This essay was previously published in "So Glad They Told Me: Women Get Real About Motherhood," a new anthology from The HerStories Project.
One hand on the stroller, the other clutching my newborn son to me, I plow my way up Third Avenue. Caleb's wails drown out the loud din that is Manhattan. The usual cacophony of bus brakes hissing, taxi cabs honking, and people hurrying is lost on me. All I hear are his cries and my shushing.
I've never been the type who sweats a lot, but pregnancy changed that. Right now I'm drenched in a perspiration that smells acrid and peppery, the stench of hormones. My breasts, once small and perky, now heave with the milk I'm producing to feed this screaming creature. His fierce cries cause them to tingle, and I can feel the LET-DOWN starting. Tears, sweat, and breast milk seem to be the main ingredients in the cocktail of my life these days. I'm every mixologist's dream.
This reality is so different than what I imagined motherhood to be. I pictured blissful walks with my baby in the buggy. People would admire his chubby cheeks, "ooh"-ing and "ahh"-ing while I smiled and glowed in my postpartum glory. We'd stop on a park bench, and he would quietly nurse while I hummed a little tune to cultivate his brain development. But none of that happens. Instead, I find myself day after day pushing an empty stroller, clutching a screaming Caleb to my chest, and wishing I were back at my desk at work.
Not too long ago, I escaped the grind of producing for a primetime newscast by daydreaming of a baby. Now I find myself fondly reminiscing about daily deadlines, last minute rundown changes, or canceling guests I'd victoriously snagged for our show. Never did I imagine during my pregnancy, as I counted down the days until my baby's arrival, that I would be yearning to return to the newsroom so soon after becoming a mother.
Yet I miss the collaboration that comes with putting together a nightly broadcast. I miss commiserating with my colleagues when something didn't go right. And I miss having executive and senior producers around to help guide me in my editorial decisions. Motherhood often feels like I'm stranded on a deserted island with an untamed wild animal as my boss.
Today is no different. Only for some reason, Caleb's cries seem louder, and my grip on him, on the stroller, on life, seems more fragile. I need salvation, and I need it fast. I know it won't come from any of the many faces passing by me. My attempts thus far at finding another mom in my predicament have been futile, and my other friends with kids are busy making their own way. On top of everything else, I find myself lonely. So I reach for my cell phone.
I stop the buggy in the middle of the sidewalk and press the parking brake. I don't even care that I'm blocking the pedestrian traffic. Caleb remains hysterical, and I need to hear the voice I think will bring me the most comfort right at this moment. I tighten my grip on him in my right arm, and dial with my left hand. Good thing I'm SEMI-AMBIDEXTEROUS. The ringing purrs in my ear, sounding almost symphonic compared to Caleb's nonstop cries. "Please pick up," I say, rocking him side to side. I bite my lip as the tears start to pool in my eyes.
"Hello?" my cousin Ellen answers.
"WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL ME THIS WAS GOING TO BE SO HARD?" I bellow into the phone.
There are times when I'm grateful that New Yorkers walk around with blinders. This is one of them. I must look like a lunatic.
"I know. I know. It's so hard, Mimi. It's so hard. Especially in the beginning. But it gets better. I promise," Ellen says, trying to soothe me from halfway across the country.
Ellen is my cousin, but she's also the closest thing I have to an older sister. We grew up at each other's homes and took family vacations together. She was my matron of honor. Now she serves as my GO-TO for all things baby. She has two kids of her own with one more on the way, and she's been my savior since Caleb arrived.
"He's hysterical. And now I'm hysterical. He won't calm down. He won't go in the stroller. I can't figure out that fucking Baby Bjorn thing. What. Is. Going. On?"
At this point, Caleb and I are going head to head on who can scream the loudest. He at least has the good excuse of being a baby. What's mine? I'm starting to wonder if maybe I am a lunatic.
Ellen's voice brings some relief. Hearing the familiar sound of someone who loves me is a salve for my postpartum wounds. "Where are you right now?" she asks.
"In the middle of the sidewalk."
"You have to get home. You'll feel better once you're there," she says. Given how overwhelmed I feel at that moment, I'm not sure how I manage to process what Ellen tells me. But thankfully her words compute. I cradle the phone between my ear and my shoulder, hoist the still screaming Caleb up on my chest, release the stroller brake, and start walking.
"You should see what I look like right now. And can you hear that he's still crying? How am I supposed to get him to stop?" I wail into the phone.
"Babies aren't robots. You can't program them to do exactly as you wish. But you should trust yourself and your own maternal instincts. It is hard to figure things out with a newborn, but you have a better sense of what to do than you think," Ellen says.
Hearing her tell me that motherhood is hard helps me regain some sense of composure. I had been starting to think that I was the only struggling mom in the world.
On the Upper East Side of New York that sweltering summer, Bugaboo carriages abound, pushed by perfectly coiffed and tanned young mothers. Unlike me, they don't have sweat stains under their arms or circles of breast milk on their chests. It's like that old game on Sesame Street, when they would sing, "One of These Things is Not Like the Other." That is how I feel every time I step outside of my building to take a walk with Caleb. I'm the "other" amidst a sea of motherhood perfection. Or at least what looks like it.
"So the fact that I feel like a total failure these days is normal?" I say between sobs. At this point I'm calmer, but the tears still come.
"You're not a failure. Try to be okay with how hard it is to be a mom. Babies are cute, yes, but they're also really tough. Don't put pressure on yourself to do everything right all the time," Ellen says.
Her continuous comfort is essential for me to complete this journey home. Before having a baby, I wasn't the type who needed constant reassurance that everything would be fine, but these days I can't get enough of it. Hearing that motherhood is difficult is therapeutic. Ellen's words grant me permission to embrace myself as a mama and all that I'm feeling in this new chapter of my life.
Caleb and I finally arrive back at our building. The air conditioning blasts us, a welcome relief to my sweaty self. Baby boy whimpers still, but it's nothing like the shrieking I encountered just a few long minutes ago.
"I'm going to lose you. I have to get in the elevator to go up," I say. "But thank you. Thank you for being there for me when I really needed you."
"Of course. Remember how I said that being a mom is harder than it seems. But you're okay. What you're feeling is totally normal. Don't forget that. Love you," Ellen says.
After I reluctantly press "end" on my phone, Caleb and I head upstairs. We enter our apartment where the cushy brown sofa beckons. I park the stroller behind the couch, grateful to be rid of it for now.
With both hands free, I pull Caleb toward me and inhale his newborn scent. It's a relief to finally have him peaceful in my arms. We have miles to walk together before I'll adjust to how hard motherhood can be. But these cuddles amidst the struggles, at least those are easy.
Mimi Sager Yoskowitz is a freelance writer, mother of four and former CNN producer. Her work has been featured on various sites including Kveller, Brain, Child, and The Forward. Connect with her at mimisager.com.