Dear New Mom,
I owe you an apology. I did the thing I told myself I’d never do to new moms everywhere: I asked you how your baby is sleeping.
I don’t know why I did it. I was probably distracted by your baby’s chunky thighs, or that spastic sweet way she was acknowledging her hands. It could’ve been your toddler girl, eyeing the chocolate milks – all the chocolate milks – at Starbucks; her hands on one box, then another, then looking at you to see what your answer is.
“Can I help you?” the barista asked me. I took a step forward, and my heels made too snappy of a click so that you jerked your head my way, put your hand on your daughter’s head to scoot her forward, and pushed your baby in the stroller away so I could place my order.
“Sorry,” you said, and I was quick to say, “No, no!” and then, “They’re beautiful,” and “I have two little girls of my own.”
You gave me a courtesy nod, but I think you called bullshit on what I’d just said. Here I was in my professional garb, holding only a clutch that a pack of to-go baby wipes wouldn’t have fit into. “You don’t belong in the young kids’ club anymore,” is what I think you were thinking, and I think I felt sad, or defensive, or nostalgic because all of the sudden I had so many questions for you: What are your days like? Do your kids nap at the same time? Do you have friends? Do you ever go to Target just to wander around? Are you having fun even though this is so hard? All those things I said I’d never say came bubbling up: I wanted to tell you to enjoy this time. I wanted to tell you how fast it goes. I hated when older moms told me that. Oh, and the advice! I felt this need to tell you about swaddling blankets and pacifiers, teething toys and the symptoms of croup.
It was like trying to hold in throw up – IT HAD TO COME OUT. I felt like the Hulk only instead of a green monster I was turning into Annoying-Know-It-All-Mom.
I think I was as surprised as you when the words, “How’s she sleeping?” came out of my mouth. “Fine,” you said and I know that was not the “f” word you really wanted to use.
We stood there waiting in silence, and I was so ashamed with myself.
You know, I was standing in this same spot eight years ago, just about a month after my daughter Hadley was born. My parents came to help after my husband went back to work, and, during what seemed like an afternoon lull, I asked my mom if it’d be okay if I walked to Starbucks to get a coffee and read a book.
Back then, I was going through all the forewords to The Best American Short Stories collections because that’s all I could pay attention to. I hadn’t figured out how to convince Hadley that cribs are great places to take naps, so in the afternoons, after a healthy dose of rocking, bouncing, and “shhh,” “shhh,” “shhhing,” Hadley would fall asleep and we’d lay on the couch; one of my hands on her back so I could feel her breathing, and the other holding a book in the air. Soon, I’d fall asleep, and the book would rest on her back, and together she and I would sleep in the afternoon sun that streamed through the windows above the couch, blanketed by words not yet comprehended.
But the day my mom and dad said, “Sure! Go ahead! Take a break! We got this!” and shooed me out the door, it felt like I was being let out for recess early. I grabbed the edition of The Best American Short Stories with David Sedaris’ essay, “Old Faithful” in it, shoved some money in my pocket and headed out the door. I would’ve run to Starbucks I was so excited, but I was nursing and I swear I had the capacity to hold a fire hose’s worth of milk inside of me. My boobs were so full I could serve coffee on them. So I walked.
I feel bad telling you about this. I mean, you don’t want to hear about my boobs. What’s worse, here was a brand new life that I helped to bring forth and I want to go to Starbucks and read a book? Is that okay? Eight years later, I still don’t know. Do you ever have these feelings?
Anyway, I get to Starbucks and order, and I stood where you and I are standing right now, flipping through my book while I waited for my drink. The hum of the milk frother, the trill of the grinder, and the smell of the coffee and whiff of the pages of the book I was holding made me so happy. Like, tears filling my eyes happy.
Also, let down the milk happy.
Maybe you know this, but you can’t cross yourself when this happens because that just lets more milk out. So I tried to cover up with The Best American Short Stories. David Sedaris wouldn’t be able to entertain me with his haunting humor. Right now, he was helping me hide my leaky boobs. I was so ashamed. I think I would’ve been less embarrassed had I peed my pants.
When I got home, I put my coffee on the counter, and went to get my Hadley. I loved scooping her up; loved that heavy feeling of her head on my shoulder. We sat in the rocker in her room, and the milk that had leaked was sticky so it stung when I lifted my shirt and I started to cry. I cried because Hadley was here and I was in awe of her (I still am). I cried because she was such a good eater, and because she made this lovely humming sound when she ate. I cried because I couldn’t sit and read at Starbucks, and I cried because I wanted to sit and read instead of sit and breastfeed. I cried because there was so much coming at me that it was hard to know how to catch it and how to release it.
Hadley fell asleep after I nursed her, drunk full with her right hand in a fist and her arm over her head. Her left was clutched to her armpit. She looked like she was flying. That day, I laid her in her crib, leaned over the railing and whispered, “Sweet dreams, Superman,” because that’s what she looked like. Hadley still sleeps like that.
I walked out of her bedroom, and my mom had a clean shirt waiting for me: my favorite white, long sleeved t-shirt. “Dad will be right back,” she told me. “He went to get you another Starbucks.”
He returned with three coffees and three donuts, and we sat together in the living room sipping our coffee and eating our donuts while I wondered out loud: How long will Hadley sleep? Why can’t I get her to nap longer? What am I doing wrong? I cried some more when I told them I knew I should be reading Babywise or The Baby Whisperer but I didn’t want to. I wanted to read David Sedaris or InStyle or Harry Potter. Saying it felt like a confession, and it still feels like a confession telling you this now.
And I guess that’s why I’m apologizing. I think maybe when I asked you how your baby was sleeping, I was trying to connect with you. Maybe I wanted to say, “Look, I’ve been there, I know.” But I haven’t been where you are. I don’t know. Your story – your mothering – is unique. Nobody will do it the way you do it. Nobody will see the mothering world the way you see it.
I think what seemed like Annoying Know-It-All Mom was actually Leaking Boobs New Mom wondering how you are doing what you do. Because I’m not sure how I got through the wonderful mystery of the young kid years. I think that as long as I’m a mother I’ll be living a wonderful mystery and my mistake today, and probably every day, is that I don’t know all the time what to catch and what to release.
I’m probably going to do this again, ask you stupid questions. But I promise, I have no answers. All I have are stories. And that day in Starbucks, all I meant to do was listen to yours.