Last week, at 2:30 in the morning, I got up out of bed, packed a taxi up with an enormous suitcase, stroller, backpack, diaper bag, carseat, and a seven month old and left home for our first of five flights to four states in ten days.
Yes, I am fucking crazy.
I also now feel capable of doing basically anything, but not without the simultaneous experience of a month-long low-level panic attack and raging insomnia. I’ll accept the tradeoff, because even though I cried in the airport on the way to baggage claim after the last plane touched down through bad weather, I feel brave as hell.
There were a few reasons why I booked this trip four months ago, mainly to launch my very first business. I expected a crazy adventure, the excitement of sharing our new project with the world, the exhaustion, and the relief of home. I’m surprised, however, by the thing I keep thinking back on, the meatiest conclusion: I feel like I just returned from a corny but insightful Goldilocks-style pilgrimage to see how other mothers raise their babies, and how each of these styles fit into my own perception of motherhood.
Lu and I spent time with three other mothers on our trip. Here’s what we learned.
Jordan is exciting and exuberant and believes in the beauty of adventure and surprise. She drops everything in the middle of a gorgeous California-only sunset (if you know people there, just check out Instagram at 7pm Pacific time- your feed will be clogged with the electric light of them) to run outside with her kids, down the street without shoes on, to ogle its majesty and answer questions about the mystery of the universe. She is patient and thorough in explaining and interpreting the world for her son, whole minutes again and again about why it’s important to share or why we have to get dressed before school. (The patience seemed limitless to me, who found it exhausting even to listen to- how do mothers ever explain enough to build a person from scratch?)
She also sets boundaries; there are bed times, bath times, story times, meal times. There is a system of punishment for bad behavior (little time outs, the evacuation of a favorite toy from his bedroom) and reward for good. She essentially spends 13 hours a day in the company of her children, but then allows herself that one golden hour of evening for the saving grace of trashy reality T.V. and a glass of pinot grigio before bed. I love that she takes that hour, because I need that hour, too.
Jordan works. From the second she wakes up until she hits the sectional at the tail end of the day for her small slice of respite, she is doing twelve things at once. Besides helping her children navigate the world with unbridled enthusiasm, she’s writing books, building her website, taking beautiful photographs, and sharing her daily story. She’s a good but hapless cook, who rolls out pizza dough with Aunt Jemima pancake mix instead of flour, because Jordan is nothing if not relentlessly inventive. She never walks from one room to another without picking up an armful of toys or laundry to put back along the way.
From Jordan I learned that it is possible to get more done in a single day than I ever imagined, that nothing is more important than taking the time to explain the nature of things to your child, and that while boundaries and rules are crucial, so is learning how and when to break them (when the sky is fading from beet to carrot to purple potato, that’s when).
I’ve known Sarah since the 5th grade. We went to summer camp together, partnered under the same counselor, Vinny, with the slicked back black hair and one milky eye from a fire extinguisher accident. She’s always been tough, willful, and strong, but last week I saw her for the first time with her 18 month old son, hugely pregnant with the next baby, and she showed me how transformative motherhood can be.
I met her in her motel room, which was full of carefully prepared things: a fanatically organized diaper bag, a cozy travel crib, a large cooler full of cooked vegetables and lentils so they could eat healthy anywhere. I was mostly amazed at how gently her body moved, whether she was breastfeeding her son or applying organic sunscreen to his body. She was still funny and still had a commanding presence, but all of her gestures demonstrated the deliberate cultivation of delicacy.
I’ve never seen someone radiate tenderness like that. I watched her cut up broccoli florets for her son in a restaurant, drizzle a little olive oil and sprinkle a little salt on top (her 18 month old willingly eats broccoli, I know), because she wanted to make sure it was properly seasoned. She didn’t apply sunscreen to Liam as much as massage it into him, like every minor daily task was an opportunity to communicate her reverence to motherhood and limitless love for him.
From Sarah I learned that the minutiae of life can be imbued with a meticulous softness. This is not to say that she was like an etherial mermaid who didn’t also crack jokes and eat Doritos, but she’s an exceptionally loving mother, and it shines through everything.
Kate is what happened when 32 years ago a stubborn little seed blew into a terrible desert and got lodged in a crack of earth, then sprouted in spite of weather, and grew into something strange and beautiful, something more animal than plant. Kate is nothing if not a force, more windstorm and lightening than flesh and blood.
I deep-down love Kate, with the fierceness of an Ani Difranco song: I’d steal things from New York City bars for her, punch boys for her. We used to live in a tiny room in the East Village with nothing but a giant tupperware separating our beds. When we finally got heat one December, we sat on our beds in bikinis and ate egg sandwiches together. I once watched her open a can of corned beef hash with a hammer.
I can’t think of a single mother who’s parenting style is less like mine.
Kate is a home-birthing, co-sleeping, breastfeeding, baby-wearing, laissez faire hippie. Her gorgeous four year old goes to bed late and wakes up late, she walks around the house in lipstick and gowns, eats refried beans for breakfast, and collects acorns while out for a ride on her pink princess bike. Kate eschews schedules and instead lets her baby decide what she wants to do (within normal reason, of course- no running out into traffic). Her daughter is so kind, peaceful, thoughtful, and sweet: this is a child who knows exactly how much she is loved.
I had the worst time trying to get Lucy to go to bed in Texas. We were two hours ahead of California time where we’d just been, and Lucy stubbornly refused to sleep. My last night there, instead of pacing around the house holding her, near tears because please just go to bed, I took a page from Kate’s book. At 8 o’clock I got into my bed and brought Lu with me, giving up and into it. We snuggled under the covers for a whole hour, while I made her giggle by kissing her face over and over again. I told her stories about our trip, and about going home to see her Dad the next day. She fell asleep in my arms like a little baby cliché. I’m still drunk on the closeness I felt with her that night. Schedules are made to be broken.
In the last ten days, somehow I learned less about flying on planes with babies or how to process orders for a new online business than I did about how to grow into the kind of mother I want to be. I want to be fiercely smart, fun, relentlessly hardworking and patient like Jordan; tender, loving, and sweet like Sarah; independent and explosive, say “fuck the rules: this is how I roll” like Kate.
Women make other women strong. I learned everything I know about how to love myself and other people from the women in my life. Even though my community is spread out over the country, from San Jose to Dallas to little Long Island, the schlep from one state to another is worth every minute of panic and airplane agony. In the end, my tribe of misfit mothers is teaching me how they do the hardest job in the world: with confidence, grace, and pure magic.