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The Truth About Parenthood

She asks me one question as she traces small circles around her bulging belly button, just one part of her anatomy that will never be the same.
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Sometimes, I have this imaginary conversation with an imaginary friend who is days from giving birth to her first child. In this fictional scenario, we are huddled at a small table in a coffee shop and she, my fictional friend who is about to pop, shifts uncomfortably in her wooden chair and plucks errant blueberry muffin crumbs from her cleavage.

She asks me for advice. Because I have been there -- three times now -- and my kids seem healthy and happy. To her, I am a relatively seasoned member of the Mother Species and she wants me to share the secrets. She asks me one question as she traces small circles around her bulging belly button, just one part of her anatomy that will never be the same.

What's the one thing I need to know?

She asks me this question while fixing me with her eyes, eyes that shimmer with excitement and fear and anticipatory love. I can tell that she is literally hungry for information, for a piece of wisdom that will work to sate and to soothe, for a little gem that will get her through. She clutches her belly, a belly that is powerful in its roundness, a belly that is full of life, a belly that will be empty so soon.

And everything about this scene makes me smile. The coffee shop full of strangers seeking caffeine and connection. My friend -- puffy but beautiful too, full of an intelligent and endearing panic I recognize. Her question -- foolish in its simplicity, gorgeous in its gall.

And my mind does its jig, rumbling with all the bits I have learned, secrets about strollers and swaddles, secrets about nursing pillows and boob tents, secrets about the magic of meeting other new moms and believing only half of what they say (something about fresh motherhood makes us candy coat the early days). But as all of these things flit through my mind, a single sentence arrives. A simple sentence. One that is stark and undeniably true. Bitter. Unsweetened. Like the coffee I drink.

She leans in, my friend, as if she knows I have it, the secret to share.

Parenthood is hard, I say.

She shrinks a bit in her chair, no doubt deflated. But I am quick to elaborate, fired up now:

Here's the thing. One day you are a person with a belly and then suddenly you are a person with a baby. And you will love that baby in a way that you can neither fathom nor articulate. This love will be fierce in its essence, something that grips you and guides you. You will want to get it right. Immediately. You will want to be good at this, this elusive thing you are suddenly and desperately immersed in doing, this nurturing of a tiny creature you have created. And you will quickly realize that there is no Right. There are people who will say things. There are books that will say things. All of these things will commingle and conflict and conspire to confuse you.

You will cry. From joy. From crippling fear. From exhaustion. You will have moments when you feel alive and invincible, when your instincts are golden, and then you will have moments when you are a puddle, when the baby is crying and you are too and it is dark outside and morning seems like it will never come. But it will come. It always does.

It's not just the early days, either. The days when your milk is coming in, or not coming in, when you are shredded with fatigue and lost in a wilderness of hormones and change. It's all the days after, too. They will be hard. They will be stuffed with moments of confusion and guilt and piercing love. They will be full of questions and conundrums and frustrations and fears, but they will also be laced with the most incredible sense of satisfaction that you are doing important and invaluable work. Work that is, if you are doing it honestly -- if you are doing it "right" -- hard.

When I finish my hushed-but-heated monologue on motherhood, I am surprised by something: My fictional friend is smiling. And this baffles me and delights me in equal measure.

Thank you, she says. Maybe this sounds kind of crazy, but I am looking forward to the struggle.

And to me, her words don't sound crazy at all. They sound honest. They sound real. For one delicious moment, I imagine a world where we women, we moms and almost-moms and non-moms, have coffee and muffins and talk instead of casting aspersions and judging. A world where maternity leave is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, where some of us stay home and some of us go to an office, but all of us, each and every one of us, works and hard. A world where we acknowledge, tacitly, triumphantly, truly, the work that we are doing -- individually, collectively, imperfectly, lovingly. The work that we are doing well, and not so well sometimes. A world where we are humble and reverent and real about the fact that when it comes to parenthood, and to life, really, most of us are trying. And hard.

It's getting dark outside in my dream world, as day dips toward night, and we stand to go. I throw my arms around my friend, capturing her in an awkward and abiding hug. And I feel it, a twinge of something between envy and empathy, a tiny taste of the magical murkiness she's about to muddle through.

Good luck, I say.

Thanks, she says, her smile wild and wide, and then she takes my hand and puts it on her belly. And I feel it, a pointy little something, rolling along the surface of her skin.

I think it's her elbow!, she says, her beautiful eyes brimming with a breed of awe I know oh so well.

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