Blurry photo of a birthday party and "this happened to me at my birthday party" text
Photo courtesy of Brandy Ferner

This Blurry Photo Went Viral Because Moms Saw Something Sadly Familiar

by Brandy Ferner

This picture is blurry for a reason. When I posted the snapshot to my Facebook page of a mom entertaining her baby in a restaurant while her family all feasted, I didn’t know it would go viral. But of course it did, because nearly every mom has been there — alone, and yet not.

Sometimes when you zoom out from a situation, you actually see it more clearly. As I ate lunch with a friend at our favorite restaurant — tucked into a corner table that gave us a sprawling view of the entire place — I couldn’t help but notice this nearby mom entertain her baby with a balloon, with walking around, with the art on the wall while the entire time her family enjoyed their birthday celebration with food and drinks and lively conversation. For hours, no one stepped in to let her enjoy being part of the group.

The image, which I posted to my motherhood-and-humor Facebook page, Adult Conversation, captures the mom in pink on the left (and her baby touching a balloon for the hundredth time) and presents an accurate visual of the constant, unseen care-taking of motherhood that leaves us outside of the group. That makes us feel isolated and invisible. That lengthens the divide we already feel from our former selves.

Either no one noticed the subtle work this mom was doing, or no one wanted to give up their enjoyment to let her have a taste of it, too. I considered offering to hold her baby so she could rejoin her family for a bit, but I knew that was gonna be weird. Next time I may take the risk of being a creeper for the few who will say yes.

I'm not trying to put this specific family on blast, but I am trying to shine a light on this seemingly little moment of motherhood that over time can add up with other small moments to true resentment and loneliness.

People wonder why postpartum depression, rage and anxiety are so common among mothers — this picture is part of the why. People, sometimes even our own families, do not see the big picture and where us mothers exist in it, or to the side of it. And if they do see it, sometimes their unspoken rank in the family hierarchy means that they keep their privilege of not having to cut their conversations short, eat a cold meal, or endlessly bounce a squirmy infant next to a fountain outside in the cold. These moments are how you learn that you are the “default parent.” (Note: if you have to ask yourself if you are the default parent, then you aren’t it. The default parent knows.)

Photo courtesy of Brandy Ferner

In an effort to ward off the raft of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) that afflict new mothers, we talk a lot about needing more face-time with doctors postpartum, better diagnosis tools — and don’t even get me started on the trend of recommending “self-care” to new moms. But we often just need our families and friends to notice us, and to help bring us back to the table. After all, social isolation is a factor in developing PMADs.

I remember writing in a journal that I never wanted to forget how isolating it felt at dinners and parties to be walking a baby around while everyone sips on wine, fills their own bellies, and tickles the baby's feet as I pass by them.

I vividly remember this stage with my two kids. Until they were about 5 years old, invites to weddings and birthday parties gave me a pang of dread because I knew that I would likely be baby or toddler wrangling, or nursing away from the festivities instead of making memories with my other friends and family. Don’t get me wrong, I liked showing my babies the art on the walls of cafes and riding the escalator over and over again, but not at the total sacrifice of face-to-face connection with those I loved and missed. And especially not after spending the entire day (and night) care-taking them.

Even with a husband who would help me tap out and take over the wrangling for a while, I would still wind up away from the group more often than not. Despite the fog of sleep deprivation, I remember writing in a journal that I never wanted to forget how isolating it felt at dinners and parties to be walking a baby around while everyone sips on wine, fills their own bellies, and tickles the baby's feet as I pass by them instead of offering to help me eat sans small human. I never wanted to forget it because I knew that "Gramnesia" would probably erase it from my brain. I wrote it down so I would remember to help my then grown-up kids and spouses in this department — especially the moms.

Many assume that the simple fix is for moms to just ask for help. But any mother will tell you the myriad of nuances often at play. First though, there’s the unfortunate but true fact that women have been raised in a society that teaches them to be nurturers and to put others’ needs ahead of their own. We can’t pretend that the foundation we become mothers on isn’t already skewed by that. Many moms haven’t found their voice yet, and won’t for years, until they reach their breaking point. Then there are the moms who are terrified to look like they aren’t handling it all with perfect grace. “No, I’m good,” they’ll say, but they haven’t eaten a full warm meal in months (years?).

These moms haven’t learned yet that receiving help is not a weakness, but a survival skill. And then there are the babies that will scream bloody murder when held by any other human than Mom. The irony is I think it’s these moms that need help the most. And yes, mothers can surely speak up and ask for what they need — many do — but I’m just saying that maybe we don’t make them do every single thing, including also begging for their own respite while the people around them are perfectly capable of offering.

I asked people on Facebook to share the post far and wide so that friends and family in different phases of life could visually see where these cracks form for us moms, and where they could easily step in and help us. And share they did. And comment. And cheer. It was as if no one had ever pointed out this divide before. “I’ve never read anything so relatable until this post. This is real life revealed,” one mom said. Another said that the mom in the picture also probably planned the date, invited the people and bought the gift. There is a high likelihood she was right. Others added, “It was probably even her birthday party.” And then there was lots of tagging out of gratitude for all the wonderful family and friends that do get it and willingly give up their spot to bring us back to the table. The “offerers.” I asked people listening to my podcast, the Adult Conversation Podcast, to bring it up with people in their lives.

And now I am urging you to share this, too, so that more moms and people who love those moms can help change this. Even if people can't understand it because they haven't lived it — or "Gramnesia" has set in — this picture perfectly illustrates the divide that happens when no one steps in.

If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.