While wiping down my yoga mat and putting away blocks, bolsters and bands with an almost painful degree of slowness, I eavesdropped on Ripped Concert Tee chatting with Cute Choppy Bob.
“Yeah, we’re meeting up for coffee on Tuesday. Definitely come!”
I had no idea who “we” was, but I wanted in. I was pregnant with my first child and awash in questions and insecurities about what was to come. None of my Real Friends had kids yet and I had been told (by family members, the prenatal yoga instructor, complete strangers) that Mom Friends would be critical to my success as a new mother.
Over the next few weeks, I overcame my social awkwardness and got invited to a meetup at a nearby Mexican spot. While nibbling fish tacos, I took stock of my company, making mental notes of who seemed bursting with friend potential (Ripped Concert Tee was still at the top of my list), and who seemed just sort of “nice.”
When I was 36 weeks pregnant, our prenatal yoga instructor Valerie told us she had seen Lisa (Ripped Concert Tee) at the grocery story with her newborn.
“She looked great! You never would’ve known she was pregnant a month ago. So happy and glowing.”
I listened to these words as if listening to field notes from the front lines. This could be me. This, I promised myself, would be me.
When my son was born, I did not glow. Nor did I feel very happy. Instead, I cried. A lot. After four weeks of living in a hellish fog of disorientation, I called my doctor, who promptly prescribed Zoloft for postpartum depression. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I remembered prenatal yoga. I thought about Valerie’s mythical mention of happy, glowing Lisa and hated her.
But then Lisa emailed me.
She asked how I was doing, and said something I’ll never forget: That motherhood was like trying to squeeze oneself through a keyhole only to emerge on the other side a new and unfamiliar version of yourself. I read and reread her words and felt seen in a way I hadn’t since giving birth.
Lisa and I exchanged emails that were more like diary entries ripped straight from our hearts until we both felt brave enough to make an actual, live, in-person date. Lisa, having survived motherhood for five weeks longer than me, made the perilous journey to my house. We laughed, complained and marveled until one of the babies or both demanded something or everything and we bid each other farewell with many effusive promises to do this again. Soon.
During those years of blissful play-date compatibility with Lisa, there were other play dates. Once, I went to a stranger’s house because she was a Mom Friend of another Mom Friend and it was something to do and somewhere to go. We sat on the floor around a coffee table protecting our crawling babies from hitting their heads and made stilted conversation about sleep sacks. I left feeling drained.
There was the post-Music Together tea date, during which I chased my now-toddling child around the hipster tea place while trying to remain engaged in chit chat about Montessori vs. Waldorf preschools. Mom Friend No. 1 was averse to the strict discipline regarding table-clearing at Waldorf, while Mom Friend No. 2 vowed Montessori failed to instill children with apparently all-important “grit.” My son darted under a table for some blueberry muffin crumbs and I scooped him up before lying about his approaching nap time, and leaving.
There was the cozy living room play date at a Mom Friend’s house during which I observed Mom Friend No. 3 exhort her 15-month-old not to touch glass knickknacks because “she should know better.” I watched my 14-month-old rifle through my wallet with reckless abandon, and once again, played the nap-time card and fled.
Interactions like these made me feel like both motherhood and Mom Friends were drowning me in a monotony of choking hazards and Baby Center dos and don’ts. They made me doubt my brain’s ability to focus on anything other than child care.
We refer to Mom Friends as such for a reason: To highlight that our friendships exist solely because of our common role as mothers. There is a tacit expectation that once we go from being autonomous beings to mothers, we should subsume the aspects of our personalities that once defined us as multifaceted individuals (senses of humor, aesthetic preferences, political leanings) and be happy, nay, fulfilled, wiling away social hours chatting about sleep-training strategies.
Over the years, many of my Mom Friends have become Real Friends. We’ve gone past the getting-to-know-you fodder of lactation woes, diaper rashes and preschool applications, and moved on to the stuff of real friendship: shared vulnerabilities, interests and intimacy.
The first time Lisa and I removed our relationship from the rarefied world of sippy cups and petting zoos, I agonized over my outfit choice, showed up to the tapas restaurant too early, and drank my IPA in nervous gulps, because I was so eager to prove that we were more than Mom Friends. We talked about stuff friends talk about: husbands failing to pick up on overt cues, thorny in-law relationships, political rage and the never ending quest for the perfect pair of jeans. Lisa later told me she had felt exactly the same first-date nerves, which only made me love her more.
Before motherhood, I was a person who loves salted butter and cringes when watching earnestness depicted on bad TV. After motherhood, I am still that person. And in some of my failed attempts at friend-making whilst play-dating, I lost that person, and felt that particular flavor of loneliness that stems from being in the company of people who don’t see you.
While it’s validating and empowering to discuss motherhood with other mothers, my Real Friends (some who are not mothers and some, like Lisa, who are) are the people who hold me up, make me feel seen, heard, and loved. Mom Friends are not critical to my success as a mother, but Real Friends absolutely are.
Sara Petersen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Redivider, Ploughshares, Catapult, Hippocampus, The Lily, Vol. 1 Brooklyn and elsewhere. She lives on the Seacoast in New Hampshire, where she’s working on a collection of personal essays about the difficulties of living up to both feminine and feminist ideals only to end up somewhere in the messy middle. Find her @slouisepetersen on Twitter, and at sara-petersen.com.