“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! Even the strongest of friendships can be challenged when one of you becomes a mother. Take the time to support your friend in her new endeavors and don’t be afraid to offer a gentle reminder that you have a life, too.” —From Living Life magazine, “What to Do When Your Best Friend Succumbs to Mommy Madness.”
Every Wednesday I meet my two closest friends for coffee at the Java Joint. Meredith, now known as “Ryder’s Mommy,” is four minutes pregnant with her second. Louisa, on the other hand, is more like me. After several thousand hours of analyzing, we decided that it just doesn’t make sense to become a mother until you can honestly say you don’t hate your own.
“Ryder, look at Mommy. Ryder. Ryder. Look at Mommy. NO.”
“Would he like a cookie?” Louisa asks.
“Thanks, but no refined sugar for us. Ryder, sit down. Sit down, please. Ryder?”
We began this tradition five years ago, when I moved back to Northampton from Washington, DC. The three of us met freshman year at Smith College, which rests on a hill six blocks north of the Joint. The main entrance of the school at the Grecourt Gates (erected in honor of the Smith College Relief Unit, a group of graduates who went to France after World War I) is visible from the window next to our table. We’re crammed around it to accommodate a high chair Ryder abandoned immediately after he was placed in it. He stands at the window, rubbing his fingers against the glass; it’s foggy from the cold. Squeak. Squeak.
“When do you leave for New York?” Meredith asks Louisa. “Ryder. No. Mommy asked you to stop that. Please?”
“Tomorrow morning. Gretchen, sure you don’t want to come?”
“Nah. I don’t have a New Year’s Eve in New York in me.”
“Lord knows I don’t,” Meredith adds, brushing crumbs off her shirt. “But you have no idea how much I would love a drink. To be drunk. To sleep.” She yawns. “Time for a nap. Ryder, it’s time for you and Mommy to go home, for night-night.”
“No!” Ryder screams.
“Night-night!” Louisa says, laughing.
Meredith starts to bundle up Ryder. She forces his feet, shoes on, through the narrow legs of a snowsuit. She Velcros his mittens over his clenched fists and finally, covers his head with Cat in the Hat—like tower of knit.
“The hat has to be last,” Meredith explains. “Otherwise, he’ll try and take it off. I hate to stifle his gross-motor-skills development with the mittens for even a minute but it’s so cold out!”
Louisa kicks me under the table.
“I saw that,” Meredith says.
Meredith is an associate professor of anthropology at Smith, and as such she is prone to overthinking. She spent two happy years knee-deep in mud on the beaches of the Black Sea in search of evidence of “the tiny people” tribe and has now turned the full, unbridled force of her intellectual prowess to a) Ryder, b) the state of her career post-child birth, and, c) a painfully earnest e-mail with the subject line “Just Gestating” that she and her husband, Alan, send out periodically to keep interested parties up-to-date on her pregnancy. In last week’s letter, Meredith noted that she’d heard—in the waiting room of her OB’s office—that a woman is more fertile after she’s already had a child. I don’t know enough about it to say that this is a medical fact but, really, why would I? I didn’t even know Ryder was a name.
“What are you and Fredrik doing for New Year’s?” Louisa asks.
“I’m working,” I answer. “Not sure what Fredrik’s doing."
My cell phone, which is set on vibrate, starts buzzing and moves across the table; it’s headed straight for Louisa’s latte.
“Sorry,” I say to Louisa and Meredith, who are now shouting to each other in order to be heard over Ryder’s demands to play with the phone. I quickly turn away and answer it, without checking caller ID; I’m desperate to get it out of Ryder’s view.
“I want to exhume your father’s body,” my mother says, before I can eek out a hello.
“What?” I yell. “Why?”
I look to Louisa. She is mouthing, “Who is that?”
“I can’t hear you, Mom,” I say. “I will call you later.”
I flip the phone shut and put it away in my purse. I sigh.
“She wants to dig up my dad,” I explain.
“Not that again,” Louisa says.
“On that note, I’ve got to get going,” Meredith says.
She spends a few more minutes with Louisa and me, trying to coach a “bye bye” out of Ryder, but she gives up, says it for him, and heads for the door. After she leaves, the Joint is quiet—except for a muffled screaming sound, coming from the parking lot. I turn my attention to the window. I can see Meredith struggling to put Ryder in his car seat. He is arching his back and kicking his legs wildly.
“Ryder is adorable,” Louisa says.
“Do you think the defiance is innate?” I ask, chuckling.
“Meredith is so patient; she’s a good mom,” Louisa adds.
I think she is, but again, how would I know? I’m not sure my experience as a daughter, more specifically my crazy mother’s daughter, puts me in a position to judge someone’s mothering ability. And from what I’ve heard from Meredith, there is a lot, and I do mean a lot, I don’t know about being a mom—like Back to Sleep, food allergies, and 1-2-3 Magic. It is while I’m considering this, and my mother’s announcement, that two women in matching down, fur-lined down parkas approach me. They remove their hoods and their gloves in unison. They look vaguely familiar.
“Gretchen! We met at Meredith’s New Year’s Day open house last year. I’m Char, and this is my partner, my fiancé, as of Christmas Eve, Kate.”
Let me explain. I am the catering manager at the Northampton Grande, the town’s largest hotel, and since same-sex marriages became legal in Massachusetts I’ve logged thousands of hours planning parties for the gay, lesbian, and transgendered “Just Married” crowd. Char and Kate look away from me to check out Louisa. Nearly six feet tall, with long black hair that curls downward past her shoulders, her eyes are bright blue and they twinkle against her fair, lightly freckled skin. She is striking. I, in contrast, stretch to reach 5 feet, 2 inches, and my hair flips under on one side, up on the other. My eyes are brown. My skin is olive—greenish really—prone to breakouts and, as a result, I’m not altogether unfamiliar with products that contain “the active ingredient benzyl peroxide.” I suspect they think Louisa and I are a couple, that I’m out of my league, and that I will never experience the pure, unadulterated joy of exchanging matching Tiffany classic-setting engagement rings. They are clearly enamored of their new sparklers; both women are admiring their hands in the Joint window, gesturing emphatically in a way only a recently engaged woman can.
“Best wishes to you,” I say.
“Of course we want you to plan our wedding,” Char replies.
“I’d love to.”
I take two business cards from my card-carrying case and hand one to each of them. This is the safest route; it’s hard to tell with two women who will do the actual planning. Nine times out of ten, it is four people: the two brides and their mothers. I am surrounded by mothers.
“I’m beginning to understand why you don’t wear a wedding ring. Not good for business,” Louisa observes after they’ve left.
I’ve often thought that it’s too bad I’m not gay, because Smith would have been the perfect place to come out. As a Gold Key Tour Guide I’d explained to more than one prospective student’s parent about how the college’s tolerant atmosphere “fosters personal discovery.” For some, that means playing with gender, though applicants have to be biologically female at the time of admission. For others, it’s the freedom to experiment with same-sex relationships. But it’s a nonissue. I’m straight, a “breeder”—a term thrown around by the more radical lesbians on campus. I never understood how lesbianism, feminism, or humanity could continue without someone reproducing, so I’m not entirely sure why this is a pejorative term. On the other hand, I am happy to postpone my participation in the great Disney Elton John Circle of Life until the timing is absolutely perfect.
Unfortunately, my period is five days late…