At the playground a while ago, my 13-month-old daughter wandered up to a toddler and the pair began a very enthusiastic giggle exchange. It was beyond cute, so I couldn't resist grinning at the other kid's mother. She smiled back and I noticed she had the same flaxen hair and ginormous cobalt orbs as her son.
"Wow, I see who he got his eyes from!" I said. Not the most original line when talking to a fellow parent, but sometimes you just need a hook.
"Yeah," the woman said demurely and fixed her gaze intently on her child.
I pressed on. "Hey, do you know of any playgroups around here? My husband and I are new to the neighborhood and we haven't really explored what's around."
Blond mom took a protective step toward her son, even though he seemed perfectly happy laughing at my little Kylie while she swayed to an imaginary song and babbled like an Ewok.
"I think they do something like that at the church," the woman muttered, then scooped up her child and hurried off, his head bobbing as he looked back at us over his mother's shoulder.
Was it something I said? I looked down to make sure I hadn't accidentally worn my "Shoe Whore" T-shirt to the playground again. Last time that happened moms scattered like mice and I got a few raised eyebrows from dads.
Was the line about the mother's eyes too much? Maybe she didn't approve of my daughter's floral corduroys. ... No, that's not it. They're fantastic.
Poor Kylie was still talking in adorable gibberish, pointing a tiny index finger toward the disappearing tot she'd been cut off from. The whole encounter felt like a double date gone horribly wrong.
Befriending moms is tricky business. There's a dance at play as you size each other up, just as you might a potential mate in a bar. Why would she wear those grubby sweats, you might think. Or maybe she's too attractive, or too young for you, or too overbearing or too serious or her offspring likes to squash ants and feed them to the other kids.
And when you do connect with a fellow mom, taking things to the next level -- a play date or coffee -- can be as nerve-wracking as telling your boyfriend you want to move in together.
Take, for instance, the time I met Mary. She and I locked eyes across a crowded room that smelled faintly of dirty diapers and bubble mixture. We were at a playgroup center downtown and Mary had one of those confident smiles that told you she wouldn't flee if you paid her a compliment. Her daughter had the same hairstyle as Kylie's (uneven, slightly messy) and we laughed excitedly -- perhaps a little too excitedly -- at the realization.
We lingered after the kids finished playing, talking fast about random things -- how she and her husband met, how he's Australian (So am I!), how our daughters can both say "nose" and "toes" and "stinky," how Mary works in television. "Me too!" I squealed.
We had more chemistry than Elmo and Dorothy.
But when it became clear the playgroup facility couldn't stay open to facilitate our conversation, things got a little awkward. What do we do now, I thought? I didn't want to ask for Mary's e-mail address for fear of coming across as too eager (the incident with the blue-eyed duo months earlier still stung). I hoped she'd take the initiative and ask for my number, but she seemed hesitant, too. Panic started to rise. Our daughters were in different playgroup classes -- there's no guarantee two busy Manhattan TV people would bump into each other again in a busy Manhattan kiddie gym.
Wussiness won out in the end and we just waved goodbye, no exchange of contact information, no plans made. And as I heaved the stroller through the door and onto the bustling street, I wondered if I was ever going to make a mom friend in this town.
See, I'm a late bloomer where the whole mommy bonding thing is concerned. Friends in other cities joined organized mother's groups as soon as they had babies, but that idea sounded a tad nauseating to me. I didn't want to hear myself moan about sore breastfeeding nipples, let alone a bunch of complete strangers. Besides, throwing us all in a room together just because we all gave birth to tiny humans doesn't mean we'll wind up besties.
Diving back into part-time work soon after having Kylie was a better way to blow off steam, I'd told myself. Teasing a CNN cameraman about his new hair cut (you know who you are) and interviewing pop stars offers a fun respite from diaper duty, even if some pop stars behave like babies (you know who you are).
Perhaps there's also a part of me that worried about being judged by other moms. One of my girlfriends admitted recently she was afraid to tell the women in her mother's group she sometimes has a glass of wine to calm herself down because she thought they'd disapprove.
"It's hard to be honest with them," she said.
"Then what's the point?" I ask (while pouring myself a glass of white).
But if I'm honest with myself, my self-imposed isolation from other moms has left me feeling a little alone in the new-mommy experience. Don't get me wrong, I have an incredible support team around me for which I'm very grateful, but maybe I'm shortchanging myself by not making more of an effort with fellow moms. Because at the end of the day your husband isn't a mom, your dog isn't a mom, your co-workers might not be moms, and while your mom is a mom, she's not a new mom in 2012. Sometimes there's just stuff you want to talk about with someone who really gets it.
But it helps if they also get you.
I decided not to let Mary get away. At the next playgroup, I asked the lady at the front desk to pass my e-mail address on to her. (By the way, Mary isn't her real name -- I changed it to prevent scaring her off.) I was beet red as I walked Kylie toward the subway station, and was doing frenetic hop run behind the stroller. She's going to think I'm desperate, I thought. I'll never hear from her.
So when Mary did e-mail, it felt like Christmas.