When I got married, women my mother met when my brother and I were babies came to the wedding from across the country and from Europe. She’s always said that the friends who raise their children alongside yours, sharing mornings in the park spent talking about kids and husbands and life, are some of the closest a woman can make.
When I was pregnant I felt a sort of faux anxiety about making mommy friends. I was young and single and I lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; the other pregnant women were a decade older than me and at different stages of their lives, as evidenced by the massive diamonds encrusting their beautifully manicured ring fingers. I didn’t want to be friends with them in my normal life, and didn’t particularly want to be friends with them in motherhood. But I felt like I should, enough to force myself to hang around after prenatal yoga and make small talk about due dates and backaches and smile blandly when women started complaining about their husbands.
Not surprisingly, I hadn’t made any pregnant buddies by the time Ruby was born, and as the ecstasy of new motherhood settled and my friends came and met the baby and returned to their normal, busy lives I found myself whiling away my 12 luscious weeks of unpaid maternity leave utterly alone.
So I found a drop-in new mother’s group at the 92nd Street Y. I felt just as uncomfortable among a group of strangers as I always do, but now I had a baby to attend to. That paired with the classic crutch of the socially awkward — Imagine Yourself an Anthropologist — had me coasting along quite painlessly as I deferred my goal of making friends and sat alone with Ruby.
Luckily for me, not everyone is so passive. A woman with a baby boy approached. She didn’t have the hardened, busy, know-it-all edge that many of the other women seemed, shockingly, to possess. She seemed a little shy herself, but she was determined. After talking to me a bit, she pulled out a notebook and wrote down my email address. And a few days later, she wrote to wish me a happy Mother’s Day.
I didn’t have very much in common with Michiko. She was Japanese and married and almost 15 years older than me, a fact she reminded me of frequently in the calm, encouraging notes she’d write as I tried to sort out my life over the next few years. But I could speak to her honestly and I think she felt the same way about me, and her friendship throughout Ruby’s babyhood was a gift. One day as our babies approached their first birthdays and we sat with them in the European Galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I told her that I was worried about Ruby. I’d noticed for some time that she seemed floppier than other babies, and the pediatrician had just ordered a sonogram of her unusually large head and told me to have Ruby evaluated for developmental delays. In my innocence, I found the pediatrician’s suggestion that Ruby might need a little physical therapy absolutely devastating.
I was upset, and baby Ruby noticed and became visibly concerned about me. Michiko in turn noticed this, and ever after she would tell me that, having seen Ruby’s astute empathy as a baby that day at the Met, she believed Ruby would be okay.
A few months later Ruby and I moved to Chicago, and coincidentally Michiko and her family visited relatives there just after we moved. I was thrilled at another chance to see her and her boy Charlie, and we planned to take a trip to the zoo in my new car.
I grew up in Manhattan and like many such people, I was a late driver. Matter of fact, since getting my license I had hardly driven at all, and the fact that I needed a car and indeed, needed to drive upon moving with my baby to Chicago was part of the whole “Comfort zone? what comfort zone?” theme of that period of my life. When I bought the car, test driving it with the salesman mortified me, and I refused to drive it home from the dealership. I couldn’t negotiate highways (put simply, I couldn’t drive), and I had the car delivered to me in the Ukrainian Village the next day.
But I wanted to take Michiko and Charlie and Ruby to the zoo, and I did, and it was only on the way back to her aunt’s house that my ineptitude was revealed. First, there was the minor issue of waiting for a green light to make a left and then being astounded by traffic coming towards me as I attempted to make that left. “I think you have to wait for the cars to pass. Cause they have a green light, too,” she said, diplomatically.
I made it to Lake Shore Drive, and moments later found myself being screamed at by a man sticking his head out of a van driving alongside me. I believe his words were “There’s fire coming out of your car!”
The good ol’ parking brake.
Now that I think of it, I’m not sure if it’s to Michiko’s credit that she allowed me to continue driving her and her son home that day, but she did, and I appreciated it, and I appreciated the way she sat next to me and my panicking heart after I pulled over.
Long before I moved back to New York, Michiko moved with her family back to Japan to take over her parent’s business. It was a difficult decision for her, and we discussed it over email much as we had discussed the various iterations of life as a single mom that I was trying out. The last time I saw her, on a weekend visit to New York, was the morning after my first date with the man who is now my husband. “You were really beaming,” she wrote afterwards. “And seeing you like that made me happy, too.”
Certain things during those first years of motherhood are really vivid.
In the last few years, I lived a sort of dual life, barreling through nursing school and then working in an ICU in Baltimore with people who were surprised to learn that I even had a kid, caring for Ruby on my days off in my parents’ home in Washington. My mother took Ruby to school more often than I did; it became increasingly clear that Ruby was not a regular child and I was not always comfortable with this; and I didn’t make any effort to present myself socially as anything other than frazzled and unavailable, which I was. I didn’t come away with any new mom friends, but now that I am fully immersed in motherhood again and hopefully settled in a place that we won’t be leaving in a couple of years, I have my eyes open.
And I’m making a new friend. She’s funny and outgoing and real, and she has time to talk about our ambitions and whether or not it’s okay to put a kid back in pull-ups for bedtime after washing pee out of sheets for too many months (not just okay, it’s fabulous). I told her I was starting a blog, and she introduced me to her blog. I was distressed after seeing a tiny boy pull Ruby close and whisper something that started with “F” and ended with “uck” and then tell me that he had said “bye,” and then I felt all warm and cozy after Sarah told me a kid in the class told her son he was going to “make him dead.” She looks like my best friend, and she wears gold Nikes with her last name stenciled on.
Thank goodness. Michiko, I miss you. Sarah, let’s get a cup of coffee.