The Secret Life
By Kate Haas
A few days before his paternity leave ended, my husband returned from an errand with news that would change my life. “There’s another stay-at-home mother on our street,” he announced. “I met her at the store. She says you should come over sometime.”
A month before, when I was still pregnant, I would have dismissed this invitation from a stranger as a mere social nicety. Back then, I was preoccupied with finishing the renovations to our shabby old house before my due date. It didn’t occur to me, as I scraped and spackled, that I would need a new friend after the baby was born. My own mother stayed home in the 1970’s, like most of the women in our suburban neighborhood. But she rarely socialized with the other moms, preferring to bake bread and peruse the New Yorker. I’d always been an introvert myself, and after years of teaching high school, I was itching for solitude.
But after four weeks of motherhood, I was beginning to panic. Our fretful, scrawny newborn rarely slept longer than 20 minutes at a stretch, day or night. When I wasn’t nursing him or attempting to soothe his despairing wails, I was hooked to a breast pump, trying to increase my meager milk supply. Only the presence of another adult made this frantic enterprise bearable, and soon I would be alone all day. My closest friends lived far away. We were new in town, still strangers in the neighborhood. And the rain and cold of a Pacific Northwest January had emptied the local park of parents I might befriend. The news of a potential companion felt like a lifeline.
The day after my husband’s announcement, I wrapped my son in his warmest fleece blanket and walked to the house at the end of the block. A blond woman answered my knock, a baby in her arms. Her eyes, behind wire-rimmed glasses, were dark and tired.
“Um, I’m from down the street. You met my husband?”
“Oh, right! I’m Allison,” she said. “I’m so glad you came over.” She looked down at her baby. “He’s four months old, but I’m still kind of – ” she broke off.
I nodded. “I know, me too. I’m so tired. I can barely – “
We stared dumbly at each other across the threshold, like survivors of separate shipwrecks meeting on the same desolate island.
“Well, come in,” Allison said.
I followed her into a spacious kitchen with a couch at the far end, under a bank of windows. Newspapers lay drifted on the floor, alongside a stack of magazines. A worn copy of The Baby Book sat face down on a milk-stained rocking chair. These were essentially the same components of my own home, but I was aware of a novel sense of pleasure and anticipation as I looked around, like a traveler entering a new country. I hadn’t left my house in days. Until I walked into Allison’s, it had not occurred to me that this might be a problem.
Allison urged me toward the rocking chair. She set her fuzzy-headed baby down on a cheerful Southwestern rug, and I watched him bat intelligently at soft toys hanging from a wooden contraption. My bald four-week-old could only flail his arms aimlessly, and his eyes still registered the alarmed expression of the newborn.
“Gosh,” I said. “Your baby’s really with it. And he has so much hair!”
“Well,” she said modestly. “You know, four months is pretty advanced.” Suddenly we were laughing.
I stayed at Allison’s house for five hours that first day, and she and her son spent the next day camped in my living room. I had never made a friend so quickly, but the shock of motherhood removed my reserve; the sleep deprivation made me feel buzzed and woozy, uninhibited about confiding in a near stranger. Founded solely on proximity and shared parenthood, my new friendship with Allison was like an arranged marriage, companionship our dowries.
It was my first encounter with the heady, instant camaraderie that can spring up between new mothers. I didn’t realize that. I only knew that it felt natural to tell Allison about my nursing problems, my estranged father, strained finances, and the terrible night I cursed out the baby. Only to Allison could I confess the most unsettling aspect of my new life: I couldn’t bear to be separated from my son, not even by one room, but felt no overwhelming love for him. True, I’d never fallen in love with anyone at first sight, but it hadn’t occurred to me that taking awhile to warm up to my own baby might be natural. Allison’s son, meanwhile, was inconsolable in any arms but hers and napped only while strapped to her chest in an upright position. The fabled “feel-good” hormones of breastfeeding didn’t seem to be kicking in for her, either. Confiding these things to another mother was, for each of us, an astonishing relief.
A morning phone call from Allison put a shimmer on the day ahead. I was still facing nine hours with an infant on only three hours of sleep; but now I would be facing it at her house. Allison’s home was bigger than mine, and grander, with intricate built-ins, pocket doors, and stained glass. There was a large loom in the living room, strung with moss-green thread, and a fancy German sewing machine. Bolts of bright fabric were stacked on a shelf, and whimsical arrangements of dried flowers and leaves sat in mason jars on the mantel.
The familiar disarray of new parenthood was everywhere; but there was something infinitely restful about Allison’s house. The unwashed cereal dishes on her table didn’t oppress me, the way my own messy kitchen did. Her stacks of books and magazines looked homey, not cluttered. At home, our thermostat was set to a thrifty 64 degrees; Allison’s house was warmer, and cozy, especially the kitchen, with its comfortable couch where we nursed the babies and swapped stories about our stints overseas, old boyfriends and favorite books, and where we set the babies down to play while we experimented with baking projects.
I had not expected to spend my son’s infancy testing flourless chocolate cake recipes or deconstructing the flawed premises of popular novels about motherhood. (There was no way, we agreed, that the illicit lovers in Little Children could have synchronized their toddlers’ naptimes. Much less had all that uninterrupted sex.) With Allison down the street, like a college friend on the same hall, life with a baby was transformed from the solitary experience I had anticipated – then come to dread – into an intimate, cooperative enterprise.
My husband was relieved that I had someone to keep me company; but I was conscious of a strange reluctance to tell him exactly how much I enjoyed my days with Allison, and what the two of us referred to as “the secret life of the stay-at-home mother.”
* * *
“How about a pick-me-up?” Allison would suggest, mid-afternoon. With a conspiratorial smile, she’d reach into a cupboard and bring out five or six varieties of expensive dark chocolate. Breaking a few pieces from each bar, she set the assortment between us in a pretty pottery dish. “This is the way to weather life with a kid,” Allison confided, the first time she broke out the Scharffen Berger.
I nodded, savoring the rich, complex flavors – and the relief of being with her, instead of home alone with my baby and the breast pump. I admired the way Allison, at only five months in, seemed to handle motherhood so deftly. I knew she was just as unhinged with sleep deprivation, yet she nursed her son with offhand confidence, while I still fretted about proper latch technique each time I unhooked my bra. But Allison did so many things with ease; she could scrutinize a piece of clothing, then draw a pattern and sew an identical copy. She could make paper from mush tossed into a blender and operate a serger, a machine I’d never heard of. “It’s easy,” she promised, demonstrating how she had sewn the striped fleece pants her son was wearing. “I’ll show you how.”
Until I actually had the baby, I’d imagined stay-at-home life as a Ma Ingalls- flavored adventure, all bread-baking and vegetable gardening. Faced with the reality, I was still trying to figure out this retro role I’d taken on and how I felt about it. But Allison wore her domesticity the way she wore her favorite red apron – with an unselfconscious flair I aspired to.
After a day together, evenings always caught us by surprise; reluctantly I would collect my baby and his gear and hurry home to make supper. As I entered my darkened house, I couldn’t help feeling that I was returning to a drabber version of reality, unlike Allison’s warm kitchen, where it seemed my real life took place; there, during those long days structured only by the demands of our children and our capacity for enjoying each other’s company. She was the one I wanted to tell things to.
Our babies learned to crawl around each other like blind puppies as the months passed, and later, to walk and play together, as close as brothers. Allison gave me homemade chocolate truffles that first Christmas, and I wrote her a parody of “The Raven,” with Poe’s ominous bird recast as a wakeful baby, vowing to sleep “nevermore.” By the following year, when our sons turned two, we were both pregnant again. Allison gave birth to a second boy, and six months later, so did I. Allison’s older son tried to stab his newborn brother with a fork. Mine suggested we take the baby outside and break him. But I could laugh about this sort of thing now, and besides, I had Allison.
Then, after a while, I didn’t.
* * *
There was no argument, no unforgivable parenting lapse ending in a frantic rush to the emergency room with someone else’s bleeding child. As the younger babies grew, Allison gradually withdrew her friendship. We no longer spontaneously spent hours in each other’s homes, and she grew reluctant to make plans. Scheduling get-togethers in advance made her feel hemmed in, she said. She couldn’t be in the house all day anymore. I understood, didn’t I?
When we managed to arrange an afternoon together, Allison arrived hours late, or never. Our days together dwindled. After awhile, I stopped trying to plan them. When we spoke on the phone, it was about getting the older boys together, and the conversations were brisk, logistical. When my four-year-old went to play with hers, Allison and I stood outside our houses, watching him make the trek from one end of the block to the other. I could see her down there, small in the distance, the scarlet of her apron vivid against the gray sky. When my boy arrived at her steps she’d give me a cheerful wave. Then we turned and went into our separate homes.
By the end of a year, I had been neatly removed from Allison’s life. When we met, at the grocery store or the annual block party, she talked cheerfully about her new pursuits, as if nothing had changed. I searched my memory for ways I might have offended. What happened? I wanted to ask; my hurt and my pride kept me silent.
“Let it go,” my husband urged. “These things happen.”
Not to me, though; not like this.
I’d broken up with lovers and drifted away from friends before. Those rifts saddened me, but I understood them. Losing Allison was different, bewildering. What fault line in our friendship had I missed? Or did I simply mistake the bond we shared as new mothers for a more profound connection?
* * *
I had other friends by then, women whose kitchens and living rooms were extensions of my own, whose children zoomed around the house with mine while we mothers talked about everything. They were the ones I told things to. But I couldn’t forget the day my son took his first steps on the fir floor of Allison’s kitchen, lurching triumphantly between our two pairs of outstretched arms, our two smiling faces. I remembered the hours of talk there, about things we never told our husbands. What had happened to that secret life, to the intimacy of shared new motherhood?
It took me a long time to recognize that my secret life with Allison probably wasn’t the life she wanted. Maybe it took her a long time, too. Truths like that are easy to miss in the tumult of life witha toddler and a newborn. Maybe, when you’ve taken the time to fashion a cozy, homespun world to make those long days bearable, it’s hard to acknowledge that in the end it was all an elaborate domestic construct, a short-term survival mechanism to pass the time. Until the day you do acknowledge it. That’s one story I tell myself.
Or perhaps there’s a simpler, more natural explanation. Allison and I met in a perfect storm of postpartum hormones and sleep deprivation. We were two new mothers, desperate to connect with someone who understood. Maybe that need obscured other factors, crucial ones, like whether we would have become friends in other circumstances. I tell myself that story, too.
Our oldest boys are in 7th grade now, still close as brothers. I see Allison almost every day, around the neighborhood and in the halls at school. We make awkward small talk or smile briefly and pass without speaking. And despite the stories I tell myself, I still wonder why; and I wonder when, exactly, she realized that the baking and recipe swapping, the hours of kitchen conversation, had served their purpose. That she didn’t need me anymore.
I weigh those questions against what I know for certain: Allison and I saw each other through the most difficult period of our lives. No one needs a friend quite like an overwhelmed, exhausted new mother. I didn’t realize that before I gave birth. I wasn’t the type to reach out quickly. But when I reached out to Allison, she caught me. We held each other up. She was the lifeline I needed, and for a while, I was hers. Ours was a temporary liaison in the end, not the lasting, arranged marriage I imagined. But we rescued each other, all the same.
Kate Haas’s essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Brain, Child, and other publications. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.
Brain, Child (Spring 2013)
Illustration by Allison Krumwiede