Act I, sc i
[A gym, years ago. The trainer is leading a group of women in a warm-up]
Trainer: Okay, ladies! We’re going to do a quick jog around the studio…
Me: (whispering to my friend) Crap! I don’t run.
Trainer: Move those arms, ladies. Pump your arms!
Me: (running, panting and moving my arms)
Trainer: Jen G.!!! (looking at me) What are you doing?!
Me: (running, panting, moving my arms faster)
Trainer: You’re running, Jen, not chopping vegetables.
Yesterday, I was fortunate to meet up with a few old friends for coffee. These are women whom I met through a play group fourteen years ago, when my oldest was only a few months old. At the time, we were seven new mothers with eight children among us. We met weekly for years, our group steadily growing to fourteen children. At that point, instead of meeting in someone’s house, we opted for a local park. By the time there were eighteen children between us, we had stopped meeting with the children altogether; instead, we’d meet for dinner every few months and go away for one weekend a year. I’ve since moved away, as has another woman, and most of our children are teenagers or middle-schoolers (except for two of us whose oldest and youngest children are spaced far apart). The isolation of being home with infants and toddlers is behind us. Some of us have gone back to work, gone back to school, started new ventures, and we’ve all made other friends. But meeting over coffee was a chance to share stories from the trenches as we’ve always done, even if the trenches are different now.
The need for connection with other mothers when you’re home with infants is visceral. When my youngest was 9-months old, I had him in a swing at the park and noticed a woman with a baby who appeared to be about the same size as mine. We locked eyes and as she crossed a soccer field to approach me, I recognized the look on her face: desperation. It was the same desperation that I had felt when my oldest was only a few months old — a desperation that compelled me to approach a woman in the back of church after mass, just because she was holding a baby. The conversation, in both cases, stayed casual and friendly, “How old is your baby? Is this your first? Are they sleeping the night? Do you know other mothers around here?” but the subtext is always the same. The days are long, aren’t they? Are you doing okay? Is your marriage holding up? Can we please talk about how hard this is? Can we please talk about how alone I feel each day in the tenth hour of being in the house with a non-verbal, needy human? Can we please talk about our bodies, our sore boobs, our all-consuming exhaustion? Do you find this fulfilling?
Of course, the conversation has changed as the kids have gotten older. It’s more wonderment at the passage of time: the evolution of clingy young sons into semi-independent young men (who make questionable decisions), technology and the developing brain, smart young women (more questionable decisions) and body image, pressures of high school, and the possibility of big mistakes and consequences. For us personally, it’s talk of new jobs and new endeavors. But the subtext is not terribly different than it was fourteen years ago. This got easier and yet it’s harder, right? How are you handling the onslaught — the changing bodies, social media, grades, classwork, sports, friends, peer pressure? Is your marriage holding up? Can we please talk about our bodies, our sagging boobs, our aging selves? How are you finding fulfillment? The isolation is different, but it’s still very much there (written about in this lovely post). Because, as with raising toddlers, raising young adults challenges us to make deeply personal decisions that work for our own families, our own children and our own marriages. Yet, it feels good to occasionally compare notes.
I have an acquaintance who is training for a marathon. On days that she plans long runs — twelve, sixteen, twenty miles — her girlfriends try to join her for different parts of her path. She’s training for the marathon alone, but her friends know her route and will meet up and run alongside, if just for a few miles. She may be running for an entire morning, but she’s not doing it entirely alone. Maybe this stands out to me because I’m not a runner or athlete and I cannot imagine doing any of it — simply planning a sixteen mile route would exhaust me. Or maybe, what impresses me so much — and what I find so beautiful about her experience — is that this is how women’s friendships work. We all have different people that run (or walk or stand) alongside us for different legs of our journey. And in motherhood the finish line may be ambiguous, even non-existent, but the need for running partners is undeniable. When I met my long-ago-playgroup friends, who I hadn’t seen in awhile, it was only for a quick cup of coffee. Two hours is hardly enough to touch on the scope and depth of what is going on in our lives. But it helps chip away at an otherwise long and tedious journey, helps us catch our breath and helps us prepare for the next big hill.