It’s possible I wasn’t the average new mom.
The middle of six children, I’d been a babysitter since age ten (I know, it was the 80's). Also a nanny, camp counselor, pre-school teacher, elementary school teacher, Children’s National Medical Center ER staff, psychotherapist, and holder of two advanced degrees in Child Study and Social Work.
Honestly, with all that education and experience I’d hoped to feel more confident and less terrified.
All it took was an early stroller outing to Starbucks. An older mom cooed over my obviously fresh out of the oven baby.
“How old is she?”
I froze. How old WAS she?
I had no idea. ZERO. Was she six days old? eighteen? What KIND OF A MOTHER doesn’t know how old her BABY IS?
I’m pretty sure I nodded vigorously feigning a lack of English comprehension, grabbed my coffee and fled.
There may have been one or two hysterical calls to a husband or a mother. It’s hard to recall.
But I do recall the FEAR.
The constant fear that I was doing it all wrong. That I hadn’t read the right books or taken the right class. That with all the studying and work I had done, I just didn’t have the innate motherly instincts to safely raise a tiny human.
Of course I was also completely sleep deprived, which doesn’t help.
And utterly, madly besotted with my daughter in a way I’d never loved anything or anyone.
It was terrifying.
And in that state of completely overstimulated exhaustion, I mostly found myself around other new moms.
Not on purpose particularly, though I did join one new mom’s group intentionally at the recommendation of a friend who’d found it “comforting.”
I am sure it was comforting at times. But mostly what I remember about being a new mom around other new moms was the judgement.
Are you breastfeeding? Cloth diapering? Crying it out? Learning sign language?
Not since high school had I hit up against so much comparison with the terror of getting it wrong. It was devastating to find myself back in a place of such worry and self-consciousness.
And let me be clear, I am not saying people WERE judging me. But I FELT judged. And I definitely judged people back.
That’s what my fear does.
It whispers all the crappy “not enough-ness” until I’m wild-eyed with terror, clutching everyone else’s choices in the hopes that deep comparison analysis will help me find my way forward.
As far as motherhood goes, I had two more babies, turned forty, and curated friendships with women whose Instagram feeds included posts like: “just realized I left my kid in the gym daycare. Should I go back and get him or just wait for child protective services? #killingit, #blessed.”
For a while I was in a sweet spot of minimal fear and good enough.
Sweet holy mother.
My husband now calls 6 pm “worry o’clock.”
I’ve been wondering how much of it might be connected to being parent-less.
Certainly, I don’t have much confidence in the adults who are minding the store when it comes to managing this pandemic.
That’s not even a political statement. I refuse to believe that anyone is without fear right now. The pandemic is global and lethal and there is not enough science or leadership to truly allow anyone an easy night’s sleep.
If I’m being honest, my childhood was a pretty good training ground for not trusting decision-makers. My father was a little too absent, and my mother too dripping with kids, for me to feel like I had a solid backstop if something went wrong.
I constantly braced for impact.
I went to therapy in my twenties and I’ve been there ever since. The kind, and openly flawed woman who first offered me a glimpse of a new way to be, suggested my job in life isn’t to protect against every potential problem.
It’s to live in the faith that I am enough.
I love that.
It took me a long time to realize that enough doesn’t have to mean alone.
For me enough means people.
Women who show up the minute I flash the bat signal and sometimes even before. A husband who believes my fears deserve our attention, but shouldn’t be handed the keys to the bus and a work-life that grounds me in emotional integrity most days.
I have collected a good-sized team of people who tell the truth, offer support even through conflict if need be, and generally believe in enough.
But you guys.
This COVID thing.
Suddenly fear keeps trying to hijack the bus.
And we are judging the hell out of each other. Even people we care about.
Without clear guidance of any kind, we are collectively comparing each other’s choices. Trying to find our own answers.
Are your kids going to soccer camp? I feel some kind of way about that. You seem like a reasonable person and I trust you, should I send MY kids to soccer camp?
Or the opposite.
I’ve decided to send my kid to soccer camp. I feel all kinds of ways about that. Please don’t ask me why we are doing soccer, I don’t want to justify my choices.
But here is the thing.
The comparisons don’t work. Our needs are different.
I can’t really borrow other people’s decision making. I have to make my own choices.
It will be imperfect. And I will still be afraid.
I’ve been talking to my trusted people about this.
We are in agreement fear is at an all-time high particularly as decisions about school openings come rolling in. The conflicting federal vs local government recommendations are fueling confusion and anger. There is no good way to get to feel about school. Period.
I don’t like fear based decisions
(my clients who are reading this are laughing right now. I should have that tattoo or a sign over my door, I say it so often).
Reactive decision making always feels defensive to me. An analysis of what is possible and finding the least worst option. Like being told to pick between a grilled cheese or a Ruben (terrific sandwiches both, but possibly not for everyone).
I mean, what if you wanted a salad?
And my trouble is, if I’m too afraid, I can’t even figure out if I want a salad.
And make no mistake, decisions do need to be made.
Recently I had a shared text thread with a diamond-friend. Something about our conversations is like church to me. I note things down to think about later. They almost always lead to some writing.
I texted her about a family decision my team made that had recently brought some breath back to my chest. She texted back. A few lines from me, a few from her, then she went quiet.
It wasn’t her normal sign off, so I noticed it, but she has a zillion kids and a life and we are solid so I wondered, but I did’t worry.
The next day she wrote back: “I have to tell you your message threw me for a huge loop. It’s part of why I disappeared mid-conversation. I was so so happy for you, but I felt lost and jealous…I had to take a big step back… But then, in the middle of the night, it just hit me. MY PLAN, fully formed. The jealousy guided me to find my own freedom and peace.”
It was so beautiful.
We went on to text about how hard feelings like jealousy and fear can cause disconnection which can sometimes show up as, “OMG, she is doing THAT? I would NEVER”,
“How come she gets to.. “
“What kind of person…”
But my sweet friend didn’t push me away when I cautiously revealed how I’m making some COVID based choices. My news created big waves of feelings that she surfed to her exact right shoreline…
So I’m trying this:
When I feel afraid, or jealous (or angry, or hopeless) and I want to pass judgment to create a distance between me and the hard feeling, I’m doing the opposite.
I set my compass points to go toward those feelings. If I react strongly to another person’s story — their choices I ask myself, “what does her choice to send her kid to soccer camp mean about me?”
The judgement we jump to is a distancing tool. It doesn’t actually help us make decisions. It just declares you and I are not alike.
But we are. Of course we are.
We all have to bushwhack our own paths.
All our paths are filled with fear and feelings.
Lord knows, there’s already too much distance between us.
Meghan Riordan Jarvis is a psychotherapist, author, wife, and mother of three. After losing both her parents within two years of each other she began Grief Is My Side Hustle. (www.griefismysidehustle.com).