Is there anything more horrifying, more exhilarating, more depressing, and more rewarding than contact with other mothers once you have kids of your own?
Other mothers. They are the foil to your every fear and fantasy. The ones you smugly reference as evidence of all you are doing right. The ones with the perfectly behaved children who smugly flaunt their good eaters/sleepers/potty-trained masters of mellowness right back at you as proof of all the things you are afraid you might be doing wrong - or at the very least could be doing better.
Other mothers. Dealing with them, and all the insecurities and insanity that they can bring out in your postpartum, sleep-addled state (and beyond) is what all those silly pre-baby hospital classes should prepare you for. Forget the birth plan: you can pretty much tear that thing up as soon as you've written it down. Your energy would be better spent mentally readying yourself for a rude re-entry into the kind of social world you probably haven't experienced since high school. Or maybe grade school, if you happened to go to a geeky math and science high school like some of us.
Somehow getting the hairy eyeball - or the cold shoulder - from another parent is far worse than the nasty looks or well-meaning advice of childless people; people without kids are too well-rested and rational to be taken seriously. And it is far more frustrating than the judgmental commentaries from family members; families just can't help themselves and you've probably got a sleeve full of tricks to deal with them already.
But other mothers are supposed to be your wing-women, all knowing looks and indulgent "been there done that"' nudges! They are supposed to forward you mass emails about how parenthood is the hardest job you'd ever love, or links to YouTube videos of Werner Herzog reading "Go the F to Sleep," or at least not make you feel like a total failure when you leave the house without a diaper bag or Cheerios. Or sanity. Or pants.
Which is why the judgement of other mothers stings so much, and feels like such a betrayal: we are supposed to be in this together. Which is, of course, a total lie. On top of all the other pithy things one could put into a mass email about parenting, the simple fact is that you actually have to do a lot of the critical parts of it alone. Alone with a 25-pound appendage with hair and teeth. Kind of like a very large teratoma who will one day slam doors in your face and yell "I hate you I hate you I hate you!"
It's exhausting. For every mother. For any mother. Which is why when you find another mother that you really get along with, you have to latch onto her like a muppet piranha ready to suck the red out of Elmo.
Ha ha ha! Kidding! Desperation just scares other mothers away. They can smell it, like canned soup or dirty diapers, from across a playground crowded with cooler kids - only now the cooler kids are the ones who have kids - as well as expensive strollers and better snacks. Which is why you have to play it cool, like with dating: you don't want to seem too eager. Wait a couple of days - or at least, hours - between emails or texts. Let them ask you for a playdate first. Compliment their child's footwear. Don't lead with a story about how your kid is in a biting/slapping/poo-throwing phase.
Of course, don't play it too cool either, or no one will want to hang out with that other mother in you.
So what's a mother to do? I think of all the things we tell our kids: just be yourself. Don't worry about what so-and-so says. They're just jealous. Or mean. Or sleep-deprived. Or under-caffeinated. Or super freaking lucky because they got the well-behaved kids who never spit up or freak out and were sleeping through the night by 3 months and love to sit still in public.
Not that I am bitter.
There's a saying about walking in someone else's shoes, and sometimes I try to take a step back and be philosophical about the tensions that can arise between mothers. To some degree, all of us have walked some part of the same journey, it's just that sometimes it seems like everyone else got kicky new Louboutins while you're stuck with leaky old galoshes. But the truth is, we all have leaky galoshes in our closets, but I'm betting we all have our Louboutin days - or moments - too. And for the long haul of parenting, boots - cracked toes, worn heels and all - are probably more practical than satiny stilettos.
I think my metaphor may be getting away from me a bit here, but rather than teetering along on the platform heels of parental hubris - or envy - I guess what I'm trying to say is that we may not all be in this together, but we might as well be thankful for the people who even attempt to walk beside us and unconcerned with those who don't.
After all, their next kid could be a doozy.