My dress is wrinkled, with buttons that gape to expose the nursing bra underneath. I wasted an entire afternoon shopping for this dress, lugging an infant car seat in and out of stores and fitting rooms, desperately trying to find a dress that was both “nursing-friendly” and flattering. The button-down denim shirtdress meets the first criteria, but had only been mildly flattering, at best, when I tried it on. I hoped that pairing the dress with my best boots and favorite turquoise necklace would somehow make it look better. But now, after dressing and feeding my three month old, arguing with my husband, and driving an hour, the dress is no longer anywhere near its best.
Honestly? Neither am I.
That afternoon, as I packed the diaper bag, ironed my dress, and jiggled the bouncer with my foot, I called my husband for a third time. Irritated by his tardiness, I snapped at him when he explained the hold up at the ranch.
“Are you sure you want to go?” he asked, stoking the fire in my chest.
“Of course I’m sure.” I barked. “Plus, we told them we were coming.”
Tonight is the wedding of some friends, our first outing since becoming parents. Desperate for adult interaction, I RSVP’d without a second thought. In my head, it would be the perfect evening out. I would feel beautiful in a new, flattering dress, our sleeping baby snuggled against my chest in the wrap while I sipped a (small-ish) glass of wine, every bit the impeccably put-together new mom. We would eat a delicious meal that I didn’t have to cook, and slip out early to take the baby home to bed. I had been looking forward to it for weeks.
My husband sighed heavily in response. I knew he was exhausted from a full day of manual labor and problem solving that started at 5 a.m., in a futile attempt to be done early. And, in a better moment, I would have cared. But not then. I had started getting ready five hours in advance. I had every detail meticulously planned. How could he even think not going was an option?
“I’m on my way,” he muttered curtly, and I heard the truck door slam in the background before he hung up without saying goodbye.
As I picked up the diaper bag and made the first of many trips to the car, my mind raced with the unspoken dialogue of the kind of one-sided fight that is best kept that way, filled with name-calling and unkind words.
By the time he walked through the door, I had everything ready to go, and was stewing in silence on the couch as I attempted to feed the baby one last time before we left.
The drive to the venue is tense: front-seat silence punctuated by back seat screams that quiet only moments before we arrive. I find myself shivering as I step out of the car in the gravel parking lot, wishing I had brought a jacket. Today had been warm and still, the kind of September day that defines the term Indian Summer, begging to be spent at the lake or on the river and making the goosebumps on my arms this evening especially noticeable. The wind howls, and the baby gasps and screams, freezing in the button-down shirt and tiny Wrangler jeans I bought just for tonight with a matching father-son Instagram photo in mind.
Desperately seeking shelter, we bee-line for the enclosed barn after briefly greeting friends in the parking area. They are still setting up inside, and glasses clink together lyrically behind the bar, momentarily soothing our colicky son.
Outside, the ceremony has started, but we remain inside, separated from the other guests by a wall of glass windows. Coming here tonight was a mistake, and we both know it. Instead of feeling like my old self, as I had hoped, I feel even more isolated and alone than before.
“He’s hungry,” my husband whispers, nudging my shoulder. I recoil from his touch, feeling simultaneously defeated and annoyed, resenting the interruption and his inability to meet that particular need of our son’s. The disappointment of unmet expectations washes over me as I walk to the car with my son in my arms to nurse him.
After feeding him, burping him, changing him, cleaning spit up off us both, and tying on my wrap, I make my way back. The ceremony has ended in my absence and the celebratory cocktail hour is well underway.
As I attempt to bounce and shush my way through a conversation, I nervously down the glass of wine my husband hands me, underestimating the effects of my first postpartum drink. It relaxes my shoulders and calms my sizzling nerves, making me feel as though I fit in tonight after all.
Bored by my husband’s conversation about calf prices and feeder hay, I scan the crowd for a familiar face, delighted when my eyes land on two women chatting nearby. They are friends from my old life, from when I could carry a conversation about something other than diaper brands and sleep schedules, and one of them is newly pregnant.
She gushes over my son as I eye her flawless, unwrinkled outfit, beginning to feel self conscious about the state of my own dress again. But her glowing cheeks and contagious excitement draw me into the conversation, and I find myself answering her baby registry questions. The alcohol makes me overly chatty, and I unintentionally monopolize the conversation; turning a question about strollers into a monologue about motherhood.
“Nobody talks about the hard stuff. Everyone is so quick to tell you how easily you’ll fall in love, how wonderful it is to snuggle a newborn.” My voice rises, and I see my husband turn from his own conversation, raising an eyebrow at my tone.
I am ranting, I realize. Unloading the burdens I have buried inside for too long on this poor, unsuspecting mom-to-be. “But I wish someone had told me that sometimes you don’t feel that love right away. That your baby might have food sensitivities, and might not sleep. That sometimes babies scream for what feels like 24 hours a day.”
She takes a step back, and while her face remains kind, her smile becomes more forced with every word.
Despite her discomfort, I can’t seem to stop myself, and carry on. And on. And on. Desperate to share my pain and suffering with someone, begging her to validate my experience.
My husband eventually touches my elbow, asks if I’m ready to go. I can see in his eyes that I have embarrassed him, and my cheeks burn with shame. Looking down at the spit-up stains on my ill-fitting dress, I blink away tears.
We drive home in silence, exhausted by the effort and disappointment of the evening, neither one of us with enough energy for a fight.
Later that night, I lie awake in bed, tears streaming down my cheeks as I hold our crying son. My husband gently rubs my back and my frustration with him ebbs, until I’m left thinking only of my own shortcomings. I stare across the room toward the pack ‘n play the baby should be sleeping in and replay the reception conversation over and over again in my mind, trapped between the moments I should have stopped talking and the things I should have said instead. I sigh heavily, and remember how beautiful my friend looked, full of hope and expectation.
I think of my own dress, discarded denim on the floor of our bathroom; covered in spit up, sweat, and motherhood, with a wrinkled skirt and stretched out bodice. Maybe I’ll throw it out in the morning. I wanted that dress to transform me into someone else for the evening: a perfect mom, with a perfect baby. But it failed.
I stare down at my now sleeping son in my arms. He is completely relaxed, curled against me as you do only against someone you love most. As I close my eyes to drink in the sweet smell of him, my heart swells in my chest, and I am overwhelmed by the enormity of this responsibility. Overwhelmed by the love I worried I would never feel.
The next morning, I toss the dress in the wash. It’s not perfect, but then again neither am I. It is functional, though, and right now that’s enough.
I’m starting to believe that maybe I am, too.
Guest post written by Cara Stolen. Cara is a ranch wife and work-at-home mama of two living in rural Washington state. She loves exceptionally early mornings, strong black coffee, and listening to her children giggle. You can find her hiding in her pantry sneaking handfuls of chocolate chips, or on Instagram.
Cara is a member of our Exhale community, and this essay was originally drafted in one of our writing workshops. To learn more about Exhale and how you can join this amazing community of creators and dreamers, visit www.exhalecreativity.com.