I performed this piece at The Horse’s Mouth Storytelling night in Lexington, KY. You can watch it here, beginning around the 12 minute mark. I would also encourage you to listen to the other fabulous women sharing stories around the theme Mothers And Others. It was a wonderful night!
Today is my 30th birthday. Five years ago I was celebrating with my best college girls. They assembled this amazing brunch on our kitchen table and held my babies while I feasted. Babies. It was still shocking to say. I was 25 and somehow had 6 week old twins. These women who had been with me through every transition and change of our adult lives were with me now – caring for us, feeding us, showering us with gifts – but something had shifted. My whole world had shrunk down to fit within the walls of that tiny apartment – the couch where I spent my long days and the bedroom where I spent even longer nights. My friends bubbled with news of life beyond, catching me up on their work and relationships and hobbies, weekend plans and upcoming special events and I just sat there eating french toast while my milk leaked through my dress, realizing that things would never be the same again. For weeks I had been trying to learn the new rhythms of motherhood, feeling overwhelmed, incompetent, and lost. I thought a day together would restore me to my old self, but instead it made the distance between our paths even more pronounced. I missed my old self, I resented my friends for their freedom, and I didn’t know how to explain any of it.
As time went on I grew more confident in my mothering – learning how to tandem nurse and occasionally time their naps together so I managed an hour of peace – but I couldn’t seem to launch us outside the walls of our fortress. Visits from friends became less frequent. The loneliness grew heavy, and I felt helpless to free us from our captivity. The first time we tried a walk, just the three of us, we made it to the sidewalk before my daughter was screaming so loudly I feared someone would call the police, assuming I was hurting her. A few weeks later I powered through the screams and made it to the house of a “mom friend” a few blocks away. I sat, exhausted, on her couch until I had the energy for the return trip.
(Did you know that women lose their identities when they become mothers? I didn’t. Friends with kids quickly became “mom friends”, or “charlie’s mom”. You meet someone at a park or playgroup and nobody even asks’s your name. You’re just someone else’s mother, everything else about you now irrelevant in the face of your new all consuming tiny dictator(s).)
The first time I tried to attend a “mom group”, my kids were nearly 6 months old. We were late, because: twins, and when I rolled our massive stroller full of screaming children through the silent building I felt every head turn to stare. I deposited my still screaming children with some nice old ladies in the nursery and forced myself to go sit with the energetic, well dressed women drinking coffee around circular tables. The speaker that day encouraged us to prioritize making ourselves presentable for our husbands. You know, make sure you don’t “let yourself go”. I was too exhausted to be outraged. We went home early.
I did have one outlet that was just for me. A podcast called The Longest Shortest Time. Every week the host/producer, Hillary Frank, tells stories about parenthood that are honest and vulnerable, stories that reflected her un-shiny experiences as a mom who felt like she was always screwing things up, always failing to follow the “right “advice, always stretched to her limit. She interviews ordinary parents about all the crazy, ridiculous expectations, the mythology of “perfect parenting”, the loneliness of all the posturing and pretending everything is fine. She started a facebook group for her listeners – parents desperate for a judgement free space to share honestly about their experiences. It was exactly what I needed.
While I nursed in the dark, lonely hours of the early morning, I mined posts for insights about the weird new things my kids were doing, asked all my rookie questions, and vented about how hard it all was. I felt instantly connected to people across the country and around the world who were also stuck in their tiny apartments, people who also felt disconnected from their old friends and even from themselves as they learned the new terrain of parenthood.
One day I came across a post from a woman asking if there were any other parents of multiples who wanted to commiserate. That thread turned into a group of women who would become my closest companions on this journey – mothering me through the darkest parts of those early years, helping me to see the light beyond them.
Of course, it started timid and cautious: we were all sweet and clever and started our posts with “not to bother you all, but…” or trying really hard to be funny and upbeat. But the veneer of politeness didn’t last long. We were all just surviving, minute by minute, and we didn’t have the energy or time to be cute. We bonded instantly over our parenting failures, exhaustion, non-existent sex lives, and endless kid illnesses, and also over the magical moments of kid love – we were all in the thick of it together. Nobody was less than. Nobody was smug. We were just radically for one another.
Our guiding rule is non-judgement – if you don’t agree with the philosophy of the person posting and can’t find a way to share your ideas without judgement, go ahead and scroll on by, that post was not for you. And maybe it was just our desperation for connection that kept us in line, but it worked! And as our friendships grew, so did we. We held space for the important work of re-imagining ourselves. Who were we, and who did we want to be, beyond this new role? There is such power in naming our secret dreams, longings, and ambitions. It’s the first step in fleshing out the path that will bring them to fruition. In these conversations, I regained my voice as a woman and a writer. I found courage in the brave women around me, and in weekly check ins and off the cuff messages we cheered each other along, each step of the way.
There are so many jokes about moms and facebook, about social media as a meaningless, phony, time wasting sphere. And I get that. I know there’s plenty of posturing and sanctimonious advice giving and unhelpful shaming that happens online. It can definitely highlight the worst of our humanity. But it’s also this incredible tool that allows us to reach across miles and cultures and work schedules and religious/political/insert-your-divisive-issue-here differences to support one another in the minutiae of everyday life. I have come to think of it as a sacred space. And when we tend it well – reigning in our insecurities and judgments, opening our hearts to learn from others – it serves us with beautiful connection.
Last year I got to meet some of those women in person at our first ever conference. I use the word conference loosely – we rented out a fancy old home on airbnb, stocked up on wine and snacks, and bunked up for the weekend. But it was a big deal – an attempt to bring to real life what we had been cultivating online for years. Leading up to it I was so anxious, it felt like I was going on a first date but worse – these women already knew all my neuroses, all of my greatest failures and biggest dreams and I needed them to still like and support me when this was over! But I shouldn’t have worried. The embrace of someone who has seen and loved you at your worst is a gift I wish I could give every parent, every person that I know. These friendships forged in the fires of early parenthood have forever changed me. They have shown me that vulnerability shouldn’t be rare in friendships. That it should be the core of how we connect – sharing our truest selves in a crisis, in the mundane, and everything in between.
As an introvert, I find it exhausting to do this in person. It’s much easier to pour my heart out from the safety of my couch. But there’s nothing like that moment when you finally take a deep breath and reveal a dream or confess a weakness and the person across the table lights up and says “Me too! I thought I was the only one.” I hope to live a long life collecting those moments. They make me feel alive, reborn to the possibilities of growth and what could be. These “internet moms” have given me an enduring optimism about cultivating space for those moments to bloom, no matter how many awkward first friend dates I have to persevere through to get there.