Part two in our series of essays excerpted from The Good Mother Myth.
I was shopping at Trader Joe’s with my two boys, then 9 months old and 3 years old. We were out of toothpaste at home, so I forced myself to go to the market with them. It was the lesser of two evils: risk of cavities and all-but-certain bad breath, or possibility of in-store tantrum. I'd take that latter challenge.
Honestly, I dreaded taking my children places at that age. It was almost always a disaster. Plus, I hadn't had a good night's sleep in months, and I felt and looked like a zombie – albeit one with children in tow. But since I only planned to grab a couple of things, I figured we'd get in and out in a jiffy. "No problem!" I told myself.
After only a few minutes in the grocery store, my 9-month-old started getting antsy in the cart, and my 3-year-old was asking for a cereal bar he'd seen several aisles back. I did not want to go back for it. I was on a mission. Get toothpaste and get out. But I made the mistake of slowing down to think about this decision rather than simply maintain the cart's pace. It was only a split second, but toddlers can detect parental weakness. And that's when they pounce. Sensing my hesitation, he ran off to find the cereal bar himself. Urghhh. Frustrated, I followed him.
"Wait!" I whisper-yelled, "That isn't the right aisle!"
He turned the corner sharply and barreled face first into a woman's cart. Sigh. He started crying – loudly and uncontrollably. I knelt down and held him in my arms as he wailed. Hearing his brother cry, my 9-month-old son burst into tears too.
It felt like the entire store froze into statues around us – statues with disapproving looks on their faces.
I saw what they saw: a frazzled mother with dirty hair pulled into a haphazard ponytail wearing yoga pants and a ratty, old t-shirt, and two crying kids with stained shirts, tangled hair, and food on their faces. Oh, and stinky breath. We looked and probably smelled more Neanderthal than Homo sapien. I had to get us out of there. Should I ditch the cart? No, that would be even more embarrassing. I had to do what was necessary to salvage my last vestige of dignity. Just grab the cereal bars, pay, and leave. We could survive three more minutes. No problem!
As we rushed to the checkout, I saw her. I noticed her shoes first. To-die-for aqua peep-toe heels with white trim. She had makeup on, and her hair looked like she'd just left a salon. She was wearing accessories. Accessories! I had forgotten about the existence of accessories. I was quite sure this woman only wore yoga pants to actually do yoga. She was totally on top of things.
And she was a mother of young children. Indeed, she had a child just a little older than my youngest in her cart, and another child just a little older than my eldest walking beside her. Her kids were calm and clean and happy. She lazily pushed her cart, taking time to read labels on yogurt.
I imagined going up to her, shaking her by the shoulders and demanding, "How do you do this?! How do you make it look so easy?!" Maybe touching her would have revealed that she was actually a robot. Oh my god, Stepford Wives DO exist! It would be much easier to believe she wasn't real, otherwise I was a complete and utter failure at this motherhood gig. It sure felt like it in that moment.
We made it through the checkout line – kids still wailing, me with a tight smile as I tossed cash on the counter – and into the parking lot. RELIEF! But as I buckled the kids into their car seats, my heart sank. I had forgotten the toothpaste. It was the whole reason we'd come to the market. I couldn't even manage to buy toothpaste for my family. It was official. I was a complete and utter failure. With bad breath.
I cried the whole drive home.
That was one of the lowest periods of my parenting career. While I'm not one to compare myself to others, I just couldn't let go of that peep-toe-heeled mom. Over the next few days, I thought about her. More honestly, I obsessed over her. How much time did it take her to get ready each day? How clean was her house? I bet she had a nanny! Did she ever forget to buy toothpaste? Were her kids calm and happy because of the way that she parented? Wait, was I somehow screwing up my kids? What was I doing wrong? Why was this so hard for me?
A few months went by, and this darkness lifted. I was amazed by what a few hours of uninterrupted sleep could do for a person. I felt almost human again.
One afternoon, I was at Target with both kids. But I wasn't wearing yoga pants. I had on a skirt. And a necklace. Yes, accessories. I was also wearing makeup, and while my hair never looks like I just left a salon (including when I have just left a salon), I looked and felt great. My kids were being unusually mellow as I pushed the cart down the aisles. We had evolved.
But I didn't notice this difference until I saw her: a stressed-out and disheveled ponytail mom with a screaming baby in her cart. She looked fragile. I could tell she was hanging by a thread. I could tell because I've hung by it many times myself. I felt her eyes on us as we walked by.
For the first time in months, I thought of the mom in the peep-toe heels. It felt like an entire lifetime had gone by. Now I was the one breezing past, making it all look simple. Did the ponytail mom wonder how I did it? The thought of this seemed ridiculous. I couldn't imagine someone looking at me and thinking I had it all together. It made me sad to think that it could actually make her feel worse. What if she obsessed over me like I'd obsessed over the peep-toe-heeled mom?
I wanted to reach out and tell her that it was hard for me too. That I am not a robot Stepford Wife. I wanted to reassure her that it would get easier. Sorta. That it wouldn't always be this difficult or this tiring. That she wouldn't always look and feel like a zombie – or a Neanderthal, depending on the day. Why? Because nobody is perfect all the time. Or, actually, ever. I wanted to tell her to be gentle with herself. To assure her that, yes, she is having a difficult time right now, but it doesn't define her. She is not a failure.
I watched as the ponytail mom abandoned her cart and carried her baby out of the store. She was gone before I ever had the courage to approach her. But it didn't really matter. Those messages weren't just for her. They were for me.
I will never be the peep-toe-heeled mom because she doesn't exist. Sure, I saw that mom in Trader Joe's, but I knew nothing about her. Perhaps she hung from a thread on her off days too. I'm willing to bet she's a lot like me, just with better shoes.
Even when I get a full night of sleep, and I'm wearing a skirt, and my kids are mellow, I will always have that frazzled mom-in-yoga-pants zombie cavewoman inside me. I've accepted her. And I'm gentle with her.
Even when she forgets stuff at the market.
“There’s a Zombie Cavewoman in All of Us,” by Amber Dusick, is excerpted from The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality, edited by Avital Norman Nathman. With permission from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.
Read other essays excerpted from The Good Mother Myth.