After a prenatal yoga class this past winter, two other pregnant women and I started talking about how we craved milk all the time. This was gross, we agreed.
We were all in our second trimester, putting on our coats in the lobby of the studio and then lingering to kvetch some more. It was a freezing cold evening, and the studio was warm—that was part of why we lingered. But more than that, we were reacting to the way that being pregnant and then a new parent can be isolating. It’s isolating emotionally, if one wishes to avoid burdening non-pregnant friends with updates about glucose tests, spit-up and pelvic pain; it’s isolating physically, since pregnant folks are unable to outsource counting baby’s kicks in the womb, dry-heaving on the street, or breastfeeding at 2 a.m.
So how relieved, even euphoric I felt to be face-to-face with other women, sharing our food aversions, our OB visit schedules, our plans for childcare. They seemed to be having a similarly cathartic experience, as another yoga class began and finished and there we all were, still jawing. “Mom friends!” I thought. “This is why people have them.”
Only then did the subject of vaccinations arise.
I started to sweat as the tenor inched towards anti-vaccine territory, and then, to circumcision, and epidurals, and whoops, suddenly I was now in the real-life equivalent of the comments thread of a mom blog, which was exactly where I didn’t want to be. “Mommy friends suck,” I thought. “I mean, why should the mere fact of our uteri being fertilized around the same time of year mean we have anything else in common?” I had the contradictory and equally true sense that assuming some instant, mythical connection with other women because we’re all inhaling cheeseburgers around gestational week 20 is the equivalent of saying that all women should relate to Sheryl Sandberg’s work experience.
Over an hour of my life had now vanished into the ether: an hour of my precious, limited, pre-baby life that I could have spent taking a bath, reading, or spending time with my actual friends, the mostly non-pregnant ones who invariably told me over wine (while I sipped mineral water): “Girl, do whatever the fuck you need to do to get through.” And yet I still longed to find some pregnant or parenting people who understood both my stances and opinions and also those stupid food cravings, the stressed-out mornings before blood test appointments and ultrasounds. I couldn’t, and can’t, stop myself from trying to make mom friends again. I’ve already started another Facebook group for new moms who gave birth within a few weeks of me, in fact (so far: zero flame wars and one thread devoted to the frequency of baby poop).
Pregnancy and motherhood can be both a source of social detachment and foster an intense need for community, all at once. I’ve never felt simultaneously so siloed and also so much a part of the fabric of humanity than I have this past year, which hit me with endless contradictions. Pregnant, I felt incredibly special and also like a freak. I felt like an assembly-line conformist breeder and also an earth mama gushingly, glowingly, united with the cosmos (“like tripping on mushrooms!” is how a friend I once tripped mushrooms with described the weeks after birth, and you know what? She was right). I desired to link arms with every other pregnant woman in the world and also wanted desperately to escape back to a place where my identity was based on things like my tastes rather than the number of weeks “along” I was.
By its nature, motherhood calls for the kind of “it takes a village” collectivism that late-stage capitalism discourages. While pregnant or caring for an infant, we ought to be sitting in some sort of warm, earthy women’s tent type enclave with many generations of acquired wisdom around you and children rolling around in the earth at your feet communing with Gaia. Instead, we end up logging on in the early morning before our commutes, satisfying the desire for affirmation by trawling message boards that overflow with rancor and anxiety. A climactic, and powerful, moment in Elisa Albert’s recent novel After Birth—one of the spate of ambivalent mom novels that are all over shelves these days—occurs when the two lonely mother characters’ start breastfeeding each others’ babies, an incident based on Albert’s own life. By doing so, they are turning something companionless into something communal and shared, an act that feels risky, daring, and dangerous in the modern world perhaps because (as my post-yoga experience shows) choices around parenting are fraught and individual and divide us into “teams.”
The only solution to this dance of approach and retreat is to share our ambivalence, cop to our feelings both of segregation and craving for connection. Art helps: Reading books like After Birth and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation “rescued me from my solitude, my desperation,” as Kim Brooks writes in her recent piece at The Cut about motherhood and making art. And as Albert herself wrote about her intense postpartum bonds with other moms: “Being seen and heard by sympathetic women was more than a great comfort: it was sustaining, urgent and eminently sane.”
As for me, it turns out I was like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. My real mommy friends were already there—on my phone’s contact list, if not in my own back yard. My high school best friend who lives across the country became pregnant with her second child as I entered my third trimester, and we began to exchange daily, nauseated, tired, nervous, happy and pissed-off messages back and forth from our respective desks during the day. Just in time, another high school friend invited me to a Facebook group of progressive parents who shared my sensibilities. These bonds sustained me not just because of the experience of incubating another human being, but also for reasons far beyond that: our senses of humor, our politics, our histories.
Finally, when my pregnancy turned high-risk and I gave birth a few weeks early under trying circumstances, I felt completely embraced by a far-flung community, a village that extended from social media into the real world, including my partner’s awesome Twitter friends, an online forum for women who shared my medical complication, and especially my older and more experienced classmates and friends who had had a kid or two already. The texts and calls and Facebook messages came in every day from Vermont, and Seattle, and Portland, and Japan and Los Angeles, and other boroughs of New York: “How are you feeling?” alongside dark and funny quips about magic mushrooms, feminism, and radical politics. This village of mine may not be able to nurse my baby for me or heal my C-section scar, but they can lift me up in other, quieter, ways, and that’s what I was looking for all along.
Sarah M. Seltzer is a writer of fiction, journalism and criticism in New York City and the Editor-at-Large at pop culture website Flavorwire.
Image via screenshot/Scott Rudin Productions