This is the real and true story of the first day that I ever thought I had my Mom-shit together. It was also the last, for reasons you will soon see. I can only say that I was young and misguided and that I totally deserved every bit of the humiliation that happened that day. And that it was totally worth the hilarity that has ensued.
It was just after Memorial Day, and I was taking the kids to the pool for the first time that summer. I had just turned 30 the weekend before, which felt like something of a milestone, and had delivered a baby girl six months before, which after two boys, felt like something of a miracle.
As can happen when you have a milestone birthday, or a daughter, or the revelation that you are suddenly a grown up, impossibly left in charge of three small children, I was quietly having kind of a tough time. I often felt like I was drowning in it all, grasping at buoyed ropes that I thought might save me: lifelines of order, of confidence, of identity, of perfection, of a Zen-perfect grasp of motherhood and life. I kept thinking they must be getting closer, but they remained just outside my desperate, bobbing reach.
So I was nervous about how this trip to the pool – which was really about how the whole summer, hell, the whole rest of my life – was going to go. I was out-manned by kids all the time, but that somehow seemed more obvious in summer, and perhaps dangerously so at the pool. The naked truth was that I had no idea how I was going to keep an eye on the boys, paddling recklessly in the deep end and shouting “Watch me!” from atop the high dive, while helping the baby, who could barely sit up, cool off in the shallow water of the baby pool. It was a lot to keep track of. Anything could happen.
It was a challenge to even get out of the house. There were last minute adjustments, changes to schedule, and an abrupt decision to forego lunch at the pool for a quick one at the kitchen counter before leaving. I was working hard, as usual, to keep up the facade of confidence and ability, to keep the promise of a Fun Pool Day!, to keep it together, to keep from dissolving into tears of defeat. With them happily finishing lunch, I raced upstairs, changed into my neon pink tank suit in five seconds flat, and off we went.
We arrived right after the pool opened, and were the only ones there. I kept an eye on the boys while strolling between the pools, the baby on my hip. I tried to look calm and casual. Like I knew what I was doing. Like it was going to go ok.
To my surprise, it did go ok, and after a little while, I started to relax. After a little more time, I felt relief, and after a little bit more, I really began to revel: I could do this! I was doing it! We had made it. The kids were having a great time, and for today, no one was drowning, least of all, me. I was a bona fide mother of three who was Out of the House and Having Family Fun. My fears had been entirely misplaced. Not only could I totally do this, I was doing it, and beautifully. I held my head high.
Besides that, I added to myself, I looked pretty damn good. Keeping up with two little boys had provided the cardio, and the chubby babe-in-arms a weight program. I had lost the baby weight, and then some. I had even painted my toenails, something I almost never did but had noticed that Together Moms frequently seemed to have done. I started to feel like Hot Stuff. I kept noticing the young lifeguard, our only company at the pool, looking over at me. I thought I must have imagined it at first, but it kept happening, again and again. I smiled to myself. There was only one explanation. For a mom with three kids, he’s probably thinking, she looks pretty good.
More moms and kids arrived. Jacked up on my own awesomeness, I silently compared myself, in criteria like Mom-performance and appearance and overall togetherness, to everyone there. This process was not, in and of itself, unusual for me at that time, though in the rubric in my brain, I almost always came up short in all categories. But this day, which was turning out to be the Day I Finally Had It Together, well, on this day, it was different: anything could happen! I was outscoring everyone! I was winning! I knew it, and probably everyone knew it; even the cute young lifeguard knew it.
I am not proud to say that this went on for some time.
And then it happened.
I had seen Kathy walk in earlier, and I noted, as per protocol, that I was thinner than she was; this made it especially easy to wave and call hello. I did not know her all that well, since her kids were older than mine. Which is why it was so surprising to see her soon walking all the way across the pavement towards me at the baby pool, to hear the scrape of the heavy metal hook unlatching the gate, and to hear it clink back in place behind her. She walked closer and closer, until she sat down next to me at the edge, our feet in the shallow water together. We exchanged a few pleasantries. And then she leaned over and whispered in my ear.
“I wanted to tell you…do you know you have a bra across your back?”
Now, technically, as a native English-speaker, I understood the words that she was saying. I just couldn’t make them make any sense. My heart raced, and I repeated the sentence in my head, as if it were a long-forgotten language, one in which I could remember the translation of some, but not all, of the words, and as such could not possibly grasp the meaning, much less the nuance, of the important thing that was being told to me.
I kept repeating it in my head, over and over, faster and faster, until the words ran together, until it sounded like youhaveabraacrossyourback, again and again in an adrenaline-fueled record skip that I couldn’t make stop, and that, after a hundred times, still didn’t have any meaning. I felt the color drain from my face as I stared at her, stunned and speechless.
Holding my gaze, she repeated herself gently, like we were at a hospital, or a crime scene. “You have your bra cups stretched across your back.”
I was dizzy now from the adrenaline, and a little nauseous, too, utterly confused, my hands starting to shake, the busy morning flashing before my eyes. I couldn’t imagine what she meant, what I had done wrong. The context clues were worrisome, the possibilities terrifying. I wondered if I had static-y laundry sticking to my back. Or worse yet, if I had somehow forgotten to remove my nursing bra. No. That was laughable. It couldn’t be that bad! It was probably just a twisted strap or something.
“Is it something I can fix while I’m sitting here?” I asked frantically, searching her face for reassurance. I found none.
“No,” she said calmly, “But I’ll hold your baby while you go inside.”
Dazed and without options, I handed the baby off and slunk towards the bathroom. On the way, I stopped to ask the lifeguard to keep an eye on the boys. He smiled weakly at me, and I could see now, closer up, that it was not desire, or even admiration, that kept him looking over. It was pity. My swagger was gone, forever. So was the rubric, forever. Pride goeth before the fall.
As I stepped out of the suit in the bathroom stall, my feet on the cold damp concrete floor, I looked down and saw what had gone wrong. As it turned out, the tan underwire cups were attached only at the shoulder. In my haste at home, I had stepped in between the neon pink suit and the bra, leaving the thin and unlined (!) suit on my front and the underwire cups stretched across my back. I had been at the pool for an hour and a half, early in the season; I would have a two-cupped tan line on my back for the rest of that summer.
My neon pink swim suit was pretty, and thin, and delicate, as I have often wanted to be. It looked really nice, as long as you kept the inside parts on the inside. But you had to be so careful with it, or the inside parts ended up on the outside, where absolutely everyone could see them. And, you know, that was bound to happen, if you were a mom trying hard to not drown and to raise a family and hurrying to get out the door and hoping to find a way to keep it together.
And when it did happen, when the day came that I thought for one second that I had hid all the inside parts well enough that no one would see – and that it mattered one bit which mom’s outside parts were prettier, or thinner, or all together – it turned out that that my inside parts were not hidden at all, that they were on the outside the whole time anyway, and the joke was on me for thinking that it that it ever could have been otherwise.
And that was so humiliating and humbling and hilarious that I knew, right there in the wet bathroom stall, that the best and really the only thing I could do was to throw my head back and laugh. To vow to never again keep the funny parts on the inside, and to tell my friends – the ones I can count on to also sometimes wear the inside stuff on the outside – about the First and Last Day (I Thought) I Had It Together. And then laugh until we cried.
And there is absolutely nothing better than that.