I sat at the mall coffee shop today clacking keys on my laptop, with my leather jacket and stylish infinity scarf, certain that every blessed soul that passed by immediately took me for the young and childless 23-year-old that I still am (in my mind).
I had not a single toddler clinging to my leg, nor an infant attached to any part of my body whatsoever. I wasn’t doling out crackers and sippy cups, nor desperately purchasing some sugar-laden treat to appease The Whiny One just so that I could nurse the screaming baby with a hope of avoiding toddler meltdown while I did so.
Sure, there are a couple of random plastic army men at the bottom of my purse (a gift from the ER nurse to my toddler getting stitches), and some stale rice cake crumbs, but that purse was sitting securely at my feet with its contents decidedly NOT strewn around a 4-meter radius by an insatiably curious crawler.
My eyes roamed around every so often as people strolled by. There seemed to be an inordinate number of mamas with strollers and babies and toddlers and diaper bags and baby bellies, and BLESS YOU MAMAS but I was tired just looking at them.
Then I saw you. Very, very pregnant and waddling. I can say that, you know, because I’ve been there, done that times three. Fist-bump-of-solidarity, mama.
You were waddling away from your little table where you sat with your mom(?) and you tossed over your shoulder “I have to go to the bathroom, I’m literally gonna pee my pants”.
Oh lawd’a’mercy, I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing out loud.
I tried not to stare like a total creepster, but I couldn’t help myself. I see you and I see myself in you. I see your aching hips and your brutally tired face with the gritty, counter-cultural beauty of selflessness. That toil is not in vain, mama. You are cooking up an entire new human being from scratch and that’s nothing short of miraculous and freaking exhausting and terrifying and mind-blowing.
I see you, mamas cruising around the mall with toddlers running away and babies crying for milk in the stroller as you rush to finish your cup of coffee before it’s stone-cold or before your precious darling spills it all over the store and you have to figure out the least embarrassing way to extricate yourself from the situation. Juggling a somewhat adult conversation peppered with “yes, you can have more crackers” and “DON’T TOUCH THAT” and “gentle hands on your baby brother, sweetheart… GENTLE HANDS PLEASE!”
I thought of you, too, mama-at-home in sweats and a ponytail. You know how some women can make a ponytail a fashion statement? Yeah, me neither. For so many years, yoga pants, a hairbrush, and a bra – on the same day – signalled serious effort on my part, and I have absolutely no apologies for it.
Those years were defined by being constantly pregnant or postpartum, extended breastfeeding, covered in baby spit-up and toddler boogers about 95% of the time, dragging around a stroller and huge diaper bag, and operating under the tyranny of naps, breastfeeding sessions, and early bedtime. Those years were a blur, and I have absolutely no definable answer for how I survived. I just know that I did.
My littlest has rounded the bend on two and a half, and we’re full steam ahead to three. We have potty training within our sights. He sleeps through the night, and compared to an infant, he understands genius levels of instruction. He has about as much follow-through as a politician, but we’re working on it. In a year or so we’ll be calling him a preschooler instead of a toddler, and that will be that.
The older two are amazing at the ages of four and six. They understand things. They are developing empathy, and selflessness, and responsibility. They understand patience (in theory, anyway) and from time to time they absolutely freaking astound me with their maturity. It’s fun to be a mom of older kids. Babies and toddlers are awesome in their own way but they are the most demanding and exhausting job you’ll ever have, let’s be honest.
I remember being out of the house one time as a family – a doctor appointment or a family gathering or something – and pulling in to a parking lot. I vividly recall the momentary daze of watching people jump in and out of their cars, without stopping to buckle or unbuckle a bunch of dependent children, without worrying about rushing home before the baby falls asleep in the car and ALL HOPE IS LOST for a proper nap at home that day, which every mama knows equals pure disaster. And they had NO IDEA. No sweet clue that I was inextricably bound – of my own free will nonetheless – to every whim, need, and emotion of these little humans that had been birthed from my body. On the dark days I felt like a prisoner. No escape route, no days off, no lunch breaks.
I felt so alone. So invisible. Like the “normal” folks out in the world had no idea what it was like to be in this life. And they don’t. They can’t… unless they experience it for themselves.
But I do.
And so do the others who have waded through those trenches themselves.
I get it, and I see you. It’s not that it’s so bad. I never wanted to complain that my life was awful or terrible because even the roughest bits were mitigated by the crazy love that took my breath away whenever I looked at their long baby eyelashes or crinkly smiling eyes saying “Ah wuv ooh, Mama!”
No, it’s certainly not a life to complain about. But the intensity can overwhelm you. It’s a weighty matter to be entrusted with raising humans. Sometimes it even feels like it might crush you.
So when you’re smack in the middle of those years and wondering, “is there a light at the end of the tunnel?” For when the weight of it all feels so very dark and endless and heavy, and those days tumble one into the other with only the calendar to mark the difference? I want to take your shoulders and tell you: Yes! Your life will not always be this way. In fact, if you blink even a little, you realize that the mind-numbingly slow days sped up when you weren’t looking.
Yes, darling, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And the redeeming quality of these little years is that if you squint and hold still for a moment, you’ll see some light in the tunnel, too. Magical little wisps that settle down on you in the most mysterious fashion. Those little bits will graciously bolster you through the tough spots if you allow them.
The days are long and short and sideways and upside-down, too. They’re all of the metaphors and all the clichés and they’re topsy-turvy with the wildness and the glory of raising babies. It’s so messy and gross and dripping with unexplainable joy in the moments that don’t even make any sense. It’s a head trip.
All I really know for sure is that you’ll make it through. You’ll be basking in sunshine before you even have a chance to realize that you’ve emerged from that tunnel, and you’ll continue on down the road with big kids that adore you and know how to wipe their own tooshes and maybe even get themselves a snack while you enjoy a little break on the couch.
For today, mama, your work is this: to kiss those babies’ heads and make yourself another cup of coffee – you deserve it.