I made a new friend on the swing set the other day. We were both pushing our small children on the swings and staring sideways at each other, wondering if the other one lived in the city with an infant. Because of course no one does that.
I see a lot of childless young people walking around downtown San Diego. Twenty somethings wear Converse sneakers and faded t-shirts and walk with a slouchy indifference mid-lane down the sidewalks. These are the people you want to take your commemorative photo of San Diego. I have a working theory that the closer a person is to adolescence, the greater the chance that both the city and your face will make it into the photo. Also, chances are good they have previously encountered a touch screen.
I also see a lot of baby boomer tourists walking around downtown, fresh off of cruise ships or weekend conventions. They usually carry backpacks and wear oversize sun-shielding paraphernalia like visors or elective umbrellas on cloudless days. You probably do not want these fine people to take your picture. They will handle your smart phone like an unruly steering wheel, turning it back and forth, repeatedly asking which button takes the picture.
A couple of weekends ago, Mike, Molly, and I were on a bike ride and asked a friendly older woman to take our photo with the cityscape in the background. “Would you mind taking it sideways?” I asked. “Like with the camera turned to the side and the city in the background?” She agreed and immediately took a narrow, upright photo of our faces.
“Perfect,” she said through a smile.
She then took several unsolicited, up close pictures of Molly before returning the phone. Things got a little weird after that, so we quickly thanked her and left.
But of all the people I see walking in the city, I rarely see other young moms. So on the swing set that day, I felt a little overly enthusiastic about conversation. I began pegging her with questions: “How long have you lived in the city?” “How do you walk your dog and baby at the same time?” “Let’s share stories of almost getting hit by taxis!”
We talked fast and furious, because we were both desperate for connection within the niche context of living in the city with a baby. It’s such a miraculous thing, isn’t it? To accidentally discover a friend in a stranger?
Building community after having a kid can be tricky. Not impossible, but tricky. The first few months of an infant’s life (or at least my infant’s life) were so wonderfully portable. You could bring a car seat carrier into a restaurant for an 8:00pm reservation and wave away concerns with, “Oh, it’s fine! She basically sleeps anywhere.” Then you silently pat yourself on the back for being the world’s most flexible, well-adjusted honors student of parenting.
But then babies suddenly become particular. They want to go to bed in an actual crib. They want to play with actual toys instead of plastic straws, paper napkins, or cardboard coasters. They want to see familiar faces, return to familiar rhythms of the day. And all of a sudden, the names of normal human activities get fused to the word ‘time’: naptime, bedtime, playtime, snacktime. Things become routine and mundane and homebound.
Parenthood, in a lot of ways, is a shared experience. We can speak buzzwords and nod our heads in unison that, yes, we testify to the weird, unwieldy task of looking after a human. But in the center of a day this shared task is specifically individual, it’s in my house alone with a baby and that is the where it’s most isolated.
Three o’clock in the afternoon is the hardest hour of the day for me. It’s when I realize that I haven’t accomplished half of what I ambitiously set out to at the beginning of the day. It’s when I feel like motherhood is intruding on my ability to be a writer, to be a work-from-home employee, to be a clean and aptly dressed human being.
Three o’clock is when the house is one long evidence trail of Molly’s path of destruction: books are pulled off shelves, Legos are everywhere, and dishes are piled high in the sink. This is usually the moment Molly wants to be held, when she’s fussy and out of sorts, and also the moment I discover bits of sweet potato in her hair. That she ate yesterday.
Three o’clock is when I run out of gas, but realize I still have a few hours to go until bedtime. It’s when I make an iced coffee and eat a mindless snack while standing in the kitchen dazed and uncertain about which productive task most urgently requires my attention.
Three o’clock is when I ask myself over and over again the question my husband will ask in a matter of hours: “What did you do today?”
It’s when I feel bored. It’s when I hover over Instagram. It’s when I wonder if my brain is shrinking.
Three o’clock is when I feel like the worst parent, because it’s the time Molly needs me the most, but the time I feel most resistant to meeting her needs. I don’t feel like reading books or sitting on the floor or stacking blocks and didn’t I just feed her?
Three o’clock is when my selfishness comes out like a roaring lion. It’s an all-consuming child in itself, demanding my undivided attention, demanding I feed the ravenous appetite of my own desires.
Three o’clock is when my worst self comes out and I suspect she was there all along, but it took the humble act of parenthood to show me all the ways I was not humble. It’s sort of like being squeezed into something that doesn’t quite fit and realizing it’s too small by surprise.
The often-invisible task of looking after a human keeps me really close to the honesty of my need, which is annoying and uncomfortable but I assume great for sanctification and also the snack industry.
It’s hard and challenging, but I’m euphorically thankful so much of the time, too. The irony is not lost on me that the exact thing I complain about most is actually an extravagant privilege—to have a child, be at home, feed and clothe and care for her.
Ironically, it was a little after three o’clock that I met my new friend at the swing set. Maybe that’s why it mattered to me so much, because God surprised me with provision at the exact moment I was worn out and certain that my three o’clock hour was invisible to everyone else. That afternoon, vulnerability was credited towards something useful: it earned me a friend.
Another friend named Melissa told me yesterday that vulnerability is the thing we all identify with most, that the protagonist we all want to root for is the one who has fallen short in ways that sound familiar. I nodded my head and felt saturated with relief that imperfection was all around me. That it didn’t just live in my house.
Sometimes the picture doesn’t look like you want it. Sometimes the scenery isn’t cropped or cultivated exactly as you like. The whole bundle isn’t photogenic when you most want it be. But that’s okay, I think. You use it as a conversation piece when you meet strangers.
You still share your camera and share your life and hope that the moment you are documenting is somehow honest and beautiful and most of all true.