I first heard Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein, who delivers mindfulness wisdom with a comforting, Jewish-grandmother-from-Brooklyn accent, in my car. I was listening to On Being With Krista Tippett, the Mother Superior of all podcasts about spirituality. Boorstein encouraged listeners to treat themselves with the compassion and empathy they would offer a cherished, trusted friend. "Imagine you are sitting beside yourself," she said quietly, with those elongated, slightly nasal vowels, "and you put your arm around your shoulders, and say, 'Sweethawwt, you're in pain.'"
It struck me in that moment how far I had come. Not literally. I had been stuck on a mile-long stretch of Beverly Boulevard for what felt like a week. But I had friends, real-life, arm-around-the-shoulder friends. Just a handful of years before, when my twins were very young, I had been struggling with reentering the workforce. Since I am a freelance magazine writer and author, the "workforce" is my laptop and Wi-Fi. And I felt desperately lonely.
My closest friends were childless party people, had older kids, or lived in another state. I was exhausted and confused, questioning whether spending time away from my kids for little to no pay, and hiring someone to care for them while I stared at a blank screen and panicked about feeling creatively bankrupt, was worth it. All I wanted back then was a Zen Jewish grandmother to give me sage advice and a friend or two I could trust in the trenches with me, but I had no idea how to find them.
Making trusted mom friends is a task that's swimming in vulnerability. You have to leave the house to do it, for one. At birthday parties and mommy-and-me classes, not environments known for intimacy, you have to fine-tune your radar to pick up on signals from like-minded people. Most challenging of all, you have to let people know that you need them, or need anyone, and I wasn't into that sort of thing. I used to describe myself as "independent," and say that I preferred to figure out my problems on my own. But, thanks to my other car-therapy friend, Brené Brown, I understand that I was caught in that famous straitjacket of perfectionism. I hadn't yet realized that asking for help made me look strong, not weak.
Making trusted mom friends is a task that's swimming in vulnerability.
I could lie and say that I set an intention and the Universe (capital U) delivered them to me, but what actually happened was more mundane. When my kids were three, I got an email from a good, but not yet cherished, friend asking if I wanted to join her in group therapy. She was putting together a small group of artist mothers to meet monthly under the guidance of a therapist, Deborah Stern. What the four of us would do and talk about in her office was unclear, but I knew it would be a break from the isolation, and I suspected that it might push my limits of comfortable social interaction, and I needed both of those things, badly.
I should say that I always thought group therapy was total bullshit. It was a cheap construct for a sad reality show, or a one-season sitcom, and a concept which, IMHO, reached its cultural nadir around the third season of Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew. It was a setup used to plumb the depths of narcissists' pain for ratings. It's fair to say that I was wary. All of us were. So much so that on the night of our first get-together, the four of us stopped at El Carmen, a Mexican dive in West Hollywood, for a pregame drink. The Tuesday Night Margarita Club was born.
I am reluctant to even write about what happened in Deb Stern's office over the years we met, because I don't want to betray the trust that developed there. I can say that, slowly, we started sharing our most personal stories, about our own mothers, our weakest moments as parents, our power struggles with our spouses, and our doubts about our own abilities or talent. We also used the forum as a pressure release for the day-to-day tedium. There's something oddly satisfying about admitting to furiously shredding a spaghetti squash while you ignored your wailing children, or how you stopped speaking to your husband for a full day when he counted the number of dog shits you failed to clean up in the yard while he was working long hours and you were home with two small kids clinging to your sanity.
Every mother needs a safe space to share her grief over the loss of her former life as a person who could stay out past eleven and travel freely, who scribbles ideas in her journals instead of grocery lists; and to know that bitching about it doesn't diminish her love for her family. And no one, really, no one, wants to listen to the complaints of a mother who can afford the privilege of staying home with her kids, with a regular sitter on call, except for other mothers in the same position.
Every mother needs a safe space to share her grief over the loss of her former life.
"I think you all needed help dealing with that painful split, the difficulty of trying to do creative work and also be a mother," says Deb Stern, who is, like Sylvia Boorstein, a Jewish grandmother. I called her to ask about the group, now that we have some distance and perspective, and how she thought we all grew and changed together. "You also needed to open up the lines of communication and bond. All of you were in the same boat. You had incredibly high expectations of yourselves as parents, but you weren't competitive with each other. It's relatively new in our culture for people to even try to do everything your generation is doing, to work and take care of your kids at that level and make your own yogurt. I think that my purpose was to tell you that your feelings were all normal, and to tell you where your kids were, developmentally, and that their behavior was also normal. I brought some perspective. I think that's how a therapist can be useful in this situation."
It took a few sessions for me to ditch the self-deprecating jokes, the polite nodding, all the usual blockades I threw down to keep people at a safe distance. Eventually, I stopped trying to come up with a clever response to every story they told, another annoyingly evasive move. I don't remember exactly when it shifted, but I realized that these women deserved more than that. It wasn't always smooth sailing. But most of the time, they listened to me divulge all the ways I wasn't perfect, that sometimes I yelled at my kids and felt like a failure at work and shirked away when my husband tried to touch me, and not only did they still like me, they liked me more.
Gradually, our support for each other moved from the abstract to the tangible. We helped each other get out of the house when we needed it, offering a desk in a shared office space or a lunch date. We celebrated the birth of two babies and passed along hand-me-downs. We mourned a failing marriage. We listened. Deb also reminded me that my three friends in that room were among the first people to read the objectively embarrassing first draft of my novel, which is being published this month.
"For you, it was about writing the book, and the hard times you went through finishing it, and facing rejection, and the hell you put yourself through," she says. "But you had that group of people telling you that you had to go on and do this. Everyone was behind it, and behind you."
By the time I was listening to On Being in my car, the four of us were in deep. When the room filled with darkness (it did) or tears (yep), we would break the tension with our best Boorstein impression. One sweethawwt is all it took to get us back in the moment, laughing through the weird anguish, understanding that we wouldn't have to bear it, any of it, alone. Deb assured us, and we assured each other, that giving up, on work, on our kids, on each other, wasn't an option. Because we took the time to be our own people and engage in fulfilling work and nurture our own lives separate from our children, we would be better parents. Because we took the time to make real and lasting connections to other mothers we could trust, we would be better, more open people.
Christine Lennon is a Los Angeles–based writer. The Drifter, published by William Morrow, is out this month.