We know motherhood brings with it innumerable changes, including some awkward, sometimes painful shifts in our relationships with our friends without children. In this week’s Mom Talk, Robin Rinaldi writes honestly about what it’s like to be the friend observing motherhood from the outside, and responds with the ultimate love letter of sister solidarity that every mom dreams of receiving. Robin is the author of The Wild Oats Project, a memoir, and managing editor of Together magazine.
You know that friend who used to be available for lunch, drinks, retail therapy, and bar-hopping, but slowly faded out of view once baby came along? She was thrilled when you told her you were pregnant. She was there throughout, ordering Prosecco alongside your seltzer, toasting your bump. She came to the shower armed with hipster onesies and a Stella McCartney diaper bag.
But after the bump became a squiggling human, things got awkward. She still wanted to brunch and meet at yoga class while you were limping around unshowered, leaking milk, and fantasizing only about two additional hours of sleep. When you chatted, she had news to report from the office or her Tinder feed; all you had were updates on poop and gassiness. The texts dwindled and now you keep up mainly by scrolling her vacations and food shots on Insta. Maybe you two will reconnect once the baby’s older.
I am not that friend.
For whatever reason, I’m okay with the fact that our paths have verged: You have taken on the most challenging, joyful, excruciating, and transformative task a human can attempt, and I have taken on other things. I love the things I’m doing, but why wouldn’t I be curious and even a little enthralled by your new job and by the brand new human being you made inside your body?
I guess now’s the time to state for the record why I don’t have kids and never will. My three baby brothers provided lots of experience in feeding, changing, burping, and rocking, but stay-at-motherhood circa mid-70s—married to an alcoholic, no less—overwhelmed my mom to such a degree that the main feeling I took into adulthood regarding reproduction was ambivalence.
That changed temporarily around age 40, when hormones and my own dawning mortality convinced me that I should have a baby before it was too late. (The ob-gyn who told me I had “the FSH level of a 28-year old!” may have had a part in it, too.) Alas, my husband disagreed. He got a vasectomy. We got a divorce. Now I’m in menopause.
For a couple of years, I was that woman who envied mothers and mothers-to-be. I remember walking past a cathedral in San Francisco one bluebird Sunday as a large family gathered around a white-clad infant on the steps for baptism photos. I burst into tears and ran home. I remember looking at bellies and strollers and wondering how each woman had convinced her husband to go along for the ride. I remember blaming my mom for not being happier with motherhood, so I could have gone into my twenties and thirties with more clarity, and my dad’s illness for creating the circumstances that made her unhappy.
But that storm passed. Before it, after it, and even for the most part during it, I never stopped loving babies or appreciating the herculean task another woman took on by having one. Now that time and circumstance have taken care of the decision for me, and the angst that dotted my fertile years has moved on, I’m free to express that love as the universal auntie I was born to be.
I’ll bring flowers to the hospital, like I did for my friend Karen, but not expect to sit and chat—not even for a minute—if I find the breastfeeding consultant in the room when I arrive, attempting to get the fidgety baby to latch. Instead I will quickly say, “Do you need me here?” And if you look at me like Karen did, wide-eyed and terrified, quickly nodding “no” as if you are involved in a life-or-death military maneuver at the moment, I will leave the bouquet on the table, blow you a kiss and back out of the room.
I’ll come to your house without expecting it to be clean or to be offered a glass of water. I’ll take the baby from you and sit there a bit staring at it. I’ll ask how you’re doing emotionally and if you have a husband (or a wife), I’ll ask them too. Then I’ll go, unless you need me to stay and load the dishwasher.
When you drive to my place for a long weekend, like my friend Maggie did, and your colicky 6-month-old screams nonstop between midnight and 2 a.m., I won’t put earplugs in. I’ll tiptoe into the guest room to check on things. When I see the tears streaming down your face, I’ll wordlessly take the baby, start bouncing him, and walk him up and down the hallway singing. The swift movement and the new voice will startle the kid into silence for a few seconds, and that pause might be enough to de-escalate his discomfort and get him back to sleep.
When I throw a dinner party, your kid will be invited, whether she’s a month or a year or 5 years old. I’ll send her birthday cards and tiny gifts and, every so often, a little money for college. I’ll friend her on social media. I’ll give her a sex talk when she turns 13, so if you don’t want her to learn the many benefits of Planned Parenthood and condoms, please remember not to leave her alone with me.
Even if I don’t know you, I’ll be your kid’s temporary auntie. At the restaurant, I won’t wince while he throws mac and cheese all over the floor. On the subway, you can have my seat. If you’re approaching a busy intersection with a toddler on your hip and a rambunctious 6-year-old who’s suddenly found it wildly fun to let go of your hand and run ahead of you, I will stop him, bend down with a smile, and say, “Listen to your mother, honey. Hold her hand right now. Go ahead, do it.” Believe me, he will.
And the airplane. Can we talk about the airplane? I know from my mother-friends how they fear it: the possibility of a meltdown with no escape, the scorn of others. I won’t roll my eyes and put on $300 Bose noise-cancelers. I’ll lean over and ask if you need me to get or do or hold anything.
Why will I do all this? Obviously because I enjoy it. It’s not hard to guess that being a 24/7/365 auntie gives me the dose of motherhood I never had while also giving you a break from judgment and from having to do it all yourself. It’s a win-win, as long as you don’t see me as a stalker who wants to steal your baby, which I promise I am not. Believe me, I’m usually happy to give him back.
But it’s not just about the baby. It’s about you and me. Women. Sisters. You may be a mother while I’m an auntie, but we are still somewhat in this together, aren’t we? I’m part of the village that it takes. I want to give you the respect and help you deserve, just as I want you to respect and support what I do—mainly sit at a computer all day playing with words.
When my ex and I were in the midst of negotiations over parenthood, I had confided in my upstairs neighbor, who was about my age and undergoing IVF treatment with her husband. One morning on her way to work, she showed up at my front door with a small paper bag containing sterile specimen cups.
“You can use these to collect sperm,” she said. “All you have to do is get it to an IVF facility within 30 minutes so they can freeze it.”
I looked at her quizzically. She knew my husband would never be up for IVF.
“You know they can separate sperm from saliva,” she said pointedly. “Robin, if you don’t do this, you’ll resent him forever.”
Well, she wasn’t exactly right about that. I don’t resent him anymore. But to this day I remember that woman’s determination and her witchy, sisterly gesture. (And no, I didn’t use the cups.)
A few years ago, my sister-in-law found herself waiting to have a baby because she and my brother, who very much wanted kids, weren’t quite ready financially. She was approaching her mid-thirties and began to worry.
“Tell you what,” I said, “stop worrying about money and preparedness all that. Just get pregnant. When it’s time for you to go back to work, I’ll come watch the baby a few days a week. I’ll get to satisfy my maternal instinct and you’ll get to be a working mom like you’ve always wanted to be.”
“Done,” she said. “We’ll make each other’s dreams come true.”
Last month she had a girl and fortunately, their financials are good. Still, next month, when she goes back to her job as a lawyer, I’ll be changing diapers and warming bottles a couple of days a week, writing during naps, and no doubt happy to hand over my niece at the end of the day.
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