I sit next to my husband on a rocky beach that faces Saratoga Passage. Already used to the beauty in front of us, I comment to Chris that these women all around us that are parenting small children made it look so easy.
“I don’t remember that time as easy. I don’t think I was as good a parent as these women. I remember feeling like it was horribly hard and I lacked patience,” I said.
“What? Are you beating yourself up?” Chris asks me. He shakes his head at me as his eyes meet mine. He is both surprised and not, knowing I am an expert at making myself feel bad for a reason no one can see but me.
This response makes me chuckle, and I shake my own head back at him. “Yes, I am.”
He wakes me up with his reply. I ease up on myself, and think more deeply about how I feel watching this cadre of mothers at the double row of cabins on a Washington State park beach. Chris notes that most of the dads are nowhere to be found, or we have to search for them. Most of them are not on the beach with the moms and kids. I spy one reading a book by his cabin.
I piece together that these kids all go to the same preschool. I’m always the reporter, wearing the “Who, What, Why, Where, and When” hat. The moms don’t seem like best friends, but rather women getting to know each other because of their kids. To me, they seem happy and competent. One woman has a newborn that she carries covered with blankets and her two other young kids trail her almost everywhere. She spends most of her day sitting in a tent at the beach and the other women pile towels atop it, noting that it doesn’t have a SPF rating. Is the baby getting too much sun through this unprotected piece of nylon?
Oh, I have been there and my memories are blurred by time. But I know Chris was on the beach with me back then, playing with the kids, getting chips out of the cabin for us and crazily swimming with our daughters in the freezing salt water. Maybe that’s why there was no pretending for me. I was vocal about what I needed: help with the kids!
Maybe I was a better parent than I thought. Maybe I know nothing about these women and their cabin doors shut at night and they quietly seethe at their husbands about the hard lot of early childhood parenting. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they love this stage of parenting. All I know for sure is when we came here 6 years ago and my girls were 6 and 3, when I saw a woman with a baby here I said, “No way, I would never come here with a baby.”
Now that my kids are past babyhood and preschool ages, this group of women and me pass each other like ships in the night. Maybe we have our lights on, but we are not sitting next to each other with a cup of coffee and downloading how we feel. Instead I guess at their feelings and marvel at how much work it is to corral small kids on a beach all day long. I lazily think about them as my 12- and 9- year old kids do whatever the heck they want somewhere near me, often within eye sight but sometimes not.
It’s easy to pretend I was a bad, angry mother back then until my husband calls me out. It’s easy to think these women are happy and just as easy to think they are seething underneath their layers of sunscreen. I simply don’t know how they feel. And Chris knows I am a good parent now and that I was the best parent I could be back then. And I watch the women dance around me, parenting with every inch of their bodies, and it’s easy to be glad I’m here and not back there. Although the whole time I’m on this beach I’m holding myself slightly in check. I keep quiet my mad desire to hold that baby, to ask that woman with that newborn for some time, so I can rock back and forth on my middle-age legs and feel the sweet warmth of those early days again.
Instead I collect rocks and marvel at how far I have come since those early days. Such a ride it has been. Chris is right. There’s no good use in rewriting the past and beating myself up as these moms follow closely at the heels of their young charges. Instead I start to be thankful Chris is still here, either next to me talking or with his daughters swimming in water too cold for their mother. This time I have the energy to walk to our cabin to get the sea salt and vinegar potato chips for us to share after his swim.