds and then text each other the next day, “My screeching child won’t let go of my sweatpants or take a nap so I ate a box of Cheez-Its. Don’t rat me out.”
Our lives together started to have a Red Tent kind of quality. In Anita Diamante’s retelling of the biblical story of Leah and Rachel, she focuses sharply on the physical and social red tent—the place where women were to go during menstruation and childbirth, but a place also for childrearing and gossip and bonding. Our playdates and dinners with kids started to have the same feel.
It makes for stupid math, but it’s true just the same: I’d rather go to a museum with all my Mamas and all their kids and know that I’m partly responsible for everyone in the bunch than to go with Ellie alone. It’s easier and more fun. One mom getting her one child through a cafeteria-style lunchline is torture, but nine moms doing that for ten kids is magic. And I was grateful to hear about others’ homelives. Glenna couldn’t understand what was so hard about a putting a dish in a dishwasher, and I felt better knowing that Alaina, who had been married for years and tried very hard to have her girls, had some of the same struggles that I did in my jerry-rigged life.
Life doesn’t always let you tie things up in a pretty bow, but stories can, and like many good tales, this one will end with a wedding.
My jerry-rigged life became a little less jerry-rigged in February of 2010, when Mark and I got tied the knot…um, three times. The last of these was the grand affair with our families, and the first one did make us “legal.” But the middle one was a special one just for our Philadelphia friends, the ones who had helped us day-in and day-out with our first experiences of parenthood. A blizzard rolled over the East Coast that Friday morning, but the Mamas donned their puffer coats, put the babes in sleds and trekked to our favorite indoor playplace—The Little Treehouse—for another ceremony.
Kristin’s husband Kent officiated, as he had two days earlier in his living room when we signed the papers (after Mark investigated Micah’s butt rash and both babies got diaper changes), but this time there was a bit more ritual. Kent asked all the babies to blow us kisses to wish us luck and happiness. Ellie clapped like a crazy little person when it was her turn to be a part of the ceremony. Katie photographed the day, Erin made the cupcakes, Cristina read Khalil Gibran, and afterward, everyone played on the floor in their socks and drank champagne (or milk). I never expected this, but even the husbands and partners came.
There are lots of people whose heads cock to the side when Mark and I tell them we were married thrice, after a long period of remaining unwed. I just shrug. We had our reasons. And while when I hear the word “wedding,” I go to our June one on the lawn in my mom’s backyard, I’m grateful to have celebrated with the women in the room at the Wellness Center, because I know a little too keenly what might have been had I not had them to lean on for those years. Again, it’s cliché, but those first months were like finding myself in a fog, with a baby, and having a bunch of awesome women call out, “We’re over here! It’s not exactly paradise, but there’s a swingset, and snacks! Hurry!”
So that is, I think, how I joined my first sorority. But we don’t squeal and chant, and they’re not my sisters; they’re so much better than that.
They’re my Mamas.
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