When I started attending prenatal swim classes at the Downtown Berkeley YMCA, I was horrified by the languid pace. I was used to the thumping frenzy of spandex in step aerobics and kickboxing. I lapped the other pregnant ladies as they chatted and puttered along in slow circles in the warm pool. By the time I reached the end of my pregnancy—fifty pounds heavier—I was just another stationary swimmer. I did not go to prenatal swimming to swim anymore, but to see my new friends with similar due dates. We synchronized our dog paddling and laughed together about our hemorrhoids and cravings. Our frumpy maternity swimsuits disintegrated from the chlorine.
Long before it happened to me, I remember how suspicious I felt of my friend Morgan when she acquired a whole new friend group during her pregnancy. Morgan blithely turned down my invitations because they conflicted with her “mamas’ group,” which sounded to me vaguely cultish. What I didn’t know then is that communities of mamas/dadas are the cornerstones of healthy parenting. Even in do-it-yourself America, it still takes a village to raise a child. I have a generous mother, two wonderful sisters, a close-knit posse of childless girlfriends from college. But it was the support I received from people I had just met, people whose babies were born the same summer as Milo, that made the difference as we navigated the intensity of new parenthood. My family and my childless friends and I drifted apart casually like play boats on a pond.
One of my new mama groups met in Dimond (not Diamond) Park in Oakland for lunch on Mondays. It took each of us hours to leave our houses and we cried almost as much as our infants, but it was worth it. We lugged confounding carseats, strollers, carriers, wraps, wipes, pacifiers, bottles, diaper bags stocked with ironic onesies, eczema lotions, diaper rash creams, black-and-white board books, and multi-sensory toys from hot cars to picnic blankets. We fed one another quinoa and cake and tips for how to suck snot. We exposed our engorged breasts and our souls. We were all living in the same surreal sleep-deprived shell-shocked state, and we leaned on one another, hard. We were collectively haunted by our babies’ anemia and allergies, by tight frenula and healing circumcisions, things that were going wrong that months ago we hadn’t even known were things.
I imagine my family will need the same kind of support if we ever are in crisis: people who not only care, but are going through it too. Empathy is nice and all, the bandaid, but lived experience is the real deal, the stitches. When Milo tantrums, my well-meaning mother shrugs and insists my sisters and I were always well behaved at his age. I know she partially blames me for his behavior; she stresses me out further. In contrast, there is another boy from the Dimond Park mamas’ group, let’s call him Johnny, who is “spirited” like my son Milo, and the conversations I have had with his mom I’ll call Sarah—a brilliant woman I now consider a dear friend—about Johnny’s suspension from kindergarten for kicking another child are about adjusting our expectations and about our deep, deep unconditional love for our flawed children. Sarah and I have something pure because we know better than to judge or try to explain; we just listen and problem solve together. We offer one another more than empathy. The key is our shared experience.
Our first babies are six years old now and we’ve had more babies. We’ve almost all returned to work and cannot meet in the park for lunch on weekdays, but we do go on vacations together. We still give each other product and book recommendations and tips for how to manage homework, strained marriages, and aging grandparents. The mamas have got each other’s backs.
On the other hand, mamas can also be vicious. Women need one another but there is something in us that causes us to fight, to throw up dividers. When we were cavewomen, were there not enough caves? Not enough berries or wooly mammoth meat? Anyways, every line that has stopped me in my tracks with its callousness has been delivered to me by a woman.
Case in point: I was just recovering from a tough bout of flu and needed to feed the kids. I am not a master of the culinary arts, plus I could barely stand up, so we went out to eat. We went to a gourmet food court near our house called the Epicurious Garden. As we walked in I weakly reminded Milo and Ruby not to run inside. They tore off. I called them back and reiterated with a little more oompf and furrowed eyebrows that there is no running inside. Again they raced away, and this time they jostled an older woman. She wasn’t geriatric. She wasn’t pleased.
“You need to watch your kids!” she hissed at me.
I counted to five, smiled, and said, “Thank you.”
But then—I couldn’t help it, I swear—I added under my breath, “That’s actually a very rude thing to say.”
“Just trying to be helpful,” she said as she brushed past us with an air of superiority.
Milo asked in his stentorian voice, “Why did you smile at that lady and then tell her she was rude?”
“I’ll tell you later. No running inside.”
Only someone childless or long removed from child rearing believes that training your eyeballs on the movements of your children makes your children behave. Watch my kids? That’s all I ever do. I watch them throw all their toys on the floor and then I watch them begrudgingly pick them all up. I watch them climb to the top of rope structures, then sometimes I watch them fall off. I try to catch them, but I never do. Teaching children to behave in public and behave in private are two different things, and both of them are never-ending challenges. My mama friend Sarah knows this, and I know she knows, and that gives me great comfort.