Megan laid the stinking baby on the changing table and cooed at him. The little metallic plinks of his onesie pulling apart were almost drowned out by his cry. We were in the almost-dark. I sat on the rocking chair, witnessing my best friend, dumbstruck by her transformation. She was a mom.
The weirdest part about it was this: I had seen her perform almost every one of these motions a thousand times over already. But those times, the baby had been a doll and we had both been children ourselves. Those times, we had been equals in our fascination and our distance from real motherhood.
In some ways, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Megan was usually the first to do the big stuff. First to get married. First to buy a real, adult home. In our long, meandering talks about why we did what we did, we both attributed her speed toward security to her own childhood; being the only daughter of divorced parents in an otherwise idyllic neighborhood hadn’t been easy. It had made Megan crave the white picket fence in a way that I, someone who grew up with one, never had to.
What I craved was also a sort of negative film to my family’s perfect picture. I wanted a career, money of my own, independence—all the things my own mother compromised on over a couple of decades of dirty diapers and broken promises. I wanted kids, just not now. Then. Sometime in the future when I’d fully burned off the anxiety inherited from my mother’s unlived life.
But then was fast approaching and nothing made that inevitability more real than the birth of Megan’s son. I felt a chasm open up between us—a space so wide that I simply couldn’t conceive of what was on the other side, her side. This wasn’t like marriage or the adult home. I’d had approximation of those things and could easily fill in the gaps of my own experience. There was no “filling in the gaps” on motherhood. It wasn’t a foreign country that I could enjoy via pictures. It wasn’t even the surface of the moon.
The distance was so striking because it was about a tectonic shift inside of Megan, not outside of her. One day, we were made of most of the same “stuff,” albeit prioritized and packaged differently. The next, the “stuff” of Megan and the “stuff” of me was alchemically different.
As I watched her gently rip off the tabs of the dirty diaper and skillfully lift the baby’s butt so she could extract the offending object, I strained to describe what was so different. Was it the responsibility that Megan had welcomed? This little boy, his misshapen head still settling into its permanent shape, was forever in her charge. Taking home a mewing kitten from the humane society has struck me as a wildly unselfish and dangerous choice just a few years earlier. Was I capable of this depth of selflessness?
But it wasn’t just the awesome responsibility that I sensed separated us now. It was also the vulnerability. Megan had always been the tough one of the two of us—at least on the outside. When I was afraid to go get ice cream sundaes with the boys we had crushes on, she pushed me out the door. When I avoided the key on the basketball court, she put a body on her opponents and boxed them the hell out.
And, of course, in many ways, this choice to become a mother was the bravest of them all. But beneath the courage it took to get pregnant, to say yes to a lifetime of love and exhaustion, was this vulnerability.
I drove five hours through a whiteout blizzard in order to be with her shortly after her baby was born. When I arrived on her doorstep, hands shaky from clenching the steering wheel for so long, so hard, I realized that it was Megan who had been through something. Her eyes immediately filled with tears at the sight of me.
She wasn’t a crier. In fact, I’d known that she really trusted me when we were little girls because she never cried in front of anyone and she would, on rare occasions, cry hard in front of me; her freckled face suddenly painted with blotches of angry red, like the color had been trapped under the porcelain surface of her skin for too long.
But here she was and it wasn’t a hard cry. It was a soft cry—a kind I’d never witnessed from her in our two decades of friendship.
I sat with her on the L-shaped living room couch, covered in tangles of blankets, talking for hours upon hours. We talked about everything and nothing, just like always, but this time was different. There was a softness to her that I’d never felt. It was such a paradox—on the one hand, she seemed so impressive, so capable. On the other, she seemed so uncharacteristically fragile.
Sometimes I would put the cloth horseshoe thing around my waist (I would learn it was called a “boppy”), and take a turn holding her baby boy. I tried to sense the love between us. Did he know how much I adored his mother? Did he know how helpful I wanted to be? Who was he going to become? I couldn’t yet sense any of her in him. He was just weeks old, a tiny, powerful stranger who had rearranged my best friend’s insides.
As the months wore on, I felt Megan’s fragility firm up again. She got a hang of things, became comfortable with her newfound authority, started doling out advice for the future: breastfeeding isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Fathers, no matter how well-intentioned, don’t hear the midnight cries of the baby like mothers do, she said. Day care is great for kids. The old Megan was mostly back.
But the chasm remained. Sometimes as we talked on the phone I struggled to think of what to share about my own life. All of my grievances suddenly seemed ridiculous. I’m traveling too much. I’m not writing enough. I can’t figure out where I want to live. They were all luxurious worries, the kinds of things only childless people had time or energy to grind on. I didn’t always know what to ask her about the baby. When do they walk? When do they talk? When do they get teeth?
Nevertheless, we chatted through the awkwardness, across the chasm. I know she knows that I’ve done the best I can to be supportive of this wild new adventure she’s on. She still makes me feel like I can call anytime I need her, and sometimes I do, even when I’m at my most overwhelmed and inarticulate. I don’t worry that my problems will sound stupid. I know that would break her heart.
Pretty soon, I’ll join her on the other side: I'm due in two and a half weeks. I’m writing this all down so that I can remember what it felt like before the profound responsibility and vulnerability came, before my insides got rearranged by a tiny, powerful stranger.
Photo via judybaxter/flickr.
Courtney E. Martin is an author, blogger, and speaker. She is also the author of five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. She is Editor Emeritus at Feministing.com, Founding Director of the Solutions Journalism Network, and Partner at Valenti Martin Media, a social media strategy firm. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.