You read many things about motherhood before you enter it, but you never learn about the loneliness. Even if you could read about it, you wouldn’t understand it until you were in it.
When my first child was born, I wasn’t alone—physically. My husband stayed home from work for weeks after the birth, and I lived in Baltimore City, in a neighborhood whose sidewalks led me to dozens of friends’ doorsteps within minutes.
But at night, when the baby woke for a feeding, and I held her head to my breast while pressing the ball of my foot down into the hardwood to keep the rocking chair moving, the swaying felt endless, and the silence made my loneliness feel deafening. Friends and family texted, asking how I was doing, and dropped off dishes of lasagna.
But none of them, even the ones who were mothers, were close enough to the newness of my motherhood to really sit in it with me.
I had read plenty about postpartum depression, had listened to my doctor’s overview of the common symptoms, and had seen women around me retreat into their homes the way cervixes pull back into uteruses after giving birth. One of those lonely nights, when I started feeling like no one understands and I’m in this on my own, I went online and started searching for new mom support groups nearby. I stumbled upon a fitness group that was for mothers only and frowned at first, not being the athletic type, but the tagline drew me in: Find Your Tribe. The workout classes were designed for new mothers and were held in the park just up the street.
I signed up before I could talk myself out of it.
It was the first time I left the house alone with my baby, and I was terrified. My husband had just returned to work from his paternity leave, and now I was solely responsible for her. That Thursday morning, I trekked up Linwood Avenue with my stroller and my six-week-old baby, clad in leggings that I had just bought online because none of my pre-baby clothing fit, a sports bra that was definitely not suited for a breastfeeding mother, a t-shirt, and sneakers more accustomed to hiking trails than running on pavement.
I arrived at the entrance to the park and tentatively pushed my stroller to the flagpole where a cheerful blonde stood by a stroller of her own, a double-wide holding two matching blonde children. Her ponytail bobbed as she reached out to shake my hand. “I’m Laura,” she said. “We’ll just wait here for a few minutes for others to join.” We exchanged our kids’ ages and names and discovered that we lived just two blocks apart. I warned Laura that I hadn’t worked out in quite some time and was feeling pretty out of shape; I said that I wasn’t sure how well I would keep up with the exercises. I laughed nervously as I said it.
“The most important thing is that you take it at your own pace, okay?” Laura prodded. I nodded my agreement.
I fidgeted nervously while the mamas trickled in, eyeing up each passerby to see if she looked like she might be in my class, too. Stroller, check. Workout clothes, check. Yoga mat sticking out of the bottom of the stroller or haphazardly strapped onto the side, check. Deodorant stains on the sides of her shirt, or milk spots on the front, check. These were my people! I had been so worried about getting there on time, but smiled as the other mamas introduced themselves and the reasons they were late today:
“Ugh, the baby spit up all over my shirt as I was walking out the door and I had to go back and change!”
“This one had a complete meltdown over the shoes he was wearing.”
“Diaper blowout. Complete disaster.”
“The baby slept in for once! I didn’t want to wake him.”
And these were my people, in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. I found that what I loved the most was that I could unapologetically talk about the center of my world–the baby–without feeling like I was boring the other women.
In motherhood, you find that you’re so in love with this tiny human that all you want to do is gush about them to everyone. But then you’re at dinner with girlfriends who are chatting about their weekend plans, the rando that hit on them the other night at the bar, the new promotion they got at work—and you can’t think of anything to contribute but excitement over discovering that mimicking fart noises makes your baby belly laugh.
For me, it was especially lonely, as I was missing the one person most women can rely on to always let them gush about great things in their lives—her mother. Experiencing motherhood while motherless is this: when you finally understand everything that your own mother went through to give you life and sustain your life as an infant, she is not here for you to tell her, I understand now. Your automatic mom lifeline is not in service.
I spotted a mama coming my way, hair in a messy bun, tiny spit-up stain on her shirt. “Hey mama!” she said as she approached and effortlessly kicked down the brake on her stroller (I had just fumbled with mine for no less than five minutes). “You’re new!” she said. “I’m Blakely, and this is Millie,” she nodded towards her sidekick, who immediately flashed me a big, toothless smile. “How old is your little one?”
I told her my daughter was seven weeks old and then proceeded to apologize in advance if she was disruptive during class because she had seemed extra fussy this morning, and I wasn’t sure she could go an hour without a meltdown. “I’m not sure what to do if she cries in the middle of the workout,” I said.
“I’ve been there,” she said. “Don’t worry about it. Her crying probably sounds a lot louder to you than it really is to the rest of us. And we’ll all help you.” I breathed a sigh of relief. Right, I thought. These moms would all understand.
Over the weeks to come, I would chat enthusiastically with these women about everything from breastfeeding struggles to the best brands of diapers. Each connection felt almost instantaneous because a woman would share something she was going through, and you would feel a pang of “YES! I know EXACTLY how you feel,” in a way that none of your other friends or family could right then.
In addition to the unexpected camaraderie, I grew in strength as well. In class, our exercises focused on strengthening our muscles for activities specifically required in motherhood, which was exactly what I didn’t even know I needed. Some women workout because they want to lose weight or get back to their pre-baby body—which is fine—but that was not my motivation. I loved my post-baby body and embraced the journey it had been through. But for the first time in my life, I had felt that I wasn’t physically strong enough for my current job—that of Mother.
In class, we worked in stations that focused on the everyday tasks of motherhood. We did squats to work the same muscles we’d use to reach down and grab a dropped pacifier and we did leg lifts that mimicked stepping over a baby gate. And while we did them, we played with our babies. I loved running sprints back and forth and tickling my daughter each time I made it back to the stroller. I loved singing and gesturing The Itsy-Bitsy Spider to her while doing a wall-sit. I loved shuffling around the circle of strollers with all our babies facing out, the littlest ones sleeping, the slightly older ones smiling, and the toddlers cheering us on: “Go Mamas!”
The instructors were each of our personal cheerleaders as we worked, shouting, “Great job mama! Excellent form!” and gently reminding us to go at our own pace and “honor where you are today.”
As I grew in strength, my daughter was growing in size, and I began seeing signs that she loved class, too. She was all smiles for the instructors, she watched the mamas with curiosity, her tiny blue eyes following every arm stretch, and she loved playing on my yoga mat after class while mamas chatted about our tiny human’s newest developments and skills.
Before I knew it, summer was over, and I was upgrading to a tougher resistance band. My daughter was six months old, sitting up on her own, and showing signs that she was close to crawling. I was six months into motherhood, and I’d never felt stronger.
But on a breezy morning in September, I was pushing my daughter in her stroller up that familiar hill on Linwood Avenue towards the park, and I was feeling down. Most of the mama friends I had made that spring had returned to work from maternity leave. I had no full-time job to return to, having chosen to trade in my career to immerse myself in motherhood.
As I walked to class, I remembered the Tuesday barre class instructor’s reminder: “Shoulders back, chest proud, Mama!” I pulled my shoulders back so I wasn’t hunching over the stroller while I pushed it along the inclined sidewalk leading to the park’s entrance. As I got closer, I saw a mama I didn’t recognize standing by the flagpole alone, gently rocking her stroller back and forth, occasionally peering inside at her little one, and then around nervously.
This time it was me with the cheerful smile and bobbing ponytail, as I approached and introduced myself. “Hi,” I said. “Are you here for the stroller class?”
“Oh my gosh, yes!” she answered, a little too enthusiastically, then, glancing back inside her stroller, “I’m sorry. This is the first time I’ve left the house on my own with her.” I nodded my understanding.
“How old is she?” I asked. “Eight weeks,” she said, “and I’m not sure—” she paused. “Ummm, well, she’s had a rough morning. I don’t know if she will make it the entire hour.”
“I worried about the same thing at my first class,” I reassured her. “We’ve all been there. And her crying will probably sound much louder to you than it does to us.” I could see her shoulders relax a little. “I’m also a little out of shape,” she said, laughing.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I felt the same in my first class. You’ll get your strength back in no time.”
Annie Marhefka is a writer in Baltimore, Maryland, where she spends her time writing, boating on the Chesapeake Bay, and hiking with her kiddos. Her creative nonfiction and poetry have been featured in Versification, Coffee + Crumbs, Sledgehammer Lit, Capsule Stories, Remington Review, and The South Florida Poetry Journal, among others. Annie is the Executive DirectorAnnie Marhefka is a writer in Baltimore, Maryland, where she spends her time writing, boating on the Chesapeake Bay, and hiking with her kiddos. Her creative nonfiction and poetry have been featured in Versification, Coffee + Crumbs, Sledgehammer Lit, Capsule Stories, Remington Review, and The South Florida Poetry Journal, among others. Annie is the Executive Director at Yellow Arrow Publishing, a Baltimore-based nonprofit supporting and empowering women writers, and is working on a memoir about mother/daughter relationships.
You can find Annie’s writing on Instagram @anniemarhefka, Twitter @charmcityannie, and anniemarhefka.com.