Sunday, September 10, 2006

Clicks

Almost as soon as I had birthed Chloe, I swear the amniotic fluid was still dripping, I was told "you need to join a mommy class and make mommy friends."

A little background here. I had a lot of girl friends. Some active – the ones I see at least once a month, they are mostly from camp or college or high school. We would be friends even if not for email and birthdays. I have some dormant friends. We connect intermittently -- my special occasion buddies, we celebrate major life events and dine together when the guilt gets heavy. I have a best friend. And a sister-best-friend. And a mother-best friend. They are my every-days, my Poland Spring, life-water.

Even when my hair was a frizzy bowl and I wore red Sally Jessy Raphael glasses I had a bunch of friends who were either blind to my dorky qualities or were worse off than I was. In college, I had somehow stumbled into the power of good hair products and the luck of rooming near a gaggle of Long Island lolitas. I was part of a popular posse, with parties and drama and later, lifelong bonds born at Brandeis.

So the need to find new friends was lost on me, until I struggled beneath the heavy waves of the baby blues which knocked me down and out for weeks. Most of these friends did not have babies. Their exhaustion was borne of beer-benders and deadlines. Mine was filled with mastitis and middle-of-the night shrieking. One of my college friends called me and said "I heard from (mutual friend) that you are a wreck". Suddenly, I felt like an alien life form, unrecognizable to those visiting my planet with worried eyes and vague disgust from that unwashed mommy aroma.

I hungered for empathy and a cure for my "alien-ation". My one mom friend lived too far away to visit frequently. And her kids were just old enough to make the fourth trimester blues dissolve from her memory. And four years ahead of me and a stay at home mom herself, she had gobs of mommy friends. Finding my own was her prescription for my pain.
I joined a new moms group when Chloe was six weeks old. It was a few blocks away, which was all that I could muster. I chose an outfit for cool over comfort for the first time in over a year. I put a bow in Chloe's small tuft of hair. The meeting was held in the same room where I took Lamaze, which was a bizarre experience to begin with. Chairs arranged in a semi-circle, with carseats holding our new bundles on the floor in front of us. "Don't cry, don't cry", I whispered to my sleeping newborn, begging her to behave. I made awkward small talk with the mommy to my left, whose child looked suspiciously like the Gerber Baby. When I heard she lived in Queens, I wrote her off as a geographically undesirable match for my plans of playdates. We went around the room, dishing about colic and crying and baby acne. When the facilitator asked if anyone was feeling depressed, no one raised their hand. Suddenly, my leg felt moist and I noticed that milk had sprayed from my engorged breast, through my shirt and onto my skirt. It was not a good sign.

When 45 minutes had passed, I fussed with the straps of Chloe's seat, waiting to see how I would go about meeting my new BFF. Women and their strollers started to swarm towards each other. Suddenly, I found myself alone in the classroom, watching the facilitator pack up her bag. I left the building and lingered as the women talked all around me. Someone needed a pediatrician, and I offered mine. She smiled in return. I had noticed her in class. She looked friendly and got her masters degree at the school where I worked. She also had a baby girl. As I tried to think of something interesting to say without sounding like I was picking her up, she waved goodbye and walked off with some other moms. I went home alone. Well not alone, I brought Chloe, who had failed as my adorable wingman.

And it continued like this for weeks. I was confused. In my old life, I was popular enough to have a constant stream of unreturned phone calls and social activities. In my new life, I watched cliques form all around me. The formula feeders. The York Avenue dwellers. The stay-at-homes. What was a breasfeeding-Lexington-Ave-living-back-to-working mom to do?
I blamed it on the class. It was a fluke, I was convinced. Maybe I tried too hard, looked too polished. So when Chloe was three months old, and I was determined to find a new crew despite the fact that I was feeling much better, I joined another class. I wore yoga pants and a ponytail. Chloe was the oldest baby by far. So when the facilitator looked around at the exhausted group to poll sleeping patterns, I could not help mentioning that mine slept through the night. Eyes rolled. Three months in, I had become a near expert and could not help chattering away about my signature swaddle and perfected use of a nasal aspirator. When class would break, I all but invited myself out to lunch with this group or that group. They tried to include me, but it was clear that I was not gelling with these brand new moms. At the last class, we all exchanged phone numbers. But my phone never rang.

I was stumped. So many cliques, but so few “clicks”. Part of me wonders if I was too hungry. Much like shopping when you are ravenous, there was desperation there. I may have smiled too enthusiastically, complemented too aggressively. I am not sure how much of my true self I presented through the haze of those post-partum months. But more than that, I found that often the bond of motherhood was not always enough to find common ground. We were strangers, after all, who shared a knowledge of episiotomies and stretch marks, but perhaps not much more. Unlike high school, or even work, friends were suddenly not chosen by a shared love of Madonna or hatred of a bad boss. Where my relationships had once grown organically, these felt like blind dates – awkward, staged, and ultimately, depressing.

I think what bothered me most was a lack of choices. As a new mom, those few months were all about primal need, and less about discrimination. The baby is hungry, and suddenly, your body becomes a mechanism to produce food for someone else. You have thirty seconds to shower, only time for the necessities – leg shaving is an extravagant. Meals become whatever can be consumed standing up with one hand. Pants need to be stretchy enough to sit on the floor in. Gone are the days of cleavage for husband’s sake, five course dinners, and favorite jeans. In meeting these new moms, I found myself surrounded by limited options and the driving need to make one of them fit me. But relationships can’t be forced, especially when you are still grappling with your new identity.

It took a while to understand that despite my new status as a mommy, I was still the same person who had a life full of friendship and love, despite the fact that not everyone understood what I was going through first-hand. And with all of the pressures of new parenthood, perhaps a driving need to expand my rolodex of relationships was not as paramount as understanding what it was to be alone, with or without my baby without being lonely.

In the end, I was lucky. The girl I eyed at my first class sent me an email and we have had the playdates I hoped for. Luckier still, my best friend and my sister have both become moms. And more often than not, I find the very best days are spent just staying in. Because as months have passed, and Chloe and I have both grown closer, there seems to be even more room to breathe.

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