My world got very small when I became a mom. It took a group of girlfriends to help me broaden it once again.
If you had told me 10 years ago that there would come a day when I did not have strong feelings about whether it was OK to sometimes use jarred baby food rather than taking the time to steam and mash the vegetables myself, I would not have believed you. Nor would I have believed you had you said, for example, that regardless of how a person handles naptime, the children will eventually fail to turn in their homework for well over a week, and when the teacher sends a note home, that note will get lost. I would have plugged my ears had you said, Your children are going to screw up a lot and be unhappy sometimes, and there will be times they won’t even like you.
The first many years of mothering are essentially just magical thinking in which the daily habits of keeping the thing fed and alive and mostly clean take on the weight of preventing all future illness and misfortune. It’s sort of like how tomorrow, I’m going to board a plane with my good friend and then she’s going to keep that plane in the air with the sheer strength of her anxiety. It takes an incredible amount of focus to keep a plane in the air, and an even greater amount of focus to keep the universe from killing or maiming or just royally screwing up a child.
The moment they put my first baby into my hands and he was so incredibly fragile, I realized there were millions and millions of bad things that wanted to happen to him, and my job was to stop all of those bad things by spending every minute of every day being perfect. It was intense, but it was OK, because I’m a woman, so I’d spent my whole life training for this. There are so many rules to being a woman, rules about not being brash or demanding or rude, and it’s true that I’d broken most of them, but now I was a mother, and this little creature’s life was on the line, and I was determined, determined to get it right.
Everything that drew my attention from the baby had to be systematically eliminated. Work? Gone. Hobbies? Forbidden. The books on my nightstand were quickly revamped. Out went the novels. In came the guidebooks to the world of breastfeeding and sleep cycles and what to expect at each critical step along the way. My world? It got very, very small. My world got gripped-armrests small. And there was no room for anyone else to join me in there. Sometime around 13 months, I risked taking my eyes off the baby for long enough to look around and realize I didn’t actually have any friends left. I doubled down. I had more babies. I joined a lot of playgroups.
The thing we want most in our girlfriends isn’t perfection; it’s just honesty.
It was weird to be lonely when I was surrounded by people, and off to the park or the Burger King Playland to hang out with all the other moms. It was the one time when shared interests (Diapering? Whether to use a doula?) didn’t necessarily indicate any sort of kindredness of spirit. Even at work, even at the most mundane jobs, I’d always found someone who was drawn to it for similar reasons, but mothering? It’s so intimate, after all, but it’s also just so damn common. And I never felt allowed to bitch about it either, to commiserate over the crap schedule and unreasonable expectations the way I might over the proverbial water cooler. They were all little angels still, scrambling over the play set. Oh it’s a challenge, I might say, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. And I’d say that last part every time (if not out loud, at least in my head) because the universe might be listening and think the offer was on the table.
For months, years, my every decision and action would be measured against two criteria: (1) will this make me a better woman, wife, mother, and therefore benefit the babies in some measurable way? and (2) is it the sort of thing I can one day tell my children about? Thus, some types of self-care were allowed — a Saturday-night bath while Dad pulled the kids in the wagon around the block seemed OK, but a glass of whiskey and 20 minutes of porn was right out, though they are arguably both equally relaxing. And even the approved activities — Margarita Mondays with the other mommies from the park? I don’t know. The littlest is just starting to eat grapes and his father only slices them in halves, not fourths, and I wouldn’t be able to relax anyway, so maybe next time.
Another year went by and I was really white-knuckling it by then. The turbulence was starting to get to me. This was about the time I realized my marriage was on the rocks, and it was on the rocks for both the fact that sometimes my husband seemed to be actively working against me in my quest to raise the perfect human (see: grapes), and because he was now officially my best friend and it turned out he was completely inept at it. In the Venn diagram of interests I shared with my husband, the points of intersection all had names (because they were our children). In my husband’s defense, I had no other interests, but for the first time in years, I wanted to broaden my world. I wanted to watch films with subtitles. He would refuse. I would settle for movies that didn’t star Bob the Builder. I would insist on a date night. I would hire a babysitter. I would sit at the restaurant and find I had nothing to say except for the fact that the way my husband chewed was wrong and disgusting. When the conversation hit the lowest of lulls, I would actually say that.
Once in awhile, I’d encounter women who seemed a little louder, a little smarter, maybe just a little freer than the rest. They had a spark to them, like they’d figured out the game and knew which parts were crap. They’d remind me of all the other girls that have ever pulled me back toward sanity, the girls who got me through the horrible boyfriends, the dumb first jobs, the fights I had with my parents over what in the hell I was doing wasting all that potential. How many problems did I get through by splitting half a bottle of whiskey with my best friend while I considered all the ways of getting out of my life? Because the truth is that confessing to another woman how often you think about driving off a bridge is probably the fastest way to save your own life, not because she’ll talk you out of it, but because she’ll say, “Oh god, yeah, me too.” It’s the loneliness of not being able to say it that just might kill you.
And that’s how it happened, that’s how I started to make it out. The mask of perfection that I’d carved and shellacked finally cracked, and the kind of women that I needed in my life suddenly found me more interesting. They’d been there all along, some of these women. They just hadn’t been able to see me. Maybe I said something off-color, maybe I was the one that was too loud, maybe I admitted that it turned out my specific children were not particularly magical. Whatever the lapse, at least a handful of women’s ears would perk up. Tell me more, they’d say, because the thing we want most in our girlfriends isn’t perfection; it’s just honesty.
And the truth is that we need women, we need girlfriends, and we need the kind of girlfriends who don’t care about all the stupid rules that dictate how to do everything right. They’ll pour the whiskey, they’ll buy the once-a-year pack of smokes. They’ll bring a cake on your birthday and make you eat it even if you are mostly avoiding gluten and sugar, but life is sad without gluten and sugar, and they know that. We all do.
The women in my life don’t care if I’m a perfect mother. They don’t care if I think good thoughts and they frankly prefer it when I don’t. There is a text thread pretty much constantly running on my phone that is so full of profanity that I hesitate to leave my phone lying out anywhere face-up. I have good friends. I have lovely friends. I have the kind of friends who will let me say whatever I need to.
And tomorrow, with her fingers twisted tight around the armrests, one of those friends is going to hold the plane up all the way to Boston. It will not be the first time she’s saved my life.
Liz Kay is the author of the novel Monsters: A Love Story.