I notice her running tights first. They are hard to miss, in all their purple and pink spandex-y glory. I’ve never been the type to pull off decorative running tights. My workout drawer is a sea of grey tops and black pants, with the exception of one pale pink sports bra. I’m not sure if it’s confidence I’m lacking (possible), or if I’m simply drawn to black because yoga pants are part of my regular mom uniform and it’s easier to scrub peanut butter off of them.
She is leaning over a toilet in the bathroom trying to put a seat cover on it, with the stall door wide open. Her toddler is rushing to get his shorts down, while a stroller sits parked right outside the stall, taking up more than half the space in front of the sinks. A new baby squirms in the snap-n-go, restless under the fluorescent lights. He can’t be more than two months old.
Once her toddler is situated on the toilet, she turns back around, picks up the baby and rocks him in the middle of the bathroom. She sways in that familiar way that all mothers do, while simultaneously praising her other child on the potty. She brushes a piece of hair from her forehead. Our eyes meet.
I smile at her, and fight the urge to say something wise and all-knowing like, “Don’t worry, it gets easier.”
She isn’t frazzled. Her hands are simply full, much like mine had been one year prior.
I was just her.
One year ago, I was the mom with the tiny baby and a potty training toddler. I was the one carting around a snap-n-go stroller taking up entire bathrooms while helping my oldest kid on and off toilets big enough to practically swallow him. Oh how far we’ve come.
Ten minutes later, we are both in the gym. She’s on the elliptical machine and I’m in the back of the room on a spin bike. I watch her out of the corner of my eye, not in a creepy way, but in a nostalgic sort of way. I remember being deep in the trenches with a baby and a toddler and escaping to the gym for 45 minutes of solitude, despite the fact that it took us nearly 30 minutes to pack up and get there and 30 minutes to unload and re-settle back at home.
I was just her.
Come to think of it, I don’t even know how I’m not her anymore. Somewhere along the line, my potty-training toddler turned into a potty pro and my Velcro baby learned to walk and talk. I can get all of us into the car in six minutes flat, and there’s a single diaper stashed in the trunk for emergencies. There is no stroller, no diaper bag, no baby carrier—I come to the gym with my iPad and headphones and two kids wearing actual shoes. They walk themselves into the childcare room, and they wave goodbye to me with smiles on their faces.
One day everything was hard and exhausting and impossible. And then one day I blinked and the sun came out.
I finish my workout with some simple stretches on the black mat. My legs look like camouflage against it, and for a minute I wonder if I could pull off pink and purple running tights. I pack up my bag and head to the childcare room to retrieve my children, when I see her again. Right outside the playroom, she is sitting in a plastic chair nursing her baby. Her toddler is squirming beside her, anxiously waiting to leave.
It is like looking in a time machine.
I offer nothing but a sentimental smile, a soft grin soaked in reminiscence. I think of how many mothers are out there, and how strange and beautiful it is that we’re all roaming the earth, bumping into past and future versions of ourselves. I think of what a gift that is: the gift of motherhood benchmarks. What a blessing to see a past version of yourself, a point of reference to see how far you’ve come. And what a treasure to be able to see ahead, to catch a tiny glimpse of what the future might hold.
I remember picking up Chipotle for dinner a couple months ago. A mom stood in front of me in line with two boys wearing baseball uniforms, probably 7 and 9 years old. They each ordered their own burrito bowls (with steak). I stood alone; there were no kids wreaking havoc around me to give away my identity as a mother, but I remember standing there staring at those kids thinking to myself: that will be me someday. One day, God willing, I’ll wake up and be a mother to two boys who are almost as tall as me. Someday I’ll be here in this line while my boys order their own burrito bowls and we won't need a high chair and nobody will be crying and I won't have to worry about cleaning up a million chip crumbs before we leave. By that point, some things will be harder and some things will be easier; we'll have a whole new set of challenges and a whole new set of rewards.
I stood in that time machine for a minute. What a trip.
My friend Lesley just had her third (and probably last) baby. For the past year or so, I’ve listened to her talk about the sweet season she was in with her two kids—family bike rides, trips to the beach, the ability to make dinner in peace while her kids quietly watched Dinosaur Train on the couch. Meanwhile, I was going on my 13th consecutive month of severe sleep deprivation and wondering when in the world my kids would learn to play together.
She was right ahead of me; I was just behind her.
“Keep telling me these things,” I said to her one day, “I love hearing about the light at the end of the tunnel.”
We get home from the gym and I unbuckle the kids from their car seats. They each walk into the house on their own, and immediately run to retrieve their toy cars from the basket in the living room. They start running around the coffee table, their favorite racetrack, while I collapse on the couch with a granola bar.
I can’t stop thinking about that woman at the gym, and wonder if I should have said something to her. I wonder if my smile was enough, if she could sense the nostalgia in the air.
I don’t even know if nostalgia is the right word for it—because truthfully, I have no longing to go back there. I miss pieces of last year (new baby smell and long naps, to name a few), but as a whole, that first year of transitioning to life with two kids was intense and difficult for me.
But that’s part of the magic of where we are now, you know? Without that hard year, without that time in the trenches, I wouldn’t be able to recognize how far we’ve come. I wouldn’t see taking two kids to the gym without a diaper bag as an accomplishment. I probably wouldn’t even have noticed the woman at the gym, and the way she swayed with her infant in the middle of the bathroom while simultaneously monitoring another kid on the toilet. I probably wouldn’t have stopped to admire her, to smile at her, to think about her for an hour afterwards.
But how could I not?
It was almost like acknowledging myself, impossible to ignore.
I was just her. Look how far we've come.