I went to NYC to run a booth in a book fair. I met an old friend, Louisa, for dinner at a funky midtown restaurant after a grueling day of hosting the booth events and having an author reading. I sat at the table, early as always, waiting, wondering if a warm bath and room service in the hotel might have been a better choice. I can’t remember the last time I had a bubble bath without someone knocking at the door, or, climbing in. And for far too long, I did not order food for myself; I usually ate the leftover food off of my kids’ plates. But when I saw Louisa, I jumped up from my seat and we hugged each other tight.
It was a sacrifice for both of us to take a night away, but the time melted away with that one embrace. I said, “It’s been too long.” She agreed and said, “But look at me now. I’m chubby, a mess and late.” She had changed from the precise, timely, sensibly dressed, ambitious MBA I knew, but she was attractive, with a self-deprecating, stunning smile. I wasn’t surprised at how good she looked.
I said, “You’re so pretty. It’s just softer and whimsical now. You always look so happy on Facebook! Beautiful family. Busy, gorgeous kids.” The waiter, Benjamin was getting suspicious we would talk all night and never turn this table. But that all became white noise around us as we caught up. We ordered food and multiple rounds of wine and margaritas, making Benjamin feel like we weren’t so bad. We talked about the good old days, laughing at ourselves and savoring the great memories of our early twenties.
We talked about our careers and the inevitable U-turns after kids. We talked about husbands, children, challenges, and happiest moments. She told me a few stories about horrifying behaviors by moms in her daughter’s dance academy. Then after three glasses of wine, with a margarita in hand, at exactly 9:38, she leaned over, “I’m going to tell you my deepest, darkest, most shameful secret. It’s so horrible I don’t know if I can say the words out loud. If I do, they become true and I can never take them back.”
I said, “You don’t have to share any secret. Everyone has a right to their secrets.” She said, “I don’t know why but I want to tell you. I need to tell someone and you’re the right person.” She took a deep breath and a big gulp of her drink.
“So here it goes. After I had my two kids, I just couldn’t lose the weight easily. I could grab a handful of stomach flab. I was mortified. There it was day after day, a handful of chubbiness. I couldn’t stand it. I started to throw up my food. I think I got hooked because it was a lever I had control over and I had control over almost nothing with two little kids and a husband who just kept going with his usual routine. Nothing material was changing for him. He was still having nights out with the boys and work dinners while everything in my world was turned on its head.
“I researched and tried to find the healthiest way to puke. I have it down to a science. I drink a big glass of liquid to ease the food. I usually drink milk as it coats the stomach. I lock the bathroom door and strip off my clothes in one second flat. I don’t want any splatters or smell on my clothes. I put a paper towel on the floor because sometimes pee runs down my leg when I force myself to throw up. Then I come out, redress and brush my teeth. Sometimes I quickly rinse my body in the shower if no one is waiting. I have it down to about ninety seconds.”
I grabbed her hand, “Doesn’t Jack notice? You guys seem tight.” She squeezed my hand. “No, Jack has absolutely no clue. He would freak. He might even ask his friends or his mom for advice. No thanks. I want to finish so you’ll know how pathetic I really am. One day, two years ago, my son, who was six at the time, walked in on me. I guess I didn’t catch the lock. I was standing naked, crouched over the toilet, with my two fingers poised to go in my mouth.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Mommy, are you okay? What are you doing?’ The look on his face was so innocent, so concerned.” She was crying now. “I told him I had cramps and I was just about to grab a quick shower. He accepted this without hesitation. Why would he even consider his mommy was a crazy, puking liar? Anyway, I dressed in a hurry and went out. I was disgusted with myself, beyond ashamed. I vowed to quit and I have for the most part. The only time I throw up is during the holidays. I want to fit in my clothes. So, I justify four or five times a year, for ninety seconds I am a pathetic individual because the tradeoff is worth it to me. People don’t really understand the sacrifice we make, physically having kids and then managing the incredible challenge of raising them.”
She was sobbing as she finished her story. I was crying too. Benjamin, our waiter came over concerned until we assured him we were okay. She said, “The reason I told you my story is that when I have days like this and I’m struggling to be a decent mom and then some dance mom is trying to run me out of the program because I don’t volunteer enough or want to spend an extra five hundred dollars on costumes, I wonder what it’s going to take for us to find our moral compass as moms, in the way we treat each other.”
When I went back to my hotel room, I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up all night. I was wrestling with these stories, these realities– mine, Nikki’s and Louisa’s—the loss of career dreams, the embracing of a new life as a mom, making new important mom friends and evolving with old friends who became moms like me. How we are the same and how we’ve changed. How, when the curtain is pulled back, there are messes everywhere. How sometimes other moms pull us down. So we soldier on.
I wrote— a Mom’s Code!
The code incorporates the importance of laying it bare. Because we need to. It’s cleansing and a relief.
It incorporates the notion that the end doesn’t justify the means when raising children. Because all the ‘means’ added together make up the fabric of my children’s character at the end of the childhood journey.
When moms undermine other moms, it makes the load heavier. We have too much in common to tear each other apart.
My children didn’t come with warning labels. Open heart surgery, a different learner, one who keeps breaking bones, a non-sleeper, an irascible arguer. My children, as imperfect as they are, have stretched my heart and increased my ability to love and embrace life. I have become more honest about the fact that when you pull back the curtains at my house, there is usually a mess. And although I’ve searched under beds and behind couches, I can never seem to find time. I’m always running but still behind.
One night, I was lying in my son’s bed trying to get him to go to sleep. He grabbed my face with his hands so I was looking at him, “Mommy I need a tiger!”
When I asked him what (in the world) would we do with a tiger, he said, “Name him Ripper and feed him bullies!” From the top bunk, his older brother said through closed eyes, “Unicorns and pink fairies have to go too.” I had been asked about 327 questions that day, fended off wars over a one-armed doll, warded off a hunger strike because I served broccoli, and collected all the electronics they wanted to sneak into their beds.
My daughter entered the doorway and asked, “Does Winnie the Pooh even know how to read? Does he have to do a reading journal? It’s not fair.” She stomped out. I guess it was a rhetorical question. I smiled, thinking there is no place I’d rather be right now.
Sometimes my children say hilarious things, accomplish something remarkable, hug a sibling spontaneously or, believing no one is watching, run with beautiful abandon.
So, it’s worth some introspection, for all of us and for them, the ankle biters. It’s worth telling the truth. It’s worth considering a Mom’s Code. Or else, we’re going to have to get a tiger named Ripper to eat the mom bullies or teach Winnie the Pooh to keep a journal.