Portrait of a Mother

She answered the door wearing neither makeup nor shoes.

She wore a t-shirt and cut off denim shorts and a closely cropped haircut that was devoid of any styling product.  She smiled as she opened her home to me and quietly invited me in.  She seemed a little meek and unsure of how to greet me.

Shit, this is going to be awkward.

I hauled my oversized pink duffel bag out of my trunk and dragged it into her house.

“Thanks again for inviting me to stay here,” I said.  “It’s really great to meet you.”

“No problem.  It’s nice to meet you, too.”

“Is there, um, some place I can go to change my shoes and freshen up a bit?”

She pointed me to a guest suite that doubled as her husband’s office and assured me that I could make myself at home.

“I’ve still got to get ready, but don’t worry.  It doesn’t take me long,” she insisted.

Great, we’re going to have nothing in common.

I took off the black high heeled sandals I’d worn to a baby shower earlier that day and replaced them with a higher heeled pair of strappy black dress shoes.  I removed the pin I’d been wearing to disguise a plunging neckline.  I exchanged a chunky bracelet and dangly black earrings for a silver necklace and hoops.  I reapplied my powder and added dark lipstick over the top of my clear lip balm.

From shower to slutty in less than 30 seconds.

I heard her let the babysitter in.  Moments later she knocked on the door to my guest room and I told her I was decent.

“I just found out the other day that we’re the same age,” she said.


“Yeah, we were both born in 1980.  I always think that’s interesting when someone is exactly the same age as me.”

Yeah.  Interesting.

I noticed that she still wasn’t wearing any makeup and hadn’t changed clothes.  I suddenly wondered if my dress and heels were going to look absurd next to her shorts and t-shirt all night.  I wondered how late she had arranged for her babysitter to stay.  I wondered what in the hell me and this woman who was exactly the same age as me would have to talk about all night.

She was giving the sitter instructions when I came out into the living room.  I noticed the handwritten note she’d left on the counter with snacktimes and bedtimes.  I remembered the notes I used to leave my parents whenever I left my son with them.  On the counter beside the note was a small plastic tub filled with grapes and something crunchy.  I had the feeling that someone in the house knew exactly how many grapes were in the plastic tub.

I never counted grapes.

“I just have to pump and then I’ll get ready and we can go,” she said.

She picked up her electric breast pump and disappeared down the hall into what I assumed was her bedroom.  I glanced at my watch and realized we were going to be late.  I chatted with the babysitter and wondered again what the hell I’d been thinking by accepting an invitation from a woman I barely knew.  A woman who was obviously nothing like me.

Her bedroom door opened and I turned around to inspect what “getting ready” meant to her.

She was stunning.  She darted back and forth between bathroom and bedroom doors and I marveled at her tall and willowy frame.  She wore a silver tank top and slimfitting jeans and a black cuff on her wrist.  Her dark hair was shiny and perfectly tousled.

“Uh, I don’t wanna gross you out, but I’m going to shave my armpits,” she warned as I stood in the doorway of her bathroom and gawked at her.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked as she quickly dry shaved under both of her arms.

She shook her head and laughed, “I’ve been doing this since I was 13.”

I watched as she gave final instructions to the sitter and kissed her kids goodnight and found myself suddenly intimidated by her easy coolness.  She grabbed her purse and I followed her out the door and into her car.

She pulled out of the driveway and started talking immediately.  She told me about her job and her husband and where they’d gone to school.  She started telling me about someone she used to work for.

“He was just a dick, ya know?”

Did she just call someone a dick?

I don’t remember saying much as we drove to the bar where we were meeting the rest of our party.  I probably looked like an idiot sitting in the passenger seat and just watching her talk.  She reminded me of a character in some independent coming of age movie.  She spoke quickly, but quietly, with that cool confidence that I could never muster.  I bet she remembered the names of the authors she liked or the people who produced her favorite movies.

I felt ridiculous in my silver hoops and cheesy red lipstick.  I felt like an asshole for having judged this woman so quickly.

And I suddenly wanted very much for her to like me.

Do not make an ass of yourself tonight.

Of course, I did make an ass of myself.  Because if you put me at a table with people who tell stories on the Internet and let me order margaritas, I will inevitably get loud and stupid and act in a way that makes me wonder why in the hell I keep going out in public.  But Maria sat beside me all night and I didn’t catch her rolling her eyes at me even once.  She even pre-ordered drunk food for later in the night.

The next morning, after sitting up and talking to her so long that I literally fell asleep upright in her living room chair, I came out of the bedroom to find her in boxer shorts and black rimmed glasses.  She made me a cup of coffee and I sat and talked with her while she nursed her baby and played with her toddler.

We talked about the tattoos we wanted to get and the expense of trying to go green.  We talked about engorged breasts and doctors who were too tight fisted with anxiety medication.  We used the words fuck and organic in the same conversation.  I sat at her kitchen table until she finally picked up the phone and called to apologize to her friends for being late to their playdate.

I apologized for overstaying my welcome and quickly packed up my pink duffel bag.  I thanked her again for inviting me to stay and opening her house to me.  I quietly hoped that she’d agree to hang out with me again in the future.

I tell you all this to illustrate that I am an asshole.

But also because, as I drove home that morning, I kept thinking about how Maria perfectly embodied exactly what motherhood is.  I kept thinking about the complexity of who she was and how my initial assessment of her hadn’t been wrong so much as it had been limited and narrow and far too small to fit an entire person into.

I thought about how we are, all of us, too big for our labels.

We are not green moms or mothers of children with cancer.  We are not the Pakistani-American mother or the special needs mom.  We are not moms who scrapbook or moms who blog or moms who cook or moms who buy cookies from the store for the school bake sale.

And we are not good mothers or bad mothers.

By definition, we are simply women who are raising children.  We talk at length about how we raise those children and the millions of ways that there are to do that.  The differences in how we parent can be so vast and varied and my god with the talking about it that we mistakenly assume that it is the “raising children” that defines us.

But we are, first and foremost, women.

This whole motherhood thing, while big and important and sometimes all-encompassing and absolutely life changing, is simply another life experience heaped onto a whole mountain of other life experiences that make us who we are.  It is ridiculous to think that any of us could be so easily identified by only one or two of our experiences or by small fractions of our personalities.

And yet, we keep trying to do just that.

We sign up for playgroups and think they’re moms, surely we’ll have tons in common.  And then we beat ourselves up for not fitting in.

We show up for blogging conferences and tweet ups and think these people use the internet, surely we’ll have tons in common.  And then we wonder why we feel awkward and out of place in a place where we’re supposed to belong.

Or, worse, we see a woman who dares to answer her door without makeup and appears to be quieter and more soft spoken than us – and we assume we’ll have nothing in common.

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