Her eyes were haunting and beautiful, maintaining eye contact just long enough and then darting sweetly away, at once revealing her shyness and the cultural framework that shapes her social interactions as a devout Muslim woman. She wore a long black dress, her whole body covered save hands, feet and face and her head was wrapped elegantly in a black hijab. My only regret from this brief meeting was that I didn’t ask her name.
“Hello, ma’am, can I help you with the sizes?” Her thickly accented English rolled out with genuine interest, eager to be helpful.
“No, I’m fine, thanks,” I lied, utterly baffled by the Arabic on the front of the packages of the unfamiliar brands. For some reason the American in me insists on soldiering through alone rather than admit my need for help. Not a helpful trait as an expat lifer. Actually…not a great trait under any circumstances.
“How old is your baby, ma’am?”
“He is one next month.”
She smiled. A smile I would soon understand more deeply.
“I also have a baby, ma’am, a little girl. She is 6 months.”
Her gaze dropped and despite being a professional-uncomfortable-silence-filler, I smiled and waited. There was something else.
“Yes, ma’am, it is very hard,” she continued, “I am missing her so much. She is at the daycare now while I am working. But sometimes we have to make sacrifices for our children, yes?” Her kind eyes were brimming with tears now and as I reached for her arm to offer some comfort, I saw a reflection of my own pain and struggle as a mother.
“Yes,” I managed, choking back my own emotion, “We are all just doing our best…”
What followed was a twenty minute mum-to-mum heart-to-heart in the centre of aisle 3 in the middle of Dubai between two women who might have underestimated their common ground. In fact, the depth of our “commons” was vast and intimate and far transcended any anticipated or actual differences. And what began as an innocuous trip to buy nappies morphed into an unforgettable moment. One that, for me, speaks to the nature of motherhood and the power that is released when we connect with one another in honest and authentic ways.
And that got me thinking.
About how sometimes all we need is to know that someone else understands. To be reassured that another soul can relate to how hard and rewarding and demanding raising children can be. To look into the eyes and soul of another mother and bear witness to her battle weary resolve to keep putting one foot in front of another. And be inspired.
That day as I walked out with my nappies, a rush of hope came over me like I have never experienced. It’s going to sound cheesy but it was a big hope, a hope in humanity, a reminder that even in the face of significant differences, we as mothers can see each other and stand in the light together. We can acknowledge the courage in each heart. We can call forth the warriors that get buried beneath fear and self-doubt. And we can hold each other up when the load is too heavy.
We can whisper the it-will-be-okays when depression and anxiety and hormones and body image wreak havoc on our sense of self as we are becoming this new, unfamiliar version of ourselves. And when it seems that the person we were before is being absorbed and then utterly rewritten for the new role of Mother…we can remind one another that she is still there. Underneath. You know who I am talking about; the ambitious girl driving the totally-impractical-for-a-family mini-cooper in her power suit all the way into her executive parking spot. Or the girl that was always the life of the party. The gumption of that girl lives on within you, momma. And someday she will rise again, phoenix from the ashes; but she will ascend profoundly changed by her experiences.
If I’m honest, some days I look in the mirror and I might as well be wearing Groucho glasses complete with a massive nose and a bushy moustache. Because that is about how much I recognise myself.
And that is okay, for now. Little by little I am going to get to know that reflection again. She still seems interesting and strong and funny and courageous. And I would really like to get reacquainted. Maybe that sounds weird but for a long time, when my babies were teeny, I couldn’t have said that. I didn’t have time to think about me and who I was or who I was becoming. I was too tired, too overwhelmed, too absorbed in the all-consuming role of momma. But there is a change on the horizon, it’s coming for me…and it comes for all of us, mommas. A day when you will again have the time to look in the mirror and admire how this whole motherhood thing has shaped you. You may see some scars and some wrinkles, it’s true. But you will also see unimaginable depth. You will see your beauty, momma. It may seem hard to believe while you’re in the trenches, but you will.
But on those days that we don’t recognise ourselves at all when we look in the mirror, lets take inspiration from eachother…
…from the beautiful friend who faces her mother’s degenerative disease with courage and positivity, holding her hand and being present in each moment they have together…
…through the ambition of a lovely friend who manages to balance a successful executive career and a beautiful family…
…in the kindness of a new friend going out of her way to make someone feel welcome and included…
…and in the guts of that unforgettable mum in Dubai who saw a chance to share and connect and DID. NOT. HESITATE.
That’s our calling, mommas. That is our power. To cry out “ME TOO” and take the shame out of the struggle that some of us feel in the first years of motherhood. To shout across the vast uncertainties: YOU. ARE. AMAZING.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
I see you, momma.