Of Lifelines, New Mothers and the Unknown
Our friendship didn’t so much as grow as it did appear like the Big Bang created the universe.
She called me crying, like how she used to in the old days. The old days, when our boys were infants, strapped to our backs as we’d meander through the Pike Place Market’s flower and fruit stalls, sticky floor beneath our feet. Crowds of tourists slowly shuffled by the flavored honey samples, colorful hand-painted tote bags, and juicy red apples sliced open to entice with a free taste while we reassured the other that the babe on her back is content. But our boys are teenagers now — likely either out with their friends at that very moment, or locked in their bedrooms blasting music and texting. I wonder what’s happened to make her cry like that, now.
R. has been my best mama-friend for over 15 years now, since that day in 2000 when we met, each of us the new mother of a 7 month old baby, born two weeks apart. We clung to our burgeoning friendship, born of desperation and a feeling of not fitting in with the other moms seemingly settled for life within lovely homes on the top of the hill, in our trendy neighborhood. It became much more than that, of course—our friendship. But that’s how it began. She and her husband lived, with their son, in a one-bedroom apartment with frayed carpeting, a bay window and young, loud neighbors. My husband and I and our son lived on the top floor of a large, old craftsman house, renovated into a discrete apartment, owned by my mother and stepfather who lived on the bottom two floors. The rent was cheap and the babysitting even cheaper.
Our friendship didn’t so much as grow as it did appear like the Big Bang created the universe. One day I was a lonely, insecure first-time mother of a seven-month old and the next I was part of a partnership. R. and I against the world, we needed little else but each other during those long, drawn out days of full-time motherhood, in those first months. We became an inseparable duo; sharing everything from childcare to our deepest anxieties about parenting and life. We bought a used, double stroller for $10 at the children’s consignment store where I worked a couple of days as week to get out of the house. We would stroll them together, sitting side-by-side, through the city-streets, swerving around the hipsters, to the park where we gingerly placed them in the old, rubber baby-swings for the first time, to gauge their excitment or fear. Sometimes we’d bring a blanket and snacks and let the boys rip tufts of grass from the ground with their chubby hands while we held them close and talked.
Each of us took turns watching both boys when one of us had to go to a part-time job or needed a baby-free couple of hours, during the day. And we cried to each other. We cried on the phone when one of us was having a particularly horrid morning (read: the baby wouldn’t nap/seemed sick/was crying non-stop/just downed a bottle of homeopathic teething tablets — is that toxic or just, well, extra-healthy?) and we cried together in person, recalling life before our babies, recounting fights with our husbands, or whining about how utterly exhausted we felt. We’d dial one of our numbers, wait for the other to pick up and then let the tears flow. It wasn’t long before the comforter told the comfortee to pack up the baby and walk the 15 blocks or so to her apartment so we could just be together. Being in the presence of someone who understood what I was going through and who was, in essence, going through the same thing kept me going just enough to make it through each day.
R. and I have remained close friends even as she and her family moved to a smaller city 40 miles south. My husband and I are the god-parents to her son; she and her husband are like a second set of parents to our son. The boys (young men!) have also stayed close. Closer than we would have ever thought possible given the distance and, well, their very different personalities and interests. Still, they are truly brothers. Sleep-overs are a regular occurrence, texting throughout the week, almost every week. They argue as well; in the manner of brothers. There is a sense of security that reinforces their connection, an honest friendship not always easy to find as a teenage male. We treasure and nurture their bond, as we did ours those years ago.
So, when she called me crying recently, and I was in the car, I raced home as quickly as possible to call her back. Her voice was quiet, trembling. I asked her what was going on and it was all the push she needed to let loose. Her fear, as I remember our fear as new mothers, centered on her uncertainty about parenting in a moment just past, a series of days and weeks perhaps—but a moment that lit the match. R. had a full-blown, no-holds-barred argument with the boy in the next room just minutes earlier. She felt like she didn’t know how to be a good parent to her son through the hurricane teenage years. She was devastated and angry and couldn’t get through to him about this particular issue, over which they were arguing. Yet, in many ways, she was simply crushed at the growing separateness between them.
It’s a normal and healthy stage, of course, when teenagers begin to separate themselves from their parents, become, at turns, demon-like and arrogant, then mild-mannered and gracious. At your best, maybe you watch it with remove, allowing yourself not to get sucked into the madness. More often, though, it’s a challenge not to get burned by the fire-breath of your own personal teenage-dragon. It is also, at times, heartbreaking. Mostly, it’s emotionally exhausting. R. was caught in an avalanche of all of these and, like when the boys were small, she called me to share and release.
I sighed, with a slight smile on the other hand of the phone. It was as it should be. We lived many miles apart and for all purposes had separate lives for years now. Yet when it came to matters of motherhood, we were as close as if I were sitting right there beside her, on one of our couches, knees bent, legs behind me, crying in tandem.
On the phone now, I listen to her cry and rail against the changes happening within the walls of her home but, also, within herself as she watches her son grow into a young man. I reassure her and tell her it is all as it should be but it doesn’t make it any easier for her to experience the pain and anger. I share that we are going through similar scenarios and, like when we sat present with each other over something rough when the boys were babies, we wade through the shifting tides of motherhood together.
R. and I stay on the phone for close to an hour, emotions breaking up words, whining about teenage-hood, expressing both love and contempt for the boys through their transformations to alien creatures (temporarily, we hope). We reminisce about the support we gave each other when the boys were small and how much that meant to each of us, at that time.
It is hard to measure just how meaningful it was to me, that lifeline of love. Back then, we were just trying to get through the day. One day. I remember this as a shared mantra between us, often: “Just get through the day. You’ll be okay.” I remember, also, the way we helped each other stave off drowning in utter confusion that is new motherhood with the buoying words, letting ourselves off-the-hook: “You are a great mother. It’s okay to feel done. It’s okay to feel exhausted. It’s okay to do too much. It’s okay not to do enough…” These were—and are—the stars that guided me through those early months of motherhood when I could barely think straight, when anxieties and the whirlwind strip most of us raw. But they are also the words R. and I continue to exchange today to soften the sharpness of mothering through the teenage years.
We are wiser as mothers now. Or at least we feel we are. There is a comfort in our confidence as parents, born from time and experience. I have another child also—my daughter was born three years later. I found I did not need a “mama partner” like R., after having her. There was an ease of parenting in my girl’s first few months on this planet that did not exist with my son (not withstanding how challenging adding another child to the family can be). None of this means that I no longer need my friendship with R. Our relationship has grown far beyond our connection as mothers. There is nothing simple or trivial about a friendship born of being new moms, but ours has aged well because of and beyond this.
We may not engage in the day-to-day, minute-to-minute hand-holding we once did, fifteen years ago, when our boys fit in carriers on our backs and our nervousness about parenting came in constant fits and starts. But when one of us finds ourselves in the dark, seeking the heart and ear of a fellow human who understands, the other is always there on the other end of the phone or nestled into the cushion of a couch, ready to be a friend-in-the-fight, an advocate, a mama-partner, just like in the old days. I suspect that’s how it will always be, even as our boys become men and move away, head to college, travel down the path of adulthood, and even have their own children someday. Maybe they’ll be lucky enough to find someone who helps them steer their way through the dusty roads of first-time fatherhood; maybe the boys will be that for each other. If that’s the case, R. and I will likely find a way to cry about that over the phone, too.