Somewhere between my firstborn's conception and birth, it became clear that some kind of parenting plan needed to be put in place. Preferably, this "momifesto" would be hammered out and signed off on by all interested parties in advance of my husband and me doing any actual child rearing. The baby won't care what you do, said my wisest mom friend. But, she warned, you really don't want to get stuck socializing with a group of mothers who do things very differently from you. You'll want to judge them, they'll definitely judge you, and you'll feel like a failure. For a more uplifting early parenting experience, she said, I would need to find my Mom People. And the faster the better.
In recent years, the concept of "mommy tribes" has taken hold. Some of these parent groups are not just meeting for coffee or baby and beer afternoons; they're making their philosophy official on social media. Elle recently ran a piece on the success of a Californian group, called Unicorn Moms, that now has more than 35,000 members on Facebook and 56,000 on Instagram. Its founder, Maria Hunt, was shamed on a "judgy and mean" Facebook parenting group, so decided to set up her own, more nurturing and less judgmental, collective. Now, as well as the online stuff, Unicorn Moms has an annual festival, UniCon, complete with scantily-clad male dancers, inspirational guest speakers, and mother revellers wearing unicorn horns.
I'm certain if this kind of thing had been around six years ago when I was supposed to be tribe shopping, it would have prompted the same queasiness I'm feeling just writing about it now. It sounds Disney level saccharine — and utterly exhausting. I think I'd rather be judged online than have to make myself available to frolic in a field wearing headgear from my kids' dress-up box.
But, I did believe what my friend told me: that if my husband and I were going to land on certain parenting choices — sleep training, for instance — then we'd better have some like-minded pals who were doing it, too. I'd also need other breastfeeding mothers in my gang so we could huddle empathetically around each other's aching nipples.
Finding my tribe sounded easy enough. Of course I'd be able to locate other women in a 20-block radius of my home who'd just had a baby and wanted to raise theirs like I did mine. I live in a Brooklyn neighborhood that has more strollers per capita than pigeons.
But there were snags. Namely, we couldn't decide how we wanted to raise the writhing mound in my abdomen. I knew I wanted it to be healthy, happy, and, as much as possible, not hate me. I sort of knew I wasn't into hocus pocus parenting and would not be consuming any part of my placenta or rushing to a homeopath if my child got sick. Outside these parameters, though, I had no clue.
My husband, who'd purposely avoided babies before ours were born, was unhelpful in moulding these vaguest of parenting plans into something we could Power Point. Now our kids are six and three and I — we — still have no clue what we're doing. The methods we employ range from shouting to begging to bargaining. And, if we're on really good form, something pulled from whatever parenting article I read most recently.
Which is all to say that I didn't find a mommy tribe in those early days, despite joining a local parenting group and meeting a lot of people — mostly bewildered first-time mothers. I was no beacon of new motherhood either, and the connections I made early on were fleeting and steeped in insincerity and insecurity. Looking back, there's no way I could have made close friends when I had a two-month-old, because I could barely remember my own name — let alone those of potential mommy soulmates.
As our meet-ups continued and some of the more alpha moms found their groove, I frequently felt like I was being interviewed to see if we meshed. I mostly got the answers wrong, and it was a massive, self-esteem-sapping drag. Even after several months, I still never really knew who anyone was, and all the babies looked the same. The most I ever managed to get from the early mommy group meet-up was a granule of adult human normality. And that was actually enough. In those early days, I appreciated just being able to leave my house, and I quickly learned to keep my friendship expectations low.
But this story has a happy ending. Eventually, through the gruelling process of meeting hundreds of other moms at joy-draining sing-alongs and group play dates, I made a few amazing friends. But it took months — years even — to cultivate these precious relationships. I never felt like I had a mom tribe, and the women I eventually made friends with don't necessarily raise their kids like I do, or believe the same things. None of them, as far as I'm aware, sleep trained (we did). I didn't feel alienated or judged — our parenting differences didn't really register, because we liked each other. Now, I never think of these women as "mom friends." They're just … my friends.
The truth is, you don't really need to find a clan of soul sisters as soon as you have a baby. The pressure to find your tribe, for me anyway, caused a lot of unnecessary anxiety, not unlike the pressure women feel to find someone to breed with in the first place. So go into it with your under-rested eyes open, and please don't take those early interactions with other parents too seriously. Oh, and perhaps don't show up wearing a unicorn horn.