New Orleans Jazz Fest is notorious for debauchery, flavor, wildness and mercurial humanity. But the woman I remember most from my time there in April was not one of the water bottle vendors positioned outside the front gates warning visitors, “If your momma was here, she sho would be tellin’ you to hydrate,” or one of the brazen sorority girls who shouted back, “I hydrate with beer, thankyouverymuch.”
I saw this woman far from the fairgrounds in the relative quiet of a pizza place on St. Charles Avenue. By Jazz Fest standards, she was dressed plainly. No uber-short shorts or ‘70s-inspired (but available for purchase today at Urban Outfitters) fringed vest, but she did have a sunburn stretching across her upper back — proof she most likely had been at the festival that day. Her brown hair brushed that sunburn lightly, swinging back and forth like leaves of a weeping willow on the avenue as she huddled in the corner of her booth and rocked to the metronome in her mind.
This woman was with her husband and their young baby, a creature red-faced with anger or indigestion … maybe both. Any onlooker could see that the length of this mother’s rope was coming up short, and she was grasping at fraying edges.
Andrew and I sat in a nearby booth with our son who — with the exception of waiters who pet him on the head — is old enough that he no longer screams in restaurants. After we ordered, our son leaned forward and warmed up for a whisper. Whispering doesn’t mean he lowers the volume of his speaking voice, he just raises a hand to hide his mouth while he speaks. Anyone who has spent time around a toddler (or a mean girl in junior high) knows what this means: for select ears only.
“Mom and Dad,” he said urgently. “That baby does not like pizza.”
It did appear the baby thought pizza was the worst idea these crazy adult human people had proposed yet. But we reminded him it’s hard for babies; they can’t tell you what they do and don’t like. In fact there was another Jazz Fest weekend that feels like a long, long time ago now (oh, blessed mind that plays tricks on me), and on that weekend, he had been that baby.
He didn’t like his blankets or his binky. He didn’t like his eyes open or closed. The wind blowing or still. The sun shining or total darkness.
At the end of that trip, we had been ready to swear off family vacations forever. With a heavy heart, I wondered if it could be possible that my baby, a baby with Cajun pumping through his veins, could somehow not like New Orleans.
But now, he was almost 3 years old and we were back, watching another group stumble through one of those nights that feels like it might never end.
Before they gave up on the meal, the woman turned to her husband and, voice quivering, said, “All I wanted was a piece of pizza.”
And believe you me, my heart quivered, too. Her words were overflowing with disbelief. How could something so simple — a piece of pizza — be so completely out of reach?
My first instinct was to stand and walk over to that woman and tell her it gets easier. Hello, I’m a stranger here with good tidings. Good tidings were the right thought, but I stayed put. Because telling her things would get easier was the wrong thing to say.
Some of the most outstanding mothers I know used those words to encourage me in the beginning. They put their thumbs under my chin, raised it and took my baby for a light spin so I could get fresh air. They named turning points to look forward to: At 6 weeks — when they sleep through the night — it gets easier. Once they sit up on their own and crawl, you’ll be amazed what you can get done in a day. At 1 year, the hard part is behind you. I waited for those turning points. I watched the markers come and go. Motherhood shifted and changed, a land always moving under my feet, and perhaps I became better at keeping balance. But did it become easier? No. Have I reached a point where I could finally take my eye off the ball? Not yet. Have I finally given up waiting for that finish line? Thankfully, yes.
We know how much our words mean to new mothers, how vital encouragement is to both parents. But perhaps we take shortcuts sometimes, repeat cliches that have become commonplace instead of that which is true.
The mothers who told me it would get easier weren’t trying to delay my happiness with a simplification of the truth, but I would have done better if they had leaned forward and said, “Eventually, you will get a full night of sleep, but then you will wake to a day of worry that he’s about to cannonball off the back fence.”
I had to understand that the finish line was a leprechaun before I could just let go and live.
That woman left the restaurant before I said anything at all, and I still regret that. I didn’t want to be a stranger petting her on the head, but I should have found the courage to share some kind of support. I should have taken the chance to tell her the only thing I am certain of: When this challenge passes, another will come. And all of them make us stronger.
I should have cupped my hand over my mouth and whispered for the world to hear, “Hold on to that rope, girl. You, your baby and all the beautiful, mercurial humanity you share are worth it.”