Last week, I ran into my sweet friend and co-worker, Jeannie, in the parking lot at the preschool both of our children attend.
“Hey! Did you get a new car?” I asked.
“No, I got in an accident.”
“Oh my gosh! Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Because I’m not that person. I don’t like to be Debbie Downer.”
“But, wait … You got in an accident, a whole wreck, a collision, and didn’t say anything?”
“I’m just not having a good week. I screamed at the kids yesterday for no reason, and then again this morning, and I’m just sucking at all the things, and …”
I was watching a very familiar ball of yarn – one I personally keep in my nightstand, next to the melatonin and emergency candy bars – unravel right there on the pavement. But by God, she was not going to cry.
Jeannie had taken a mental health day from work, she went on to say, because things were just piling up. Between losing it on her boys and being annoyed with her husband and questioning all of those pesky major life decisions, she was mentally depleted and in need of an indulgent Netflix binge. As I stood there, an unforgiving morning wind intruding on our conversation, I listened as this strong woman, who I deeply care for, talked herself down into a dark hole. It was a female ritual I’d both observed and initiated against myself with my girlfriends, my sister, and my own mother. I waited for an opening.
“It’s an off week, that’s all,” I said as I moved to close the gap between us. “It does not mean anything about you as a mother or a wife or a human. We all have days when we feel totally defeated. I was standing with my toes at the edge last week, and now you’re up. It will pass, I promise.”
In other words: “I see you. I empathize with you. I still love you, and so does your family.”
I think we can all agree it’s time to retire the charade. Being a mom in any capacity on any day that ends in “y” is a wild occupation. Those ambitious enough to assume they’re going to climb that ladder have another think comin’. Between the demand and the clients and the hours, mere survival is considered an above par performance on the job.
When you’re a mother, there are two kinds of days: The days you have enough milk for their cereal, and the days you realize it’s 2 weeks expired after you pour it into the bowl. The days you catch the bus, and the days you chase it down and get reprimanded by the driver. The days you find both the shoes, and the days you search for the shoes. The days you argue with your 5-year-old, and the days you argue with your 5-year-old. It’s no joke, this job. And it is not for the weak or the weary. Though it promises to make you both weak and weary.
I can tell you within 10 minutes of my children waking what kind of day lies ahead of me. I can feel it like the air before a tornado – Mother Nature’s hot breath. But we don’t show the sweat on our faces, no. We smile, press on, and push all the shit way down deep because we think it makes us less of a mom or less of a wife or less of a woman if we aren’t acing all the things, all the time. Well, guess what … that’s bullshit.
I always say, “God makes ‘em cute so you don’t send them back.” In my case, he doubled up just to be sure and made my daughters funny, too. He knows I have a short fuse.
On one particularly trying morning, I broke the mom code and let the truth serum seep in. When the administrative assistant in my office asked how my morning was, I said, “Oh, I’m fine, thanks. Other than the fact that I want to go on strike against my entire family for a few days.” A spark flickered in her eyes. A crack in the fake facade. An opening.
“You know,” she said, like a kid at confession, “once when the kids were little, I told my husband that my sister needed me, and I checked into a hotel for the weekend. I just watched TV, did a little shopping, and ate.” We laughed like idiots, and I thought about how many other times I should have put out the invitation for other mothers to share their tales from the trenches.
In the parking lot that morning, if I squinted just so, I could see the little armies waging battle inside my friend Jeannie. One side was fighting in the name of vulnerability and transparency and saying all of the depressing shit she was really feeling, while the opposition was willing to die on that hill with a laugh and a shrug for the sake of appearances. I’m familiar with that war, that struggle. How much to share, when to share it, what the perception will be, which parts of the day’s failures I should censor for fear of how it will poison the perception of my otherwise “tidy” life.
We women are an efficient bunch. We are anticipatory. We are prepared and organized and concerned. We shoot ourselves in both feet day after day after day by getting everyone up and dressed and fed and out the door. We sign permission slips and send notes about doctor’s appointments and talk to the sitter at length about the quality and quantity of the baby’s bowel movements. We do it because somebody has to do it. But sometimes, being that somebody just chews you up and spits you out.
In holistic nursing, there’s something called a Code Violet. When the code is called for a caregiver, he or she is given a purple bracelet to wear, signifying they are in emotional distress. People might be a little kinder, a little more understanding, a little quicker to forgive minor oversights. Well, I’d say it’s time for moms to get a code of their own. Code Yellow, maybe? Code Brown? (Signifying we’re in deep shit.) That way, we can offer hugs, or cocktails, or comforting cuss words to our fellow comrades who are momentarily flailing.
If you have a perfect household with a perfect spouse and perfect children and everything is all Marie Kondo all the time, that is incredible. But, for the rest of us, it’s really easy to feel lonely sometimes. We believe we’re alone in thinking our kids are assholes on occasion. We believe we’re the only one who wants to stop for a drink after work on a Thursday instead of sitting in the carpool line. We believe it’s a conspiracy that our neighbor’s house is always suspiciously clean while ours is reproducing dust at a mind-boggling rate. We hide our secret Lucky Charms addiction and exchange kale salad recipes.
But the Code Brown could revolutionize our sorority.
For example – and this is entirely hypothetical – if I saw you staring at the rows of bottles in the wine section with a crocodile tear in your eye, and I noticed your poo-colored wristband, I might offer to pick up your kids and keep them busy for an hour, no questions asked. And you might return the favor two days later when you saw me carrying a snot-covered, entirely hysterical child out of the urine-scented playdome and took note of the doo-doo-hued decoration south of my fingers. You might even throw in a silent prayer for my sanity (and my child). It’s an emotional exchange program, rooted in support and understanding.
So, who’s in? Who’s comin’ with me here?
Let’s remove the stigma staining our struggles and choose, instead, to help a sister out. Friends, I do not mind having your children over to play for a bit, no strings or expectations attached. It does not inconvenience me to listen to your recount of just how irrational your daughter got over cold butter noodles last night. No one can hear a mother’s cries and gripes like another mother. I say it can’t count as a true failure if you speak it aloud and set it free.