Typical Text Exchange
Me: We were up all night. Again.
Other Mama(OM): Oh no. Not much better here.
Me: We are going to that bakery today. I need coffee. And sugar.
OM: The really busy one? You are crazy.
Me: Want to join us? I might die if we stay in.
OM: No way. Meet up later?
As a solo, working parent of two small children, the days were like life rafts: I simply churned in the stormy ocean, glad to not drown, trying my best to not worry about our soaked clothes. Were the boys fed, loved? Check, check. It was enough. It had to be.
I rode the waves of patting backs, sobbing and checking latch when the world was sleeping. During the day, I “leaned in” so hard at work I practically fell on my face. I might as well have been left in a snowstorm with no provisions, and told good luck. The yoga mat stayed rolled up. The unread books collected dust. Clipped recipes never got made. Despite my nuclear family visions before kids, I was navigating alone without a map. Or sleep.
I wanted a map. Or at least someone to tell me the way.
Without a guide, I often gave into the black hole of early parenthood, exasperated by juggling everything solo. The days often blended together like stretches of cottony clouds spotted on early days of spring. Brilliantly light, easy to get lost in.
Lost, and lonely. I was surrounded by people all day at work, and at home the boys clung to me, yet doubt snipped at my heels even in my best moments. Once night fell and the house grew quiet, buoyed by soft baby snores, the snipping turned to screaming, aided by the hypnotic glow of the television, demanding if I just worked harder or did a better job or got out of the house more, I could create perfect days, full of two smiling children, a hot mocha with hand whipped cream and silence so that I could finally get my head together.
One such sleepless night, mesmerized by a Mad Men binge, is how we ended up at the most popular bakery in our neighborhood the following morning. When we arrived, my hair unwashed and the boys with pants on backwards, every chair was filled and the line of people waiting to buy baked goods wound through half the restaurant. People crowded on outside benches, opening their winter coats, hovering over croissants and coffees.
The voice inside my head urging try harder is how I joined that line with my wriggling 17-month-old, who just wanted to walk everywhere, and my three-year-old, who was happy to chase him. Both were hungry. We were all worn out from the night before.
We lasted only a few minutes in that burgeoning line before sweat began to pour down my back. Panic rose like a python up my throat, wrapping around my jaw. I started to offer tense, angry words to my hungry, whiny children. Even on their best day, we would not have escaped without a meltdown.
Tears pooled in my eyes, and still, no map on how to navigate this story. Who cared about the kids; I was about to start screaming.
So I did what any half-sane parent would do. I left.
My three-year-old started to protest. I want my chocolate pastry! I want it now! My 17-month-old dragged his little legs, screeching only because he didn’t know any words to hurl at me.
The drama escalated as we made our way around the long line, and to the very full patio, one child sobbing and the other close. The world stopped spinning—I swear this really happened—as everyone there had a front row seat to the epic meltdown that was my family.
I hoisted the boys up higher, their shoes scraping the wooden floor.
I put a tight smile on my face.
My mind raced. Did we bring the car? Or did we walk?
I had no idea. What I did know is that we just had to get to the parking lot, away from these people who had to be thinking about what a terrible mother I was. I refused to cry in front of them.
Sweat soaked my shirt, and the pit in my stomach grew deeper, a pit that might never get filled because that moment might never end.
Someone started to slowly clap.
My tunnel vision widened, trying to find that judgmental person as my fists clenched around writhing fingers. Words of retort started to arrange in my head. How dare you make fun of us?
The car was so far away, if I could even find it.
Then, the clapping became applause as more hands joined in, an undercurrent to carry us through the walkway with words that slowed my racing heart.
You are doing a good job mama!
These are hard times—you’ve got this.
Ah, I remember days just like this. You will laugh some day.
Several people gave me wide smiles or soft nods, weaving a net under my little family of three.
Someday you will miss this. I promise.
The applause followed us down the parking lot, and stayed in my head as the car magically appeared in one of the first stalls. Within seconds, we were buckled in and on our way to the closest drive-thru to order our long awaited coffee and donuts.
As it turns out, my map isn’t made up of the shiny catalogue pages I long ago pasted into a scrapbook, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have one. My map is made up of what I didn’t know I’d need: people who love us, and when called upon, rescue us. Sometimes they know us, and sometimes they don’t.
It’s been a year and a half since the day at the bakery, and I think of what happened there often. Now, when the perfect storm descends and I want to puke out of despair that this stage may truly never ever never ever ever end, I think back to that patio. The heat rising and soaking my shirt, the snake of anxiety choking back tears, me forcing a giant smile while I drug my screaming kids out of someone else’s idyllic Saturday morning.
I feel all of that for a moment.
Then, I drop a text to a friend and hear how it’s the same over there—or better yet, what an amazing day they are having. I take the boys to a park or the zoo and see we are just like everyone else, or I wait for someone who’s been there to offer a reassuring nod or comment when we fall apart.
We aren’t alone on life rafts; we are surrounded by them, and by people who are clinging to days that are difficult and brilliant. It’s hard being the sole center of a universe, a storm, a swirling ocean. But it’s a lot easier when you realize you’re one of thousands.
Guest post written by Lacey Schmidt. "My mom does everything," is how her three-year-old recently described Lacey. Most days, it feels true. Solo parent to Miles and Jack, Lacey is an HR leader by career, Mom always, and all else in the cracks she can find, and where in life she can integrate.