Secrets: Confessions of a New Mom
I have just sat down in a small puddle of drool on the floor in the basement of my new friend Sonya’s house. My five other new friends are here, too. I call them The Mommies. We are watching our three-month-old babies lie on their backs on a blanket spread out on the floor. My baby’s name is Blair. She is wearing the sweetest green cotton romper that I managed to actually iron this morning—more than I’ve accomplished before 10 a.m. since we came home from the hospital together. All of the mommies have commented on how cute she looks, which, of course, was the point. In return, Blair is making eye contact with them. As usual, she is ignoring me. I stand up and walk to the table where Sonya, who has twin girls, has put out “a little something”—scrambled eggs, orange juice in a glass pitcher, thin sticks of French toast warming on a portable griddle. I sneak a cup of La Colombe despite the fact that I’m still breastfeeding, and try very hard not to hate these women for being so good at all this.
Six weeks ago, I’d stalked them. At the Baby & Me group at Virtua Hospital in Voorhees. At the Reel Moms movies at the Loews Theater in Cherry Hill. I needed new-mom friends because I’d decided the shocking suckiness of life as a new mom was not something any woman should go through alone. It didn’t matter to me whether or not I had anything else in common with them. So when I first saw Nancy standing outside the movie theater, rocking her Graco MetroLite stroller back and forth, her short auburn hair matching the liner around her lips, a Lord of the Rings sword tattooed around her ankle, I pushed my Graco MetroLite up to hers.
“When was your daughter born?” I asked, feeling like I’d just walked myself across the gym to ask Bill Speros to dance at the eighth-grade Harvest Ball.
“March 9th. How about yours?”
“March 16th! How crazy is that?” I say the word “that” far too loud.
“I have a friend coming whose daughter was born March 20th.”
“That is just nuts!” Again, too loud. “Can I sit with you guys?” I sit with them. I share my Twizzlers. I meet them at the Baby & Me get-together at the hospital on Friday morning, where more women join our circle of baby blankets so eagerly that I figure everyone is feeling exactly what I’m feeling—that we need each other because this mothering thing is harder than we ever expected it to be. In fact, we’re so on the same page, we don’t even talk about it. Instead, we talk about diapers and “tummy time” and how much we despise the muffin-top of fat billowing over our still-fitting maternity jeans. And just like that, we are instantly and psychically connected in the cosmic sorority of Motherhood with a capital M.
“If I could, I’d quit my job,” Sonya says. She is my age—34—and a physician at Temple. Next week, she will be the first of us to go back to work.
I am one breath away from laughing. Out loud. As if Sonya has just made a joke. Because I can’t wait to go back to work. Work is easier than the past three months have been. People rarely cry at work, and when they do, they don’t need me to swaddle them. I am good at work.
I realized about two weeks into this mommy thing that I am not very good at it. Aside from one brief interlude of that maternal bliss everyone tells you you’re going to be stoned on—during our first night at home, I could barely wait for Blair to wake up to nurse so I could hold her tiny head in my hand—I mostly spend my 22.5 hours awake each day wondering, “What in God’s name have I done?” Having this baby—I mean actually having her in my possession—is grueling, way more intense than “You’re going to be exhausted” and “You won’t have time to shower,” which is how books and friends told me it was going to be. I don’t go a day without screaming at my husband Thad, who protects himself by staying away from me. I can’t look at my body in the mirror without feeling resentful, which then makes me feel selfish and guilty and, basically, evil. I can’t make a single decision, convinced it’s the wrong one. I cry at least twice daily, often with Blair, who has been bawling pretty much nonstop since she was born. And, worse, I really don’t feel bonded with her at all. I feel more like she’s a parasite hanging from my boobs.
“I just don’t think I can do it,” Sonya says. Are you kidding? That’s what I’m about to say, until I look around. Everyone is nodding. Everyone. I think Sonya’s eyes are even welling up. And I feel like someone just whacked me in the back of my head with the portable griddle. None of these women wants to go back to work, to leave her baby. Only me. And I’m looking forward to it.
“Oh,” sighs Meridith, the 29-year-old stay-at-home mom, as she dreamily stares at her son’s face, brushing his much-more-than-Blair hair off his forehead. “I just love Lucas too much to go back to work.”
The room snaps silent. I swear that the other mommies have actually stopped breathing to restrain themselves from reaching over and plucking Meridith’s son-adoring eyes right out of their son-adoring sockets. Did she really just say that? Did she really just imply that these women who have been waxing on with such agony over leaving their babies must not love their children as much as she loves hers? And did I just find myself on the front lines of this “stay-at-home vs. work” Mommy War I’ve been hearing about since I went off the Pill? Is this it? Because it seems pretty rehearsed, like this debate is heating up because it’s supposed to heat up among new moms. Like it’s a new-mom rite of passage, as expected as being all goo-goo over your newborn.
What’s unexpected is what’s going on in my head. No matter which way I look at it—staying at home, going to work—it’s suddenly obvious to me that these other moms are not feeling what I’m feeling. At all. They’re not even slightly concerned that they don’t love their babies enough, or that they’re bad mothers. They really are all adoring and nurturing and goo-goo, just like new mothers are supposed to be. Which is what I want to be feeling, what they all must assume I’ve been feeling. I decide to make sure they keep thinking that.
Three weeks later, I take Blair to daycare for the first time. She’ll be just around the corner from our house with Miss Jane, who takes care of five kids in her home. I make the drop-off fast. Kiss Blair on the forehead. Hand her to Jane. I expect to cry—everyone cries—so I go quickly. Walk down the path to the minivan. And I sit there. And I sit there. And nothing happens, nothing except for this sensation of freedom, like I’ve been let out of jail. So, on my drive to the train station, I force myself to cry.
Just so I can tell the mommies I did:
“I cried when I dropped Blair off at daycare.”
IT IS FRIDAY. It is 10:30 in the morning. And, as usual, I am late to Baby & Me. When I was six months pregnant, I negotiated with my boss to have Fridays off. This week on our Baby & Me listserv (because Meridith made us a Baby & Me listserv), I’ve been counseling two of the other mommies about getting Fridays off, too, mostly because I’m not having as much fun without them, now that it’s only me and Blair. The crying has slowed down, but last week, only two weeks after I went back to work, she started waking up every hour at night. I’ve been pulling her into bed with us, but I don’t sleep then, either. Because I’m afraid I’ll roll over and smother her. And because for a second or two, sometime in the middle of the night, when she’s quiet and calm and I can smell the lavender in her hair, I am certain—unmistakably certain—I would not trade my life for anything. But that certainty evaporates with the alarm. By the time I leave the house at eight, I feel like I’ve already worked a full day, which leaves me with very little energy to get revved up about her latest accomplishment—discovering her feet. Unless I’m with the mommies. Because that is all we talk about.
When I spot my circle of mommies spread out in the corner of the Baby & Me playroom—flanked with strollers, smelling faintly of Wet Ones—they’re all laughing. Hard. I park my stroller, pull Blair out, and hopscotch over the other 15 or so mommy cliques camped on their own blankets all over the floor.
“What?” I say when I get to the corner. They’re all still laughing, and I kind of want them to shut up because Blair is sleeping, and looking really peaceful and pretty, and I want them to notice. “What is so funny?”
“I almost killed Bella last night,” Nancy says, shaking her head. She sucks in a breath, laying Bella down on her back so she can use her hands with their freshly manicured hot pink nails for better punctuation. “So I have that papasan—that bouncy-seat-thing—sitting on the coffee table. And Bella is in it. And it’s in vibrate mode. And she’s not strapped in because I never strap her in. And I’m sitting there. And the thing just vibrates right off the table! And … ” Nancy pauses for a second, because she’s laughing again. “And Bella flips over the top of it. Like, right over the top and onto the floor. She was fine. But the thing vibrated! Off of the table!”
I laugh. Even though I can’t quite understand why she had the papasan on the coffee table in the first place. And even though I can’t quite believe that she just admitted to us that she did. Though it gives me an opening.
“I can top that,” I say, my voice almost throwing up out of me. This is the first time I’ve told this to anyone. Even Thad. “As you know, Blair only sleeps during the day in a swing. So last weekend I put her portable swing, the one that’s barely a few inches off the ground, in her room, and I strap her in and shut the door. And she’s crying, like she always does. And I let her cry, like I always do, because usually she falls asleep in a minute or two. And she keeps crying. And crying. And about 20 minutes go by. So I peek in her room. And the swing is swinging. But Blair isn’t in it.”
The mommies gasp.
“What do you mean, she’s not in it?” Jenn asks.
“She is not in it! She somehow flipped over the back of it and is lying flat on her face on the floor underneath it.”
“Underneath it! I almost died. I felt like I was this monster mother who should be arrested or something.”
“Oh my God, I know,” Nancy says, nodding.
I stare at Nancy. She looks at me funny, but I can’t stop staring. I can’t imagine what they would think if I told them the whole story—that I left Blair crying in her swing so long because I was checking e-mail and getting really pissed off that I couldn’t have just 10 minutes to myself to check my damn e-mail, though I really had almost no e-mail to check anyway. But that doesn’t matter.
Because Nancy nodded. She gets it. She must feel it, too—the realization, deep in the back of your throat, that something just isn’t right. I wonder if I’m not so isolated and alone and horrible after all. Or maybe Nancy was just being polite. But being polite would have been trying to make me feel better: Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re not a terrible mother.
Nancy didn’t say that. Nancy said she knows.
A FEW WEEKS LATER, I meet some of the mommies at a new bar on Route 73 for a Girl’s Night Out. We look completely unmommy-like sitting on the outdoor patio, hair blown out, lipstick on, sipping red wine, not a single nugget of spit-up on us anywhere. Jenn pulls out a pack of Marlboro Lights she bought at Wawa for the occasion, and as I take the first hit off the first cigarette I’ve smoked in more than a year, I wonder if we would ever have become friends if we’d met before there were babies. Would we have had anything to talk about? Would we have liked each other? Because this person I’ve been since I met them isn’t the person I was before. I still haven’t been able to tell them much—okay, anything—about how I’m really feeling. I’m a different person. I’m guarded. I’m worried, constantly, about what they think of me and what I’m feeling, second-guessing everything I do. They don’t know that person, either. The one I do show them, the one they know, is just an image I’m projecting of myself—the “good mother” with the “helpful husband” and the “challenging but completely lovable daughter,” the mother who “tells funny stories about parenting” and is “happy” just like she’s supposed to be in this, “the most exciting and rewarding time of her life.”
“Dave would kill me if he knew I was smoking,” Nancy says, blowing the smoke up over her shoulder to keep it off her clothes. “He’s totally freaked out. He wanted to know exactly when I was going to leave and exactly when I was going to get home. I left him a list—‘Give her bottle,’ ‘Put her in crib,’ ‘Shut off light.’”
“Thad’s freaked, too,” I say. I don’t know why I say it. Thad’s not nervous at all. My parents are there, helping him tonight.
“Yeah, but … ” Nancy says, then stops short. She takes a swig from her rum and Diet Coke. “I had to have sex with Dave every day this week in order to come out tonight.”
“WHAT?” someone yells.
“You are kidding, right?” Paula says, her eyes bulging out of her head so far that it looks like it hurts.
“Every. Single. Day.” Nancy giggles, as if hoping this tidbit might elicit the same reaction that her papasan story did at Baby & Me. But it doesn’t. No one laughs. Not really. We all just look at each other, and at Nancy. I figure everyone’s thinking What a dick. That is not what I’m thinking. I’m thinking Thank God I’m not the only one who thinks her husband is being a total pain in the ass.
“So Ryan tells me today that he wants to have friends over tonight,” Jenn spits out, as if she’s been holding her breath with this information since she sat down. “Um. Hello? I told him weeks ago that we were going out. One night. That’s all. And he invites friends over. And I’m like, ‘Well, I won’t be there.’”
And now we are laughing. Everyone. Like we all just figured it out. We are all, to one degree or another, full of shit. Marriage-with-children? It isn’t all loving and la-la like we’ve all been pretending it is. Our husbands? They’re not all helpful and proactive and patient, like we’ve been pretending they are. I pull my knees up onto the chair and sit on them, as if I’m about to make confession.
“I was so mad at Thad a few weeks ago that I packed all of Blair’s stuff into a bag … like, all of it,” I tell them, “and had it sitting by the door when he came home, and as soon as he walked in the door, I said, ‘I’m going to my parents’ house. At least there I will have some help.’”
“WHAT?” Joan says.
“I didn’t go.”
“I don’t even know if I was really going to go, but I wanted him to think I was. Like a threat,” I say, feeling a little naked, a little nervous that I added that detail. This has all been so terrifying—not only how I’ve felt about being a new mom, but actually being a new mom. Actually having this little person, this little baby girl with her massive blue eyes and her daddy’s ears and that wild smile she reserves for the first time she sees me in the morning, who depends on me to know how to be a mother and to do it right.
Maybe this transition into motherhood’s been extreme for me. Maybe my baby’s been especially hard. Maybe I was especially unprepared for it. But sitting here, listening to Nancy, listening to Jenn, I finally understand—it’s not just me. The problems. The fears. We all have them. Sure, there are different levels. Some of us don’t want to go back to work. Some have husbands who don’t get it. Some have babies who cry a lot. But what’s common is that none of us talk about it. We can’t. And that’s the real Mommy War—that lonely battle, constantly raging and churning in our heads, over what we think motherhood should be vs. what we’re really going through. How could we admit there’s a difference? Because all of us believe, of course, that we have to get it right. We have no choice. We’re mothers now. Mothers. And, certainly, we can’t let anyone think we’re screwing that up. But the face we force ourselves to put on, that things are fine, no matter what’s happening, only makes the battle in our heads worse. Only makes us feel more alone.
And here we are, five months into motherhood, unable to tell the truth of how we feel until we escape—no babies, no husbands, a tiny bit drunk—and are finally willing to take a little risk.
“I told my husband, ‘The baby and I, we are a team,’” Jenn says. “‘You? You do not have to be part of this team. If I go, she goes.’”
“Exactly,” I say. “Exactly.”
And we’re all still chuckling, but now we’re sitting back in our chairs as if we’re trying to let it digest, this conspiracy we’ve been unknowingly perpetuating. And it’s not just us. Later I’ll call some of my friends who have kids. I’ll ask them, “Why didn’t you warn me?” One will say, “You should have called me!” One will say, “It wasn’t that bad for me. Except … that one time … ” One will say, “I did. I told you, ‘Don’t worry if you don’t bond right away.’” And then she’ll go on to say that her son had such severe colic for so long that her husband decided he couldn’t be Mr. Mom like they’d planned and she had to put her boy in daycare and it broke her heart and she had to fight not to resent her husband. And I will ask her: “Why didn’t you tell me that?” But I’ll already know the answer. She couldn’t tell me that. She couldn’t risk me knowing that.
Even now, at this bar, there’s more to say. But it feels like it might be too much. At least for now, since we all just discovered that, really, we don’t know each other at all. I look over at Nancy. She’s sitting beside me, her hands wrapped around her drink, her fingernails tapping on the glass. She’s looking straight ahead, expressionless, as if she’s daydreaming. Then she leans over just a little, so her mouth is close to my left ear.
“Do you really fight with Thad?” she whispers.
“I mean, do you really fight?” She looks into her lap.
“Yeah,” I say, so glad that I know her. “We really fight.”
We look back at the mommies, not ready yet to say anything more.