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.
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.