A warm and humid morning, pushing the stroller up the little hills and over the crosswalks to kindergarten. My daughter tells me something she learned in school. I hold my breath, not wanting to speak, not wanting to ask too many questions. I’ve learned that these moments of disclosure are delicate, more rare than I could have imagined. I try to give space to her voice even though my mouth itches to ask, ask, ask.
“Mama, everyone has a bucket.” She turns to make sure I am listening. I nod. “It’s invisible, Mama!!” A minute passes. I think maybe that’s all I will get but then she goes on. “The bucket can be full of joy and happiness or it can be empty or sad. Can you steal from someone’s bucket to fill your own? Ho ho no way.” I smile at her favorite catchphrase. I risk a question, “But how do you fill your bucket?” She smiles and nods sagely, “You can be a bucket filler with a kind word or deed.” She snuggles in close to her brother and holds his little hand. Whispers something that I don’t hear that makes him giggle. “I’m filling your bucket, baby!” She turns back to me to finish her lesson, “When you fill someone else’s bucket, you fill your own too! You can be a spiller or a filler!” My heart is tugging inside my chest, seeing them snuggle back together in the giant stroller. Feeling the heavy satisfying weight of one plus one as I push them over the sidewalk bumps all the way to school.
I love this lesson. I love that she is already learning it. I could have used it earlier in life. I know in my 34 years, I’ve been both a filler and a spiller in turn. That expansive knowledge that supporting someone else supports you is something I had to learn again and again and doubly in motherhood. I have judged other mothers. Mostly, as a preemptive strike born of insecurity. I will judge them before they judge me. Trying to steal from their bucket to fill my own. And did it work? Ho ho no way. Being a mother is to be laid bare. You see your fears, your uncertainties and they seem magnified by a thousand. Being perfect has a higher cause. To be a perfect mother for your perfect babies.
This bucket filling lesson took me back to when Nola was six weeks old, I started coming to the birthing center to attend classes. I would go to baby massage and postnatal yoga. Everyone seemed so together to me. They looked clean, showered and beautiful. I pretended to be together too. I held my fear around me like a cloak and even though I came to the class almost every day, I felt very lonely. I didn’t make any friends. I would come and go and greet and pass them by. Then there was a day with only four of us in the class. We started our check in and I was only half listening to the other moms as I formulated my own response, which amounted to basically: “I’m doing fine.” Which was pretty laughable. I was pretty far from fine at that moment. My anxiety filled my waking moments. I had been thinking only of dying for the past day. About what would happen if I died when I was alone with the baby. Trying to plan for that. Every time I would feed her a bottle, I would count the hours till my husband would be home and wonder if she could survive. Worrying, worrying, worrying. That’s all I had energy to do. I was so ready in that moment to pretend and to say “just fine for me!” To shield myself from being seen. But then something amazing happened. The first mom did not talk about how much she was loving being a mom, how great everything was going, how blissed out she felt. She said something scary and vulnerable instead. She was having a really hard time. She was anxious, having panic attacks and decidedly not fine at that moment.
My body vibrated with anticipation. I waited for my turn to speak and for those few moments, I feel an equal pull to both hide and protect myself and to also crank open these ribs and show my heart. To take a chance and trust the women in this room. When my turn comes, I do just that. I tell them about my fear of dying. About how that’s all I can think about lately and, to my surprise, they don’t look at me with pity or judgement, instead they nod with compassion. Their eyes and my eyes truly meeting, windows lighting and reflecting. We are filling each other’s buckets. Sometimes the kindest word, the kindest deed we can give to one another is to be vulnerable. To show the cracks. To truly see and be seen.
I still feel the strongest love and affection for the other three women, who shared that space with me. I feel that we forged a bond in one hour that I am still benefitting from today. I met one of my very best friends in that room. The friend I still text when I’m worried, scared, ashamed, joyful. When I have failed at being the mother I want to be. I don’t have to edit myself. I sometimes write things so honest that I feel terror when I press send. I cast out those words typed in the dark like a long line between us and when she writes back, I feel that little tug of acknowledgement. Someone sees me and accepts me. Bucket filled.