“Don’t worry,” says a friend, a family member, a random lady on the street. “It gets better.” I stand there holding my screaming baby and the bottle he won’t drink and the pacifier he won’t take, and I think Please, for the love of God, let me never hear that phrase again!
“It gets better” is one of those things that is true, but that you still shouldn’t say. Like, “Yes, that dress does make your butt look fat.” Or, “Actually, I do mind if you eat the last cookie.” It’s something you think is helpful, since you’ve been there already, but is absolutely the worst thing to say to someone who’s actually right there in it.
“It gets better” doesn’t help, for example, when your baby has just regurgitated the entire six ounces of breastmilk you painfully and time-consumingly pumped last night when you should have been sleeping. It doesn’t help the fact that the spit up is sliding slimily down the front of your top and pooling inside each cup of your ugly nursing bra. It doesn’t help that now you’re fairly certain that your belly button (which, since giving birth, is a yawning chasm in your abdomen, for some reason) is filling up with puke. Or that the baby is screaming and needs his clothes changed except if you don’t change your own clothes right this very instant you think you might die. It doesn’t help any of that. Not unless by “it gets better” you mean in the next thirty seconds.
Because, even though it does get better (So. Much. Better.), it isn’t better now. And now is where you are. When you look, through bleary eyes, at your red-faced, shrieking baby, you don’t see the toddler he will one day become. You don’t see the little boy with his knapsack on heading off to kindergarten, smiling bravely and waving poignantly at you from the classroom door. You don’t see the teenager, the college student, the man. You don’t know any of those people. You don’t even really believe that this squishy, incomprehensible human who relies on your body for food will ever be any of those things. It might get better. But who cares? It isn’t better now.
When you tell me “it gets better” as I’m downing my sixth cup of coffee and trying to brush my teeth at the same time because the baby finally fell asleep for a second and (miracle of miracles) actually let me put him down, it feels like you’re bragging. It feels like what you’re saying is “I remember being like you but I’m not anymore, ha ha ha.” It feels like you’re looking at my stained pajamas and my crazy hair and saying, “I used to be a total frumpy mess but I’m neat and put together now.” It feels like you’re looking at my messy house with dishes in the sink and toys on the floor and saying, “My house used to look like yours but it’s tidy now.” It feels like you’re looking at my screaming baby who won’t stop crying no matter what I do and saying, “My baby used to cry like that but he’s a little angel now.” Shut up. I’ve met him.
And I know this isn’t what you meant to say. It’s not what you meant to say at all. You’re my friend. You’re trying to help. You’re not trying to brag or rub something in my face. You just want me to know that it gets better. Because, for you, that feels so freeing. You feel so great now that you’re out of this phase. But that’s just it. You’re out of it. I look at you and I see everything I wish I was. I wish I could take your hand and fly up and out of this newborn phase and into the wonderful world of wherever you are where it’s better. But I can’t. So I just feel helpless and small and yucky-looking.
And eventually there does come a point where it has gotten better. The baby doesn’t spit up anymore. He sleeps through the night. His ability to walk has opened up a whole new world of places to go, like some sort of amazing toddler video game cheat code. His ability to talk has decreased his frustration immeasurably. So, they were right. It did get better. It does. That’s not the point.
So what can you say? You could say, “Ugh, spit up is the worst! Here, let me change his clothes while you change yours.” You could say, “Sometimes they just cry for no reason. You’re not doing anything wrong.” You could say, “Mmm, coffee and toothpaste. I think you’re on to something there. I’ll bet Starbucks is already working on it.” Say anything at all really that lets me know you see me. That you’re here with me, now, in this moment where it really kind of sucks. Not somewhere in the future where it’s better.
And one day, I hope, I’ll meet you there in the land of better. Where our clothes are clean and our sleep is plentiful. But since that won’t be today and (I’m fairly certain) it won’t be tomorrow, let’s just agree to not talk about it, okay?