During my first five years of parenthood, we lived in a lovely a part of San Francisco, filled with perfect moms. Every Saturday morning, they arrived at the neighborhood park looking…well…perfect. Their hair was colored and styled; their outfits were runway-ready; their make-up was impeccable. Their dapper sons and coiffed daughters gummed their Zwieback Crackers in style, regal in their state-of-the-art strollers. Even their bottles sported bells and whistles beyond my wildest dreams. I watched one mom put down a blanket, push a button, and the blanket inflated for a spa-caliber diaper change.
I always showed up in my most comfy sweats, with my brown/gray hair au naturale, no make-up. Usually my one-year-old son pushed his own stroller, with his bag of clean diapers and snacks in the seat. This particular park was his favorite, because the ground was entirely sand, so he could run, fall and jump up unhurt. Best of all, mixed into the sand were thousands of pebbles. He spent hours happily digging for these precious stones, and sorting them into piles. He liked me to sit with him as he constructed each architectural wonder.
So there I sat, more scruffy by the minute, with my son parading pebbles for me to admire. I glanced at the other moms. They chatted, sipping water or coffee, legs crossed on the benches. I loved hanging out with my son; at the same time, I longed to meet other new parents. But that clearly wasn’t going to happen here. While I floundered with naps, sippy-cups and diaper rash, they remained perfect.
One foggy Saturday, a two-year-old girl approached shyly, clueless that she was about to change all of our lives. She wore a pink pinafore, white lace and patent leather shoes. She walked over slowly, and offered her fist to my son. He reached out and she dropped a pebble into his hand. They played for 2 hours.
Next time, the same girl scampered over. I glanced at her mother, who smiled coolly from the bench. Within an hour, three more kids joined the pebble brigade, while their mothers remained on the bench. The children all brought their pebbles for me to admire, then moved on to my son who supervised the sorting into proper piles. They played together beautifully, with the intense concentration of toddlers immersed in a project. I was pleased when my boy’s new friends turned to me for help — an untied shoe lace — a pinafore bow which needed to be retied – a boy’s Batman cape which somehow entangled in a girl’s ponytail and they were stuck together.
Finally, I got up, dusting myself off. My son ran to his stroller to claim his snack, and the pinafore girl jumped into my arms for a hug. At that point, the entire posse of perfect mothers approached. I hesitated, they hesitated, and suddenly it hit me: they didn’t know how to break into my circle any more than I knew how to break into theirs. I introduced myself, awkwardly shaking hands around the pink-bowed/white-laced/pig-tailed bundle in my arms. My son politely offered his pretzels and apple slices to his new friends, and then to their mothers as well. One girl gave him a home-baked oatmeal cookie while another boy offered a carrot. All at once, their snacks turned into a buffet. The picnic table overflowed with juice boxes, cheese sticks, crackers, banana slices. A stunning mom in 2-inch heels ordered pizza, and our buffet became a party.
The following Saturday, to my surprise, every perfect mom dropped down in the sand. Pizza-Mom asked where I had bought my athletic shoes, because her heels didn’t work well in the park. They asked how I played so comfortably with the kids, and I asked how they managed to look so bloody perfect. We all laughed, and our neighborhood community formed on the spot. Hairstyles and haute couture didn’t matter one whit. We were new parents, together, embarking on the most enriching, challenging, terrifying, uplifting journey of our lives.
We met every weekend morning for years. We broke into smaller groups of closer friends, but still remained a supportive community. Over time, we scattered and lost track of each other. I’ll always be thankful to those perfect moms, and to the neighborhood park where I learned that pebbles, pretzels and ponytails trump haute couture every time.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a novelist, blogger and mother of three grown children. Amy wrote her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, in reaction to seeing gay students bullied in high school. Her second novel, Tightwire, follows a rookie psych intern through her first year of training. Amy blogs on a variety of subjects including parenting, LGBTQ+, gender equality and a Rolling Stones concert. She also collaborates with educators who include her books in their curriculum.
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