I saw you last week in the Walmart checkout line, wearing rundown flip flops and faded maternity pants, hair hanging down your back in a hastily scraped together French braid. I recognized the maternity pants because I still wear them, too. From back by the tabloid rack, I watched as you endeavored to enter your PIN number and load the shopping bags and boxes of diapers into your cart while three children demanded your attention. The scene was familiar.
The little one, still young enough to be confined to the cart, snatched anything within his reach off the conveyor belt; the older two begged you for those oversized lollipops they always put at children’s eye level in checkout lines. When you told them no because it was almost dinnertime, they pouted and wailed dramatically, undoubtedly aware that if they tried hard enough they might very well break you. The baby, spotting the unopened container of Puffs just out of his reach, saw fit to lend his voice to the chorus of howling. Without much warning, the spotlight swung in your direction and you became the subject of everyone’s immediate interest.
You absently rubbed your temples and apologized to the cashier, probably expecting sympathy and maybe an understanding smile, of which you got neither. The people between us in line remarked loudly about your daughter’s tantrum. From the look on your face, I guessed that you wanted to shrink into the cheaply tiled floor and disappear altogether. Their sanctimonious expressions made it clear that they also did not approve of your shopping haul; the sugary snacks and family size packages of highly processed chicken nuggets sat idly on the conveyor belt as the cashier struggled to find the code for your non-organic bananas. I wanted to point out that their cheap earbuds were probably packaged by children in foreign sweatshops.
Exhaustion was stamped on your face—not in the shadowed eyes and tight-lipped smiles everyone always associates with lethargy—but in those intangible ways that only fellow mothers can instantly recognize. It’s the general aura that envelopes a person who hasn’t slept well in years, a person whose ever-turning hamster wheel of thoughts and worries produces its own kind of fatigue. As you loaded the last of the bags into your cart, I watched you accept your receipt from the morose cashier and attempt to funnel your brood of children toward the exit. Your shoulders sagged and your spine rounded, defeat evident in your posture. Though surrounded by children clamoring for your attention, you looked to my trained eye like an island; desolate, stark, lonely.
I don’t know for sure but I can guess how the rest of your night went. You likely got home and unpacked grocery bags while breaking up several fights over a toy that no one even liked until someone else wanted to play with it. You probably spent half an hour preparing mac and cheese that one child took six bites of, another refused to touch entirely and that the baby could not yet eat. When all three were finally in bed—seven bedtime stories, two glasses of water, one diaper change, and thirteen choruses of You Are My Sunshine later—it’s possible you stood over the stove and devoured the cold remnants of the off-brand macaroni and cheese that cost you 75 cents, five Weight Watchers points and a little piece of your remaining self-esteem. It’s possible that you poured yourself a generous glass of wine—I’ve pegged you as a lover of cheap but respectable Cabernet—and sat hesitantly on the couch, waiting for the sound of a child who felt you relax infinitesimally from the next room and suddenly required your attention.
Maybe, like me, you have a husband waiting at home; or maybe you don’t. Maybe instead of my bevy of potted plants in various stages of decomposition, you have a series of goldfish named Bubbles that you keep finding belly up in the tank. Maybe instead of staying home with your kids like I do, you go to a job that you love or merely tolerate or have been secretly plotting to leave for the last ten years. Maybe your eight-year-old is autistic or your husband travels five out of seven days a week for work or your boss doesn’t have kids and can’t understand why yours get sick at the most inconvenient times. Maybe you live 3,000 miles away from family and you envy those other moms who are constantly taking date night selfies because Grandma is always willing to babysit. Maybe your friends might as well live that far because none of them keep in touch now that you no longer have an impressive tolerance for cheap vodka in common.
Or maybe there’s none of that. Maybe, like mine, your life looks perfect on paper—healthy kids, a loving, available spouse, plenty of support from family and friends—but so many days just feel hard. Maybe every day does. Maybe on certain days you find it all but impossible to be the mother your children need you to be. Maybe you long for your old life and the person you were in it. Maybe the thought of your children growing up and leaving you is paralyzing; maybe you hate yourself because it’s not. Maybe you want to grab the adorably pregnant woman in Costco by the shoulders and tell her that motherhood is nothing like they say it will be. Maybe in your lowest moments, you’ve entertained the idea of just disappearing, evaporating like a dew drop from a leaf, never to be be seen again.
I don’t know you in the traditional sense; we’ve never so much as made eye contact or brushed past each other in a crowded mall. But I do know you. I know you because I am you, have been you, might be you again tomorrow. I have weathered the fog of pure exhaustion, endured the sting of utter loneliness, felt the burn of a hormone-driven remark bubbling up from my throat without my consent. I have withstood the weight of motherhood crushing my windpipe, stealing all my oxygen like a slow-growing algae choking out an unsuspecting ecosystem. I know all too well what it feels like to be in the midst of a hard season of motherhood.
But I also know how it feels on the first day the fog lifts and a tiny sliver of light breaks through the clouds. I know what it’s like when the winds finally change course, when the ice thaws, when the flower bursts through the sidewalk crack, improbable but alive. I know the relief that comes from throwing open the curtains and seeing that the world is no longer dismal and bleak, but actually kind of beautiful. And when the sun finally shines on your face after a thousand days of darkness? Well, I know that feeling too.
Every season has a beginning and an end; it’s just the natural order of things. When we’re mired in the throes of winter, trudging through knee-deep snow drifts, buttoned up tight against the cutting wind, spring seems impossibly far. But, just like all the other seasons, it always comes eventually.
Your spring is coming too, mama.