Mamas in the Wild

They sat at the table near us at dinner most nights of our cruise. A mama, a dad, a grandma and a baby. The baby was oblivious to semi-formal and formal nights and not at all impressed with the concept of a lengthy, leisurely meal, and so she cried sometimes. She cried like she meant it, full of gusto and heartbreak at being offered peas while she was tired or substandard potatoes when clearly only apples would do, because 11 months old is a hard age to understand your family’s on vacation and it’s time for fine dining. 

I wanted to go over to their table every time. To say, “She’s precious” and, “You’re doing a great job” as they cajoled and consoled her. To say, “You’re sitting next to a sympathetic crowd, friends.” And to say, as they looked around furtively, “It’s OK. Really. I swear it gets easier.”

Instead, we studiously ignored them because we wanted them to think we didn’t always hear the baby’s squawks of frustration, her hungry demands or her exhaustion. To maintain the illusion for them that no one noticed, and therefore no one was judging them harshly. And when they’d pass our table on their way out, leaving sooner than the rest of us, we’d only say, enthusiastically, “she’s so cute,” hoping, even though we knew it was inadequate, to send a You’re OK message with those words. An It Gets Better message. A We’re Here for You message.

I’m certain we failed, but there’s a fine line between acknowledging a common experience between parents and projecting all my new mama feelings on others. I wanted neither to disrupt their vacation nor their attempt at calm with my suppositions about what they must be feeling.

photo 2 (76)And then we saw them one day off the ship, as we stood at the perimeter of a grassy meadow, at the base of a wide hill covered with evergreens, at the side of stream where eagle pairs circled and a mama bear and her twin cubs sauntered toward the trees and back again. 

We saw the mama and the dad and the grandma and the baby, and we smiled again and said our She’s So Cutes, followed by We’ve Seen You Near Us at Dinner. 

The mama looked struck. Surprised and a little bit guarded in the way the vulnerable are; not wary, necessarily, but a little unsure of her welcome. She blurted, “She cries at dinner. I’m so sorry.”

And I said, “No worries. We have 5 kids. We get it; I promise. They’ve cried all over the world, and especially in restaurants. Babies cry; it’s one of their best things.”

She said, “Five kids? FIVE? How do you do it? I only have one, and it’s taking all I’ve got.”

So I poured it all out, floodgates style. I was incapable anymore of holding myself at bay.

I told her it doesn’t matter how many kids we have; any number of kids is a lot of kids.

I told her that parenting my first kid undid me.

I told her she’s dying to herself right now and she’s also being reborn and that birthing a new self is as messy and beautiful, as terrible and triumphant, as birthing a baby. “You’re giving birth to new life,” I said, “but you don’t know it yet because you’re still trying to gasp for that first breath. It’s coming, though, the oxygen you need. It’s coming.” 

I told her we’re weak and we’re strong in equal measure, and that’s how it should be, because there’s no other way to build strength except to begin from a weaker place. 

I told her we’re lost, sometimes, even while we’re being found, and that there’s grace in that place.

And I told her this life is more Both/And than I ever suspected. Both better and worse. Both bigger and smaller. Both higher and lower. So much wilder and far, far freer.

She kept saying, over and over, “You have no idea how much I needed to hear this. No idea.” But I think I do, because I am her. We all are.

I’ve thought a lot about that mama ever since, and the difference between when we met in civilization and when we met in the wild. 

We couldn’t meet in the formal dining room, I think. Not in any sense that’s real, anyway. There’s no room for the truth or our whole selves while we still have perfect manners. We don’t want to butt in. To intrude. To disrupt. To assume. But out there in the wild with the mama bear and her cubs? Out there in the beauty and the splendor and the rawness of the wilderness? It’s the place to take chances. To risk. To be bold. To be wholly ourselves. Because our survival can depend on it. And on each other.

So here’s what I’d say to us… let’s go to the wild with each other, friends. 

Which brings me to this:
How ARE you?


photo 1 (70)And, P.S…. because I’ll always show you mine when I ask you to show me yours, I’ll tell you: I’m OK today. I’m away from home, at camp, getting ready to teach a series of classes to 200 high schoolers on questing for truth, forging faith, and living Love out loud, and I gotta say, I’m equal parts excited and anxious. Excited because I get to be a mouthpiece of Love and Grace this week, and there is no task in this world that makes me happier than telling people they are deeply worthy of unfathomable Love. And I’m anxious because I’m afraid I won’t do Love justice. 

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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
  1. I’m OKish. Day 5 of a second whole30 because I’m pretty sure that the only food groups I am now aware of are sugar and bread. The 3yr old has officially mastered the art of pushing ALL THE BUTTONS on me at once and I honestly just want to put her to bed. Now. Counterproductive though because she is nowhere near ready and I will be even more frustrated and irritable when I have to go upstairs 473664466 times to tell her to go to sleep. She spends the night at my moms 4 nights a week because LEO works nights and I leave for work at 4AM-so I’m wasting the time I have to cuddle and play and LOVE on her because I’m so annoyed with her and sick of her just plain not listening. I’m exhausted, and on the tail end of the same argument where my husband gets pissy because the house is a wreck while he doesn’t lift a finger to do anything at all. Especially “his” only responsibility (cleaning the backyard) which I have done the last 3 times and will probably do again tomorrow because the weeds are knee high and the poor dog has to wade through it. Tomorrow may be better. Hopefully.

  2. Thank you!! What a wonderful reminder on a day when I walked into my room after naptime and found at least half of my “nice jewelry” broken (but perhaps fixable) by my incredibly independent 4 year old. Followed by my son throwing several stuffed animals into a huge tub of water my husband keeps in the basement bathroom to refill the hydroponic tomato plants that my children keep picking tomatoes off of when they’re still green. Oh, and the twins have discovered how to dance on the dining room table which butts up to the railing that overlooks the sunken living room. Thanks for reminding me that it’s all “normal” and it gets better!

  3. To quote Dolly

    “It’s all wrong, but it’s alright.”

    and just because this guy passed on this week, here’s Michael John’s version

    Take care of you 🙂


  4. I am feeling guilty, sad, relieved, and guilty, all at the same time. I have decided to cut back on the pumping for my 6 month old, and I am hoping that means that I can at least have 30 minutes of time to do something I want to do during the day. I am currently watching my husband sleep (he just got back from out of town) and secretly hating him for the fact that he just assumes I will take care of our child (who just got his vaccines today) after a 10 hour work day. Does it get easier? Can you be a working mom (or any mom) and have any time to yourself?

    1. I’m really struck by your questions, Lawren. And your honesty about your anger at your husband, because yes, so many of us have been there.

      Does it get easier? Yes. And no. But mostly yes. Having a baby is HARD. I know very little that’s harder. And kids to because easier, more self-sufficient, less 24-hours… unless they don’t. But MOST do, and there are breaks that come, even if “time to yourself” looks different than it did before kids. Our kids change and grow and we change and grow, too. And it becomes enough.

      As far as the husband goes, there are times in a marriage when the assumed rules have to change. We’re slow to change them because we want to “rise above” and “be selfless” and there’s merit to that, but there’s also merit in saying, “I wanted to pop your head right off your shoulders when you got to sleep and I didn’t.” It’s OK to have that conversation and to talk through what you both need. Honestly, it may take years to get to a new understanding with each other, and it can get pretty yelly and angsty in the meantime in my experience, but it’s a process worth starting because it’s the difference between living well and living with resentment and anger.

  5. I’m not ok. I feel like I am never ok these days. I have a three month old. My head is constantly spinning with guilt about not being able to breastfeed. Guilt that i got hit really hard with PPD and it seems like it’s never going to get better. I hate the way i look when i used to be skinny and pretty. I am such a mess all the time! I need to know it gets better because right now I just don’t believe it.

    1. Those early days are the worst. I promise you that little by little it does get better. You will make it through this. You can do it.

    2. Gah. I have SO been there, Jamie. And being honest about what you’re feeling is incredibly important. Please do talk to your doctor right away. Even if you already have been talking to a doctor – do it again; tell the doctor it’s not getting better and it feels like it never will. This is the very most important thing you can do right now.

      When we had our twins, Jamie, my friend Christy said, “Something gets better every 3 months.” She was right. Be on the lookout. And talk to a doctor.

      Sending lots of love and mamaraderie your way,

    3. Lots of love, Jamie. You’re doing something really hard, and having an extra hard time of it, and it won’t always be this way. I wish I could come give you a hug and a break.

  6. I read this today but yesterday, August 4th would have been my mom’s 70th birthday. She died in February of cancer and while the day was easier than I thought it would be, the days leading up to it were so very hard. It was the kind of grief that takes your breath away.
    And I read all the comments here and it made me cry, thinking of all the moms out there and how hard we are on ourselves. How we offer grace and comfort to others but don’t seem to accept it for ourselves. And I remember my mom telling me she did not do enough for me and that she should have been a better mother. But she loved me and I felt it to my bones. And I remember this when I start being hard on myself for not doing all the things I should be doing as a mom. Because I love my kids and sometimes that has to be enough.

  7. Overwhelmed. Trying so hard to stay calm and not be crazy hysterical mama. Walked outside to water a plant and got locked out by the 4 year old. Explained clearly to both the 3 & 4 year old what I was doing and that they could see me out which specific window. Could not tell if it was an accident or on purpose. After a few minutes of banging on the door she finally opened it. I thought maybe she wouldn’t as she’s not supposed to open the door without me, even though I’m sure she could hear me shouting thru it. Stared at my new bracelet that says “choose love” and tried to stay calm.

  8. I spent the first half of the day ugly crying so hard that the boys pried themselves off of the computer to tentatively slip up the stairs to ask me what was wrong. Which was kind of sweet, especially for tween boys who normally do not appear to be so concerned with their mother’s feelings.

    But its our 15 year anniversary next week and I just so wish that we could do something special, like ‘head away to a cute lake town and cabin’ special. And we can’t, because the money just isn’t there. Well, it’s there, in a rapidly dwindling emergency fund. And I’m scared about how long it will last. And my husband just spent 1/4 of it booking tickets and buying a passport to go to his brother’s wedding in Nicaragua in December. And I am trying SO HARD not to be resentful, and it’s not working out so well. So, grand ugly cry this morning.

    Other than that? I’m just hanging in until the kids go back to school. Because it’s time.

  9. I’m teary right now because I got less than 5 hours of sleep (my new normal) and even that was broken up into fragments. My 2 oldest kids are trying to adjust to a new home after a chaotic summer and our youngest is teething. I am stuck in survival mode and I hate it. But I know it will pass. Thank you for sharing your life and wisdom with us…

  10. I am not having a great week, Beth. My kid is away at camp, and I’m having trouble just being a working wife, let alone mom. Work is overwhelming, so I’m on your site instead. I miss my kid. She’s been gone 3 weeks, but I know when she returns I’ll be even moore overwhelmed

  11. Oh, I was SO HAPPY when I kept reading and saw that you were able to have that conversation with the other mom… She so desperately needed to hear your words, and maybe they made you feel better too. I have been known to have those kinds of conversations with moms on planes (their 2 year olds bang-bang-banging on the back of my headrest) and trains (whose children refuse to sit and would rather work out their energy in the aisle next to me), and I’d like to believe that those tired, frustrated, embarrassed moms arrive at their destinations feeling a little less frazzled, and a little more understood.

    Me? Let’s just say today’s challenges seem surmountable, and leave it at that. 😉

  12. I’m breaking and being broken and already broken simultaneously. And at 2.5 years of twin cubs I feel no closer to taking that first breath of oxygen than that 10 month old mama you met in the wilderness. It’s been 2 years of dying and 2 seconds of breathing, followed by sputtering and choking and suffocating and a little more dying because this mama air is difficult to breathe. And the heaviness. Oh, the heaviness of the guilt that I’m not giving them what they need, even though I’m giving them all I can. And the anger that I can’t just move past the “what used to be” and get on with enjoying the “what is now”. And the fear that I’ll regret not spending more time with them and less time working, even though the time I do spend with them is almost more than I can handle. So there you have it… broken, suffocating, and desperately wishing the oxygen available to me was the oxygen I need.

    1. Been there and Ditto on all of it honey.

      And …

      It’s okay.

      All of it…

      “Used to be” is a total bitch whether “now” is your choice or not.


    2. I just said “oh my god” out loud because this describes how I am feeling. Down to the vacation and the stupid emergency fund. This describes me also down to the anger I have on “what used to be”. I don’t work but I barely feel like I can enjoy my three month old.

  13. I’m feeling like I totally suck at this Mommy thing. Well, not all of it. Just the house cleaning thing. Really, I think I’ll need to sweep my dining room floor before I can vacuum it. And, who puts carpet in a dining room anyway?!?!?!?!?!?!? My bedroom is a mess, the kids’ room is a mess, my refrigerator stinks, the laundry has staged a coup and is occupying my living room. I’m trying to not surrender to the chaos.

    I trying to tell myself that the kids are clean, fed and happy. Cuddling them to sleep is more important than folded laundry, etc., etc., etc.

    Some days the negative thought just win.

  14. As always, great words when I needed to hear them. Thanks, Beth!

  15. I’m a foster mom of 2 kiddos (2 months and 2 years), hopefully becoming their adoptive Mama soon, and just recently found out I’m pregnant. I feel overwhelmed most days, today included. I feel like I can’t measure up to my own expectations, much less the world around me. It’s a scary world I’m living in and it’s only getting scarier and more complicated. But reading this made me feel so much better. They cry. It’s okay. That’s what they do. I’ll just be hearing it in surround sound soon. Thank you for reminding me of the obvious. Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  16. Not the best day ever. But it could be markedly improved if someone (not me) would clean the guinea pig crap and also if someone (everyone but me) would stop stealing MY phone charger from MY spot next to the bed.

    Btw Beth great job with the new momma and on I know you’ll nail it on the upcoming teaching.

    Oh I gotta go. Phone is about no d

    1. My joke got ruined by a typo! I was trying to pretend my phone died! Hahahaha! I still have 9% though. I can torment the internet a while longer 😀

  17. Better today. Our city had a “water crisis” all weekend and we could not ingest the tap water. No bathing either 😉 Sooo, ya, happy it was resolved today and the 5 of us are now clean…mostly. Stocked up with bottled water, since due to the antiquated water treatment plant and algae in lake Erie, it could happen again at any moment, the contamination of our water. But at this moment feeling extremely thankful that our community pulled together. Our children helped make sure our many “older” neighbors had water. And I couldn’t agree more about the wilderness. Somehow, that is where authenticity thrives. Your story was beautiful. I’m so glad that you two were finally able to connect. That would have made my day, I’m sure it made yours! 🙂

  18. Not great, thank you for asking. Trying to figure out if everything is falling apart because of me or someone else and in either case, what to do about that. Or overtired. Or both.

  19. I needed to read this today!

    We’re moving. To Germany. On Sunday. With a 3 month old and 2.5 year old!

    I’ve spent the entire summer organizing, packing, purging all the while trying to figure out how to be a mother to two kids, which is especially difficult because I wasn’t anywhere close to figuring out how to mother one kid. There have been good days and bad days. I’m sure there have been more good days than bad but the bad ones always linger like the smell of burnt dinner from two nights ago. That adage “Tomorrow is a new day” doesn’t seem to cut for me at times. But your post reminded me that I have been as strong as I have been weak, that I’ve been that glorious grace to my kids as much as they have been to me, and that every day is filled with both/and.

    Thanks, again, for speaking to me through your experiences.

    1. Feel your pain. Been there. Twice.

      UK to Sydney, Australia with a 4 month old. Then three years later (just enough to build a village….) Sydney to Northern Virginia.

      Keep Breathing.
      Keep a list (it will make life less overwhelming, though it became a whole note pad for me….)
      Keep on going, because when you are goung through Hell you do not want to being stopping there.
      When you get to where you are going, get out and meet folk soon. The longer you stay at home worrying that the kids are not settling, the longer it will take them to settle. They need other kids and you will definitely need other adults.

      Good luck x

    2. While we didn’t leave the country, or even the state, we had a crazy move 5 years ago. A 3yo with aspergers, pregnant and still trying to decide on a house to rent in our new locale. Scared by the realtor who kept warning us that our sale could fall apart at the table the day we went to closing. 5am, 27 weeks along, 2 weeks from closing, recently diagnosed with GD, my water breaks. I was transported by ambulance an hour away to the hospital with the NICU. Where I sat in a hospital bed in the prenatal until for 10 days, finalizing repairs and arranging utilities and crying endlessly as I trusted my mom and husband to box up (or throw away) all of our belongings.

      Our daughter was born at 29 weeks. I got home Monday night. Movers emptied our house Thursday (and walked in on me pumping. Joy!) Moved into a new home Friday and spent the next 67 days visiting a baby in a NICU.

      My point, and I do have one, is that while I didn’t see it at the time, God had it all worked out in amazing ways long before I ever saw his plan. From the house we chose, to the town we eventually bought a home and settled in.

      Stay calm. Do your best. Make it fun. Try to enjoy the process. And know that it’s all going to be okay. In a week you’ll look back and think, Whew! We did it! And we did great!”

  20. How am I? I am Great! um…great….okay…tired….drowning under the weight of all the stuff and all the stuff to do. I have happy promises to keep and I am so grateful for all the joy but seriously, seriously tired. Maybe just a bit depressed.

    I got through with the big pool party birthday yesterday but those pesky little joys of mine expect me to do stuff for them again today! Food and playing and entertainment and home maintenance. Every. single. day.

    Summer is so busy and the balm of my momma friends is getting a little thin as we are all very busy doing all the things this summer. I cannot wait for school to start. I need a little more me time and a little less “entertain me NOW!”

    Is it September yet?

  21. Yay for teaching! and yay for knowing that you’re maybe not perfect! and yay for doing it anyway because no one else is a perfect vessel to transmit Love either!

    I’m great. I took my 14 yr old daughter, who’s got a little tiny bit of subclinical kicked-out-of-PT-6-years-ago stiffness and numbness that might be a little CP in one leg, and her 11.5 year old typical cousin, for a camping trip. In the backcountry. At Yellowstone. With one hand on the bear spray.

    It was all fun and games until we realized that in order to reach the site specified by our permit, and more to the point in order to reach the bear bar which would allow us to safely seclude our food odors out of grizzly reach, we were going to have to ford a creek.

    Less than 14 inches of alpine-glacier-fed water, running over 4″ rounded stones, was where the rubber of my kid’s not-quite-disability met the road. She stepped into the water with her stronger leg, swung her weak side toward her hiking stick…and froze. Knew she wasn’t going to make it 25 more steps, because, as she explained later next to a roaring fire, she “already couldn’t feel that foot before I put it in the river anyway so dropping my shoe didn’t make any difference at all”.

    I couldn’t be more proud. Of my kid, who asked her younger cousin for help, or of my niece, who didn’t even wait to be asked but was already there. Or of me, because I didn’t lay down in the many-colored meadow of wildflowers I’d already crossed to with the fully loaded pack and cry until I felt better. Each of us did our best, and it was good enough.

    On the way down, I crossed the stream with the heavy pack, and again carrying my niece (who weighs 120 pounds y’all! but is flexible enough to help the piggybacker) and a third time carrying my daughter (who is lighter but cannot control that one leg enough to help the piggybacker) and a fourth time with both of their packs.

    By the time my feet were dry, the girls had proceeded along the trail to the very edge of the meadow; per instructions they stopped there. They were singing the soundtrack from ‘The Sound of Music’, to scare away bears, and discussing just how nutty that Mother Superior must have been–it was hard enough climbing ONE mountain and fording ONE stream!

    When we passed the sixty-something APs with their Vietnamese teen boy hiking in, and the mom said she’d never be brave enough to camp alone in the back country, none of us giggled when I told her that I wasn’t “alone”: I had the girls with me.

    When we passed the 70something hikers from Seattle who had been sent with the message that my wife was waiting for us with coffee cake, at the trailhead, we began chanting. And we hiked out together, yelling “Coffee cake! Coffee cake!” And everyone is stronger and more confident than she was before. Even me. The mama who can’t quite believe that my child has a physical challenge she can’t actually work her way out of.

  22. I’m okay. I’m recovering (I think? Hopefully?) from a mild bout of mastitis. There are watermelon rinds all over the bed because I woke up this morning and said “I’m hungry.” and my husband said “What do you want to eat?” and I said “I really want watermelon. But I guess I’ll have something else.” and he said “Okay. I’m going to go get some watermelon from the store for you.” and so I’ve been laying in bed eating watermelon, sending flirty texts to my amazing watermelon providing husband, and watching Korean dramas all day. And of course my 8 month old has been taking my watermelon rinds and gumming them up and hiding them in the blankets. I feel a lot better now. And very sticky. I think we all need baths.

  23. My normally sweet and compliant child has learned the word “no”. Suddenly, at just over 2 years old, he has turned into a strong-willed little monster who is trying to break me. We’re working on him saying “yes” and mama taking lots of deep breaths and remaining calm. It’s a process, but we’re going to get through it.

    1. Thank you for posting this. I have been up half the night wondering what I am doing wrong, why my sweet fun boy has suddenly turned into a wrangling mess of defiance and disobedience. And, of course, assuring myself that it is because I am a total failure of a mother – because what other options are there at 1:00 in the morning. So I log into Facebook and read Beth’s post, which is wonderfully touching and rhen, for some reason, decide to read the comments. And there you are, my momrade, reminding me that I am not alone and that, most likely, my sweet boy will sort himself out eventually if I can just hang in there with live and patience. Bless you.

  24. I’m tired. I am oh-so tired. I have a three-month-old who is going through a sleep regression and a two-and-a-half year-old who wants to play ball constantly, and I love them both to death and I am SO TIRED. And I am feeling guilty for looking forward to going to work just so I can have five minutes of quiet. Because that baby is wonderful and adorable but oh is she loud. Loud and squeaky.

    But even though I’m tired (SO TIRED) I am well. I finally feel like I’m getting a handle on my career, even though this means more work and less sleep. Oh, how I miss sleep. And my girls are AMAZING and I love them more than life itself. And things are GOOD. SO TIRED but SO GOOD.

  25. I well. Thanks for asking. I finally stopped listening to all those who ask (in their most concerned way) “Is he potty trained yet?” No. My almost 6 year old who happens to have Down syndrome is not potty trained yet. We gave it the ol’ college try and I am relieved that it’s all over. Sure changing adult sized poopy diapers is disgusting, but he is not ready and I’m respecting that. Thankyouverymuch.

    1. Elena, you go girl!!! When they aren’t ready they just aren’t ready, down syndrome or not!

    2. Pro tip: You can’t win, so right on.

      The “experts” at early intervention had kittens when we potty trained our kid, when she was ready, without consulting them for a plan.

      You can’t win, so don’t play. He will be ready when he is ready. He’ll let you know. And even that is going to annoy someone.

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