I had made it as far as the street corner when it occurred to me that I hadn’t paid. I’d said goodbye to my friends at the restaurant and walked out. When I returned, embarrassed and apologetic, one friend mentioned that another had asked if I was O.K.
“Of course she’s not O.K.,” she had answered. “She has a 4-month-old.”
That 4-month-old was the reason I had to get home. I needed to pump–for the fourth or fifth time that day– and then I needed to go to bed as soon as I could, for however long I could, before attempting to look like a pulled-together professional for work the next morning.
My husband and I had joked about how easy that week would be. Our older son was away with his grandparents, which meant we had just one kid to take care of. Naturally, that was the week the baby had a sleep regression. Every night, I sat in the glider for hours at a time trying to nurse him back to sleep, only to set his swaddled little body in the crib and have him start crying again.
I had been back at work for just over a month, trying to prove myself to a new boss. I was pumping before going to the office, interrupting my day multiple times to hook myself up to tubes and suctions, and then doing it again at night. I was also trying to be an attentive mom to a toddler who loved his baby brother but had ordered me at least once to put him “back in your tummy.”
Of course she’s not O.K.
I knew I was exhausted, sometimes overwhelmed. Yet my friend’s comment was revelatory. I gave birth with no complications. I had reliable childcare. I wasn’t experiencing postpartum sadness or anxiety. I was checking things off my list at work, albeit sometimes because I was finishing them in the evening. I’d also done this before. But as soon as my friend said it, I felt relief. Of course. Those two words, so matter-of-fact, validated an experience I didn’t fully realize I was having.
If you ask whether a woman has “bounced back” after pregnancy, people know what you mean: Has she, after carrying and delivering a baby, returned to her previous size and shape? The question is not just shallow, it’s lazy, focusing on what can be ascertained with a glance. Less discussed–and harder to answer– is whether a new mom has “bounced back” in other ways. Between changing hormones, erratic sleep and trying to keep alive a brand-new human while relying on trial, error and Google, what does O.K. even mean? But unspoken as it may be, the expectation for many women is that at a time when you’re just trying to hold it all together, you must somehow figure out how to pick up where you left off.
Some of the pressure is societal: for women fortunate enough to have time off, once you go back to work, you’re right back in it. The fact that your baby is cluster-feeding or staging a sleep strike is not really an excuse for missing a deadline. But the haze of new motherhood has a way of warping your own perception of what you should be able to handle. When getting through the day requires a certain amount of autopilot (and coffee), there’s not a ton of time to reflect on what caring for a new life while meeting the demands of your own is doing to you.
With a passing comment, my friend helped me see my own situation more clearly. Now when friends with young babies confess that they’re struggling, even though they’re getting back into a routine, even though nothing is technically wrong, I tell them about the night I accidentally dined and dashed.
Sometimes we need someone to assure us that things are going to be O.K. Other times what we really need to hear is that in that moment, they’re not supposed to be.
This appears in the March 02, 2020 issue of TIME.