“I’m sorry,” she says, “I don’t even know why I am complaining. I have only two kids, and I don’t work. You have four, and work, and twins . . . and I don’t know why I am complaining.” The empathy I felt for my friend falters for a second, and I feel shame. Have I led her to feel this way? That her struggle isn’t struggle enough for me to commiserate?
On the surface, I get it. Our four little loves are an anomaly in today’s world, where the average American family has 1.9 kids. Our oldest is 7, followed closely by twins 24 months later, and our baby, the little surprise exclamation point to our family’s love story, is not yet 1. We are a moving ball of chaos, and when people ask me, “How do you do it all?” I laugh maniacally because I am not sure what “it all” is that I am supposedly doing.
I don’t mean to project myself as the poster child for hot-mess motherhood, but I am sure that is exactly what I do at times. Old ladies regularly point out that my baby doesn’t have socks on, and I found an actual mouse in my car eating discarded Goldfish crackers. I used to aspire to be some type of Pinterest-y mom, but I gave up on that before my first could even crawl. Instead, I have striven to be a present and supportive mom.
I have a deep desire to connect with other moms — share in struggles and joys, laugh together through the tears over the absurdity of it all. I work hard to create that village that everyone is saying no longer exists. Instead, though, this never-ending motherhood contest that society has forced us into means that my friends don’t feel their struggles are worthy of sharing with me. They don’t have more than one kid, they don’t have twins, they don’t, they don’t, they don’t. . . . They belittle their legitimate struggles and heartaches because they somehow feel it isn’t enough to be worked up over.
Parents, gather closely and listen over this virtual cup of coffee. It is all hard. When we had one baby, it was the hardest thing I ever did. Going from no kids to one kid was the most difficult transition of my life. When I worked full time with my oldest child, it was excruciating to drop him off at day care. It was impossible to feel I got quality time with him each night, and forget about cooking the healthy meals I dreamed I would prepare for my family. I felt like a failure most days.
When I quit that job and was basically home full time with three kids under 3, it was agonizingly hard. The office job that felt like it was crushing me would have been a welcome respite most days. I love my children with every fiber of my being, but having three kids in diapers was the worst. Cloth diapers, even — not because we are green but because we were broke. I lost my temper too much, I played too little, and I introduced screen time much sooner than my former childless self would have predicted.
Just when all our big kids potty-trained and slept through the night, and I returned to work nearly full time again, we welcomed our fourth little one through an unexpected kinship adoption. She is an absolute joy, the happiest baby I have ever met, and we can’t imagine our life without her. But it is still hard. Going back to sleepless nights and diapers and washing 10,000 parts of Dr. Brown’s bottles every day just when we had chucked them takes a mental shift. In many ways, though, this fourth baby feels like a breeze, compared with that transition to new motherhood. Though they are similar personality-wise, I was 100 percent more overwhelmed by my oldest. So, sweet mothers, do not discount or downplay your hard. It is all hard.
Before having children, I worked in early-childhood education. I was, at different points, a preschool teacher, a special-needs caseworker and a developmental specialist. Over the course of nearly a decade, I had the pleasure of being in the homes of nearly 800 families.
I’ve sat with families of 10 as they worry over the speech delay of their youngest. Just when they had this parenting thing all figured out, their last baby threw them for a loop. I’ve made accommodations in my car for oxygen tanks and portable ventilators. I’ve cried with parents of medically fragile children over what they might or might not achieve, and I’ve also gone to their funerals. I’ve worked with families of typically developing children who seemingly have it all together on the surface, and seen them fall apart behind closed doors. I’ve hired translators to help parents understand individualized education program meetings — which are hard enough to navigate when they are conducted in your native language.
I have come to know and love mothers with struggles on every level of the parenting spectrum, and I know that we all have much more in common than we have different.
So, when I pass that new stay-at-home mother of one in the mall walking laps, just trying to get out of the house, I hurt for her. She is in the thick of it, it is so hard, and I will try to find a way to tell her that she is doing a good job. There is stuff she is dealing with right now that is harder than anything I’ll do today.
Tomorrow morning, I will park next to a mother of three in corporate America. She is already dressed for the day in the school drop-off line, maybe envying my work-from-home attire of leggings and hoodies. Maybe she is envying the parents that get to go on the field trip today while her kid sniffles about how she can’t go. The stuff she is dealing with is hard today.
I see the mother of teens at the coffee shop watching me try to divide a brownie four ways and clean up that spilled $4 hot chocolate. She’s waiting for her kids to get out of dance or therapy or baseball practice. They don’t need her in the same way mine do anymore, and she misses it a little. But her new season is rife with different challenges. The stage of life she is in right now is hard.
So please, next time I have you over for coffee, don’t belittle your struggles. Don’t make excuses for why you shouldn’t be struggling so much. I may not be exactly where you are, but I would much rather walk this journey in solidarity than in competition.
Meg St-Esprit is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh. Find her on Twitter @MegStEsprit.