Boarding the Mothership—My Messy Beautiful
I see you.
In the parking lot. And you are telling your 3 year old that she cannot run, while you balance the baby out of the car and into the cart. I see you wipe your hair that has escaped the holder out of your eyes as you drag the diaper bag off of the ground. Your body is still swollen and you feel it, like a deflated balloon that has little air left, like the shadows of too long days that remain under each eye.
I see you.
As you sigh and stifle a scream of frustration that the same child you’ve nurtured alone for years has sent a rocket missile of juice straight at your car window, where it has exploded, red and orange mist coloring everything on the fibered back seat that you didn’t want but could barely afford. It’s open call warfare, and you don’t know where the battlefield is but run it every day.
I see you.
Searching for better days and wondering where they can be found between the few dollars left in your checking account and the gallon of milk sitting in the check out line. At the doctor again and trying to be heard above the jargonfray that you know sick when you see it and can’t they just for once believe you? And the cushion for the couch has been turned too many times and the group is coming tonight and you’re hoping a bright pillow and low lighting will negate the spillage of sauce and milk and diapers.
I see you.
When you are rocking your son to sleep in a closet of dark and can just make out the chipped toenails from the treat you gave yourself many, many months ago. Missing the counter when you are placing a glass of water on it because you could not see exactly where the edge was and feeling that the accompanying shock and smash spoke something in your soul that was yearning to break free.
I see you.
Tormented by the out-of-control anger spewing from the child you thought you knew as soon as you stepped foot in the coolness of the grocery, a writhing display of rage that you wish by sugar will go away but is refused as are you when you catch the eye of cooking demonstration lady who curls her upper lip in disgust and you glance down and close your eyes against the silent accusation that you are not good at this. Cleaning and cleaning and cleaning rooms, processing dank for fresh, spinning from garden to skillet, wiping, sweating wondering at excess and brokenness and none of it ever, ever caught up.
I see you. I know you. You are not alone in this.
We’re all on the same ship.
You answer the questions of the universe. You bandage all the wounds of every soul. You contain the fears of the entire world beneath a lined brow. You stack magazines in hopes that one day they’ll be read and silently weep when you read the thermometer telling you another child has to be home from school all day when you thought you might be free of immediate care and worry of another. You step on the scale of discouragement and renew it afresh. You balance the books of need against those of want and always leave the store feeling shortchanged.
You know where motherhood is? At the corner of movement and mercy. With side roads of funny and deep sorrow, and back roads of judgment and memory. There are no shortcuts. There are only long trips. All of us are on that strange ride, and where we’re going is not so simple. We’re swimming for grace. And you know who the combatants often are? Our own kin. Our own people. Let me tell you a story.
If I close my eyes, I can see myself, the scuffed and worn new balance slip-ons that were dirty and old, loose threads everywhere. Old sugoi running pants that I wore even though my running would only be from a “life or death” type of situation, or a “child being pinned underneath something trauma,” not by choice. They worked. They were black and could give me the allusion of being fit. A favorite sweatshirt, maroon. All-in-all, I thought, a passable uniform of feigned athleticism that I could get away with. Even here. Even at the fancy library in West Hartford. I was so out of my element. But the problem was, I wouldn’t have known what the element was to begin with anyway. So I sit uneasily on the padded primary color bench and watch as Sam bangs a baby doll’s head against the toy refrigerator. Clearly, he has such caring instincts; I feel satisfied that he’s vaguely entertained, and the baby is sleeping. The era of smartphones hasn’t arrived for me, and, anyway, if I took my eyes off of him, Sam probably would have taken another child’s doll and bashed their itty-bitty heads together. What I’m saying is I had to watch, sister. There was no way out of it. And I was solo. Then.
“Hi,” I smile widely at her,” pushing my bangs and knocking my glasses off kilter, “I remember your son’s name. We’re in music class together.” The last few words are slower and softer because I can see in her eyes once surprised are now steeling themselves and there is no recognition there. There is no give, there is no inside familiarity. “Yes.” She says slowly, “I know you.” Then Jodi gets up and walks away, but not before she looks me over pointedly and it is one of those high school moments of team picking panic where everyone else’s eyes are on you too and the comparisons are being made: My slip-ons/ her boots, my pants/her trim, skinny jeans that seem store new, my sweatshirt/her cashmere, my bunched up hair and her artfully pinned brown waves. A smile curls around her mouth and it isn’t one of welcome or sisterhood, it’s of mean mommy gatekeeper and I knew without a single word that I hadn’t made the cut.
I feel myself burning in shame. No one else says a thing. They talk to their own children, the nannies gossip near the windows. I pick up my no-name diaper bag and try to find Sam near the Lego table. Another mother grimaces as she hands me a sippy cup, I look at her Petunia Picklebottomed self and sigh. I should’ve stayed home. The world is not welcoming here. But as I call his name in panic and worry, and you know the tone I’m talking about, the one that you hear as clear as a high pitched alarm of one mother saying her child’s name and worried that he will most likely come to immanent harm, I cannot find him. The new mother’s yell that is secondary only to her baby’s. “Sam!” “Sam, please come back!” I couldn’t leave. The stroller and the baby encased in it. I don’t know anyone here; the children’s floor is too big, the rows of books too vast and the librarians just not as friendly as my own in my own small town 20 minutes east of this shiny place. “Sam!” I bellow to the disapproval of so many female eyes, both librarian and motherly alike. And then I see her again, in the distance, Sam running toward her, Jodi. “Sam, please stop!” Jodi can see me. I know she can, she can hear me and even though I don’t pass, and even if she doesn’t like me, she will stop him won’t she? She’ll help me. But as I say his name again, close to tears this time because I am tired and the baby has started to cry and the simple trip to the fancy library has turned to be a nightmare, she holds my gaze…and steps aside.
I’ve never forgotten the lost emptiness of that moment. Of being at one end of a wide white corridor of doom with the cool at one end and me at the other.
But I had something else on my side, something she didn’t, and if the hallway tipped to scale I would have been weighted down with it—grace.
Grace is where you are.
That’s not just what I believe. It’s what I know. Because not so long after I had dusted myself off, got a shower and was able to regulate my breathing apart from my baby’s, I began to find those who saw me. And it was on a day when my feet were firmly planted in friendship that I saw Jodi again. This time I had my ally, this time I was with my friend Caryn. I’ve no poker face, everything shows up, so Caryn asked me what was wrong. I told her the story, as hurriedly as I could, and Caryn, holding her youngest child looked as bewildered as any saying, “But why would she do that Sara? We’re all on the mothership, just drowning together.” Yes. YES. Drowning maybe. But together indeed. Because the end doesn’t come, grace comes instead. You are living it, you are breathing it, you are moving through it and toward it and in it.
Grace is where you are.
It is where you stand, port out, starboard home.
It is where you stand with your people.
I can speak with some ease now from those days of haltering fear. My fellow passengers are an embarrassment of riches in number. They are the ones who don’t remember the last time they drank a beverage while it was still hot. The ones who used a couple of newborn diapers in a pinch because the next size up was forgotten from the last huge blowout from a toddler who thought that toilets were for playing in not sitting on. They were the ones who heated up macaroni and cheese for the third time that week because the mere thought of pulling together something with vegetables made them wince. They were the ones who understood when you looked at them blankly on the playground and mumbled, “caillou.” My people. When you become a mother, and it doesn’t matter how, you enter into a community of women previously closed to you. I have no idea how it has become this way in our society right now, but motherhood is a very, very lonely proposition. And it didn’t used to be. It was never meant to be. I’m sure everyone has heard the Nigerian phrase “It takes a village to raise a child.” It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. It takes a village to make a mother. And that village became my ship, and their number created buoyancy, and their spirits lifted my own.
For them it doesn’t matter how I look or walk, the snazziness of my stroller or my child’s hand-me-down sweater, when I look up and feel unsteady, they hand me a cup of coffee while wiping up my child’s nose and grant me their sea legs until I can balance again. Because we’re all on the mothership, setting sail for grace. The directional map is the acknowledgement of hope. Offer that next mom you see with the anxious eyes and eager heart your hands to cling to. Pull her to the safety of your shore. The life you preserve will surely be your own.
Grace and peace be with you, my gentle, messy, beautiful fellow warrior mother. Welcome aboard.