By Tricia Kennedy
I walked with my 5-year-old into her Saturday morning ballet class, after the usual mother-daughter tap dance of gently encouraging the selection of the right leotard and working to get teeth brushed and snack chosen. But what hit me when my kindergartner was happily practicing pliés and passés was foreign to our normal routine.
It was the sight of baby Molly, four weeks old and sleeping, cradled in her mother's arms. Then eyes wide open and humming, baby Molly. Her mom changed her lavender cloth diaper, relief in her eyes at the full, mustardy contents. Her chicken legs kicked; her mouth searched for her mother's breast. I couldn't look away from her. At first, watching baby Molly felt warm and sweet, but quickly, my gut twisted as I realized I'd never have this again. And like that, the lump in my chest catapulted into soggy-nosed, shoulder-heaving sobs.
I was mortified, so I tried to make it funny. "I'm not even breastfeeding, and I'm the one who's crying," I said to baby Molly's mom. "She's just so beautiful."
Baby Molly's mom seemed to understand. She said, "It just hits you. One moment they're so little and then you turn around and you're at ballet class."
I had it under control until baby Molly wailed for milk. She gulped and snuggled in while her mom fed her swiftly, lovingly. My milk, long since dry, let down. When my enormous dancer came bounding like a deer into my lap, she said, "You have happy tears, right?" Right?
When it was time to leave, baby Molly's mom was talking to a friend. I wanted to interrupt her, and shout, "Enjoy every minute!" I wanted to talk to her, really talk to her. And then it hit me. I would never have a baby again. Suddenly I had become the "older woman," passing out sage advice.
In the past, when an older woman told me to enjoy my newborn, my emotional response was to feel pressure, as though perhaps I had missed something important because I'd taken too long to empty the dishwasher, or heaven forbid talked to a friend on the phone. I was always left with guilt. But more than that, the advice to "enjoy every minute" revealed a vast generational gap between the older woman and me; we were planted firmly on two sides of a fence. But now, after taking in beautiful, new, baby Molly, I understood. Both sides felt the distance over the fence.
Here's the thing. When an older woman gazes down at your child and tells you to "enjoy every minute," this is what she really wants to say: It's not about enjoying every single minute. It's not about making sure every lunch is perfect, every play date goes swimmingly well and every hike is enjoyed every second by every participant. It's not about having an organized house and well-behaved children. It's about enjoying the moments you can. She wants to tell you that you're doing an amazing job. She wants to connect.
After ballet, my daughter skipped ahead of me along the street to the car and I realized I didn't have to worry about her running into traffic anymore. She was responsible. But did I celebrate this small moment of independence? Nope. I felt I was losing her. And then she picked up a fiery leaf and placed it in my hand. All kinds of seasons were cycling around me and I couldn't breathe. I couldn't keep up with how summer had turned to fall, how my baby had turned into someone who was big enough to be perceptive of emotions, into someone who handed me a leaf when I was sad. Suddenly, I needed an older woman to tell me to slow down and pay attention to my own child. I called my mom.
I am lucky that my mother has played a vital role in my own life as a mom. I think back to the many phone calls I have made (and will still make) to her. I can hear my desperate voice, wondering when my newborn will stop nursing every hour on the hour. How will I possibly get through it? My toddler won't poop. What do I do? "I'm just so exhausted, mom."
And my parents came. My mom made beds, did the laundry, rocked the baby, encouraged a shower and some tea. My dad cooked for my family -- a garlicky chicken dinner with his homemade stuffing and world-famous cranberry sauce. Always completed with dessert. They are my lifelines; they always have been. They helped me see that in spite of the sometimes Herculean tasks required to get through one hour with three children under four years old, my children were blooming. They were happy. I was doing an awesome job. And when my mom swapped war stories of the early days of parenting, we made connections. Like that, the fence between us disappeared.
I think back to some relationships with older women I have passed up. The gentle gardener across the street who had two grown sons, one really special guy with Cerebral Palsy. The plucky librarian who knew that my daughter was scared of stickers, and who always pushed the other patrons aside to check us out first, in order for me to avoid a check-out triple tantrum. The considerate nurse at the doctor's office who saw us through some of the worst, tear-filled appointments. I missed out. What wisdom and comfort they could have offered me, what new life I could have shown them, had I only taken the time to pause and listen.
Mommies in the thick of it, here's our challenge: Sometimes raising kids is like being trapped in a boiling pot. But there might be someone who can throw you a rope. There is a whole generation of older women whose love, smarts, instincts and open arms have been pushed aside. They are the ones who will get you through. They are the ones who will remind you to slow down. Reach out to them. You can and should have support. You can and should feel awesome about being a mother, both in the moment, and for the long haul.
If you are living far from your own family, or moved to a new community, it is worth trying to find a support group (or start your own) where you can share your truth, whatever it may be, with other moms. A Western Massachusetts based organization, MotherWoman, for example, holds support groups for moms, and recognizes that isolation from family and community is one of the challenges that mothers face. Many parents are increasingly isolated from neighborhood, friends and extended family. Moms are working longer and harder to provide for our families, and have fewer places to go when we're in need. MotherWoman believes that creating a community of genuine respect and non-judgment for all mothers increases their collective power.
Trish Kennedy lives in Shelburne, Vermont and is a contributing writer for www.BurlingtonVTMomsBlog.com. She works with special needs students by day and parents three children with her kind husband the rest of the time. She can frequently be found reading, cleaning up St. Bernard drool, and breathing in the smell of her rapidly growing three year old.
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