I was walking through the grocery store with my 7-week-old baby. He was my third. I was supposed to be an expert. I was wearing the costume: the yoga pants and the messy bun, exhaustion wrapped around my body and soul. I was a mixed bag of nostalgia and overwhelming love. I secretly longed for my simpler life when I only had two kids to care for, yet I had so much love for this new human I had created.
The things is, you aren’t supposed to say that. I was so aware of the blues that were hovering over me, I felt suffocated. My “resting mom face” would have made people spin on their heels and walk in the other direction — only people rarely look at the mother when she is with a newborn. They are looking at the little bundle they are carrying with them. That sweet baby is all they see.
Strangers come up and ask if they can peek at the baby. They want to know how the baby is. They ask if the baby is sleeping and eating well. They say how cute the baby is. They tell you to treasure these precious moments because they are fleeting.
Every once in a while, someone will ask you how you are — you know, the person who gave birth and all, the one responsible for the delicious bundle. And as mothers, we usually respond with, “fine” or something of the sort because we know that is what strangers want to hear. It’s what they expect you to say.
So, on that Monday afternoon, when I was alone with my new baby, plugging away down the frozen aisle and a woman wearing glasses with salt-and-pepper curls walked over to me and asked to see the baby, I was ready. I was ready for the act. I was ready to show her my baby and tell her all was fucking fabulous because he was my third, and boy, didn’t I have this mothering thing down. I mean, look at him — how could I feel anything but extreme happiness?
Only I didn’t have the mothering thing down. I was struggling. I was overwhelmed. I was having thoughts and experiencing feelings I didn’t think any mother should, because, frankly, nobody told me this might happen. Nobody said, “You might not feel fine, and that will be all right.”
So when she asked how I was doing, I brushed her off. I wrapped my hands around my cart and as I started to walk away, I replied, “Oh, fine. He’s my third, so ya know…”
I followed my script because nobody wanted me to blurt out, “Shit, this is hard. It doesn’t get easier just because you have done this before, but everyone thinks you are broken in and you know what you are doing. Instead, I just feel broken.”
She gently stopped my cart with her left hand and looked me in the eyes and asked me again, “Okay, how are you really? I had five kids. I fell apart when I had number three.”
“He is 7 weeks old, and it still hurts to sit down.”
She stared at me. I had no idea why I was telling this stranger that my vagina still hurt in the ice cream aisle. It just felt right, like maybe her vagina hurt for a really long time after childbirth too.
“He never sleeps. He is my third, and everyone told me it was going to be a cinch, but he is harder than my first two combined at night.”
I looked behind her at the containers of rocky road and peanut butter cup ice cream. I wanted to give her the chance to get away if she felt the need, but she didn’t.
“So, I guess, no, I am not fine, but everyone thinks I am fine. Everyone expects me to be fine just because I have done this before.”
“Or maybe it’s because you keep telling them you are fine. It is okay to not be fine. It is okay to tell people you are not fine and ask for a hand, you know.”
“It is hard for me to ask for help,” I told her. I was really saying I didn’t want to ask for help. I didn’t want people to know I was struggling.
“Okay, so don’t ask for help. Let things get worse. Keep suffering. That is definitely an option. You have been doing it this long. What is a few more years?”
This stranger did not tell me it would be all right eventually. She did not go off about how if she could handle five kids, I could handle three. She laid my options right in front of my face. Her no-bullshit attitude was refreshing. She let me be real, and she was real in return. And real was what I needed.
And so, after our encounter, I grabbed both the rocky road and the Reese’s Cup ice cream and felt a little lighter knowing it was okay to not be fine, that she wasn’t fine after her third, and that nobody really expected me to be fine either.
I was thankful she let me know I could keep it all bottled up or I could do what I needed for myself — which included talking about my struggles to my doctor and asking for more help, but most of all, how important it was to be gentler with myself.
Sometimes in order to move forward and make positive changes, we have to be gentler with ourselves. I just happened to need a stranger’s permission to get to that point.
Since that day, I remind all moms to be gentle with themselves if things don’t feel okay. Having a child, whether it’s your first or fifth, is a huge life change and it will be fine if we lower the expectations we have for ourselves and admit things are really hard, and get the help we need. We will be better for it, I promise.
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