When my son JJ started kindergarten, it was at a wonderful elementary school with nearly a thousand other families. A thousand. Given those numbers, I assumed finding my “mom-tribe” would be a slam-dunk. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.
As expected, there were all the mom-types. And, yes, I judged. I imagined “Hippie Mom” had a family goat that provided unpasteurized milk for her kids. I assumed “Power Mom” was already sending her five-year-old to an SAT prep course. And “Lulule-Mom” probably gave birth during a spinning class and grabbed an almond milk latte on the way home. But it’s all too easy to snark, when the truth is that I had reserved the harshest, most critical label for myself: “Disaster Mom.”
At the time, I was juggling two careers, two dogs, and a family, plus I was still recovering from a devastating loss. I felt incredibly messy from the inside out. I usually worked from home, where it often looked like an Office Depot had exploded. I swapped actual showers for dry-shampoo. I was constantly running late, frequently nursing a migraine or back spasm and always forgetting things JJ needed for school (turns out kids actually do require lunch.) What’s more, JJ hadn’t slept through the night in over a year, his diet consisted solely of things-from-the-refined-carb-food-group, and he was anxiously chewing holes through all of his shirts at school. In a nutshell, I wasn’t exactly winning.
I labeled the other moms because doing so was easy. We all do it. And doing so was much simpler than admitting it was my own self-given label that prevented me from reaching out to these other moms. I was overwhelmed by the prospect of useless small talk. I was sure if I let any of them near me for more than ten seconds, my failures would leach through my hoodie, and our mutual verdict would be swift and severe: They were managing superbly but I was too messy — inside and out — to hang with anyone. After all, “Disaster Mom” might be the first to burst into tears during Mom’s Night Out.
But when you have a child who is out in the world making new friends, you can only hide out for so long. Eventually he gets invited to things, and in kindergarten you generally don’t drop your kid off at some unfamiliar place and go sprinting for the hills. (Then I would be “Neglectful Mom.”) And, as it turned out, some of his play dates turned into fascinating mom dates. Sure, I had to weed through some perfectionists and competitive types. But I soon learned that it was possible for me to find my people. And while the friends I connected with weren’t “type specific,” they did all share the most important quality that I craved in a friend: authenticity.
Here are a few lessons I learned from a few of my most successful mom-dates.
Follow the pajamas.
I discovered this nugget when JJ had a playdate with “Power Mom’s” daughter. This was a woman who showed up to school dressed for success, with her chic computer tote and buzzing smartphone. However, when we rang the doorbell, “Power Mom” was wearing flannel pajamas and coke-bottle glasses and was holding a headless, naked Barbie. “I hope you know something about arts and crafts,” she joked. “Last time I nearly burned my finger off with a glue gun.” I admitted that I’d never set foot in a Michael’s (or any craft store), and “what’s a glue gun?” This date was actually looking kind of promising.
Fast forward to me learning about her daughter’s increasing tantrums, how her time-consuming dream job kept her riddled with guilt, and how she was constantly struggling to find dependable childcare. She said that she felt like everything was her fault. After I filled her in on some of the highlights of my own chaotic nest, I went to use her bathroom and accidentally peed on Barbie’s head which I hadn’t seen floating in the toilet. We burst into hysterical laughter over this and it sealed the deal. “Power Mom” wasn’t just a power suit. She was a real human being. And the next time we hung out, I showed up in my pajamas.
Ditch the pretentious pantries.
When “Hippie Mom” invited us over for lunch one weekend, I panicked. This woman was a licensed nutritionist and I’d noticed that she didn’t let her son have the birthday party staples of pizza and cake, or even classroom snacks provided for special occasions but instead substituted her own alternatives. She always wore harem pants with a large fanny pack on top, which I assumed was filled with raw kale. Meanwhile, JJ was going through a white food phase. He often claimed that Pirate’s Booty was his “healthy choice” and string cheese was a vegetable. This was going to be embarrassing.
Surprisingly, though, she put out a lot of white food selections for JJ that day and candidly explained that the reason she maniacally controlled what her son ate was that he had a ton of rare and dangerous food allergies. Her fanny pack contained Benadryl, an inhaler and EpiPens for crisis situations. She honestly felt that it was nobody’s business how we each choose to feed our kids. Instead, she ached that her son was often hysterical at school events where he rarely could eat any of the things his friends enjoyed.
When I confided in her how much I blamed myself for my picky eater, she gave me some tips on how to sneak a few more “healthy” things into his diet, and offered to help me learn a few simple recipes if I was interested. And then she said: “Or none of it will work, he will eat mac and cheese for the next few years, and he will be just fine. I sometimes wish we had that option.” Ahhh the relief knowing I wasn’t being judged and could bust out JJ’s baggie of Booty. This lady was a keeper. “Hippie Mom” was fending off her son’s food enemies in kick-ass harem pants. (Which, btw, are basically socially acceptable pajamas.)
Don’t judge a mom by her muscles.
When I ended up sitting next to “Lulule-Mom” at my son’s Pee-Wee basketball game, I was immediately intimidated by her amazingly sculpted body and the Fitbit on her wrist that had probably tracked the thousands of calories she had burned since breakfast. “Must be nice,” I thought to myself, as I thought about how my own self-care had taken a big nose dive with my busy work schedule.
The one thing we had in common was that our sons seemed to be having a competition over who could cry the most often on the basketball court. When the militant security guard kicked us both out of the gym for daring to bring in coffee, I followed her outside. “There’s NO way I’m throwing this out” she said. “I only get one cup a day and I f-ing need it.” And there it was. The f-bomb that suddenly meant we had permission to vent freely.
When I asked her why only one cup a day, she explained that she had chronic anxiety so had been told to limit caffeine. But she also had chronic insomnia, so she still needed it. She said that the only prescription that had helped her more than medication was exercise. “I have to work out, or I will go batsh*t on my kids.” Boy. This hit home. I’d been wrestling bouts of anxiety for years. After a few more “dates,” we opened up about our respective brain battles, and even shed a few tears. Once you’ve cried in front of someone, you can never go back to small talk. Thank f-ing God.
The wisdom I have now…
There’s a quote I love by Brené Brown, whose books on courage, vulnerability and belonging have become a staple at my bedside. She says: “Vulnerability isn’t about winning, and it’s not about losing. It’s about having the courage to show up and be seen.” And I feel the exact same way about motherhood. It’s not a winnable contest, because we’re all fighting unique battles. It’s so easy to broadcast our victories — there are plenty of apps for that –and victories should be celebrated! However, if we aren’t brave enough to share our most cringe-worthy stories, too, then we rob ourselves of compassion, especially for ourselves. Our authenticity can provide the foundation for some really fulfilling friendships. And it will be those friends who serve as the reminder that we are all somewhere between kicking-ass or falling on it any given day. And the only label for that reality is “Mom.”