Story Hour, Off the Army Base
The New York Times / March 20, 2018
At story hour in Tacoma, we sit — strangers in a circle — and sing nursery rhymes to our babies. Since my family and I left Georgia, where my husband, Andrew, was stationed for five years with the Army, I have been eagerly anticipating moments like this: communion with like-minded parents, the kind of NPR-listening liberals I’d spent my 20s around in Brooklyn before the Army uprooted me, transforming me into the proverbial stranger in a strange land. But now that I’m here, desperately trying to follow along — Where is thumbkin, where is thumbkin? — I feel utterly out of place.
I came to the Wheelock library on a blind mom-date with a clinical psychologist and recent L.A. transplant I met in a Facebook group for Tacoma mothers. I look to her to share a knowing smile — oh boy —but she is serene, playing her role pitch-perfectly as she coos at her baby boy. This mom is shockingly together. She has parenting philosophies, and, what’s more, she acts on them. She practices R.I.E. with her baby, a parenting method based on the concept of treating the baby with dignity and respect.
“I don’t distract him during diaper changes,” she explained, “but talk him through the process instead.”
When I was pregnant, I thought I’d have philosophies too. But the baby books have remained unread, my lonely days with Fiona so chaotic that my only philosophy, if I have one, is survival.
At story hour, we squeak through “I’m a Little Teapot,” and it’s time for introductions. There’s a blue-haired mom named Virandara in flowing pants; a dad in horn-rimmed glasses feeding his baby pumped milk; a skinny guy with a toothy smile and a T-shirt that says “Kindness Is Everything.” I have forgotten how to make conversation with these people.
Could this loneliness, this outsiderness, be a permanent fixture of my identity now? When Andrew made the radical decision to join the Army just before we married, I hadn’t guessed I’d one day be considering this question. I hadn’t anticipated an Army life at all when we fell in love, and yet, when he made the impassioned argument for joining, I wasn’t exactly surprised. My husband is not an easily categorizable man: He’d be equally at home at a gun range and a poetry reading. He found a way to fit in at Fort Benning because he is skilled at negotiating different worlds. He gets lonely too, but he has the architecture of the Army to hold him up, and I’m the home he always returns to.
Army wives, on the other hand, are left to erect their own scaffoldings. Andrew is in a rapidly deployable combat unit with backbreaking daily hours. As the saying goes among wives in his unit: “Even when they’re here, they’re not really here.” It is the kind of life that one later apologizes to a spouse for: “I’ll make it up to you,” I watched a soldier say to his wife at his retirement ceremony, his voice breaking.
Those wives are the toughest people I’ve ever known. Before we moved, I’d snobbishly envisioned my stint at Fort Benning as a kind of anthropological study, a view into another world.
But from almost the moment we arrived, I sensed just how much I’d need these women, so I made every effort to inch my way into their lives. In the beginning, I couldn’t even navigate a conversation with most of them. We had nothing in common; we were separated by the chasms of life experience, education, politics, cultural vocabulary.
Still, we forged relationships in the iron of showing up. We flew to emergency rooms, school pickups, maternity wards, kitchen counters. During my high-risk pregnancy with Fiona, Andrew was deployed; I spent so many nights at a friend’s house in those months that my Maps app registered her address as “Home.”
My life with the other wives was like life with family: intense, necessary for survival, claustrophobic and never enough. By the time we left Georgia I was hungry for freedom from the Army, so I made sure we lived a freeway ride away from base, in a city full of progressive Seattle transplants. But now, surveying this circle of hip Tacoma strangers, I feel unmoored.
The librarian announces the start of “free play,” which means parents can mingle. The guy in the “Kindness Is Everything” shirt approaches. He tells us he is a massage therapist who owns a Pilates studio.
“My wife and I split the child care,” he says.
“My husband watches the baby on weekends while I Skype with clients,” the R.I.E. mom offers.
I’m alone with Fiona for weeks until my eyes bleed, I want to say, but I don’t think it will play very well in this crowd.
The Georgia moms would have related in an instant. Even though I was a mystery to them, arriving childless at 28, they brought me into their fray. I became the de facto babysitter, the honorary aunt at Mother’s Day lunches.
They taught me everything I know about parenthood: You get through the days by force of will, by relying not on family or husbands but on friends — and often, brutally, on just yourself. You welcome people’s help with open arms, but recoil from anyone’s pity. And on the overwhelming days, you let your kids cry, walk into the summer heat of the backyard, and chug a beer.
You also snuggle them past dawn and nurse them through every sickness and let them sleep in your bed when they cry. You need those kids as much as they need you. They are your anchors. Without them, you might drown or drift away.
After free play, my blind date and I walk home, our babies cuddled in carriers. In the past week, spring has come to coastal Washington, the winter rains finally gone. Snowy white blossoms shower the ground and bursts of rhododendron fill front yards. Fiona and I spend our afternoons wandering these cracked sidewalks, peeking in the windows of old Tacoma craftsmen.
The mom asks if I’d like to come to Easter brunch at her house.
“There will be gluten free options,” she adds nervously.
“There will be some really good people,” she says.
In Georgia, I went to barbecues with “really good people,” young parents who had climbed out of hard backgrounds and carved out lives for themselves and their children. At first, I’d dreaded these barbecues, until, one day, I stopped dreading them. The wives and I never came to understand each other, really, but we allowed life to happen to us together, appearing on each other’s doorsteps with children in pajamas after blowout fights with husbands, after pipes bursting and miscarriages and late night phone calls alerting us of casualties overseas.
Maybe that is all there is to know or understand in any human exchange: the asking to be let in. The vulnerable welcoming of another across our thresholds.
It occurs to me that here, now, is an opening. So I might as well walk in.
“What should I bring?” I ask, and she smiles.