When I first became a mom, in the height of the pandemic in April 2020, it took many months for me to actually feel like a parent.
Yes, our apartment was covered from head to toe in baby gear, I was up around the clock to keep her rested and fed, and I once went to herculean lengths to rescue a bag of frozen breast milk from the underbelly of a transcontinental jet (which is a story for another time…). But I still didn’t really feel…well, like a mom. I just felt like a person who happened to have a new baby companion. Someone who’d picked up a particularly time-intensive pandemic hobby.
This feeling lasted for many months. When I told my brother (also a parent) about this feeling, this “not really feeling like a mom” thing, he laughed and said, “Well of course you don’t! Nobody has seen you as a mother. It takes being around other people to validate this part of your identity.”
It was so obvious in that one moment that I knew he was spot on. Despite my deep roots in community-building and connecting people over the past years, I’d never really considered this one critical question: What happens when your community goes away? Who are you when you no longer have “your people” to keep you on track?
To a large extent, this has been the experiment we’ve all been running live together for the past 18 months. Welcome to the era of social distancing.
Calibration through community
No matter how you slice it, this pandemic has sucked for introverts and extroverts alike. As someone who has deep needs in both directions simultaneously — that’s to say, I crave alone time just as much as I crave IRL interaction — I’ve felt for many months like I’m stuck in some mediocre soup. Never quite alone, never quite in a group. It’s stagnating.
But there’s another important element of group dynamics that I haven’t seen discussed as much. And that’s this idea that for most of our lives we’ve relied upon some element of interpersonal relationships to propel us through our day.
Being around other people builds consistency, yes. They give us social outlets, of course. But they also — whether consciously or not — provide us with tiny micro benchmarks and guideposts, little highway markers along the route of our lives. They don’t tell us how to live or make every decision for us. They might not always know which direction we are traveling, but they sure as hell can remind us where the road is.
It’s the friend who says, “Oh, you’re so funny!” when you tell a joke. (“They are right,” you might remind yourself. “I am funny.”) It’s the neighbor who sees you in the park pushing your baby in a stroller: “Oh my gosh I can’t believe you’re a MOM now!” (Yes, a little part in your head might calibrate. They are right!) It’s the networking event where you talk about a new project you’ve been working on recently and someone says, “I’m so glad you’re finally doing that. You’ve been talking about this for a long time.” (“Yes I have!” that tiny little brain sensor might confirm in your head, giving you just the confidence boost you need to go ahead and do it.)
Since I recently returned to New York City after six months away, I’ve been doing a lot of organizing and shifting things around to get my apartment in order. It’s been…a process to move back to the city and reattach myself to a new series of recurring habits in my life. And certainly not a linear one. Things feel the same as they always were, and simultaneously…not at all…all at once. It can be hard to keep track.
One week I set out to fix the particularly problematic lighting situation in my bedroom. On my lunch break one day, I visited my favorite store to see if they had any lamps on sale. I ended up finding the perfect one and carried it all the way back to the coworking space for the afternoon, then down the street and onto the subway at the end of the work day. On my walk from WeWork to the subway station, I ran into a few former colleagues on the street. As this hasn’t happened for about 18 months, I was overjoyed to see familiar faces and sprinted across the street to greet them. They took in my situation — carrying two large bags with a lamp swung over my shoulder and said, “Yup, this is just about the most ‘Bethany’ thing you could be doing right now. Feels right.”
And in that moment I knew they were right. It did feel good — normal, even — to be wandering around Flatiron with a mission and a random piece of furniture. But it wasn’t until someone else saw me doing that thing that I was reminded: Oh yeah, this is the kind of thing I used to do. I am directionally tracking toward the same path. That version of myself I haven’t seen in some time.
Finding your tribe
Last night, Charlie O’Donnell and Brooklyn Bridge Ventures hosted the now-infamous (and 12th annual) New York City tech meetup at the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. You don’t have to look far on Twitter to see how much this meant to people in the tech community.
Just as last night signified the re-opening of Broadway in New York, this event felt like the homecoming of tech in NYC. Hundreds of people showed up, greeting each other with life updates, hugs, and even some happy tears. We’ve been a part of each other’s lives on social media, naturally. We’ve even built some things together, remotely, of course. But nothing beats the feeling of giving someone a great big hug and a smile to share in the good news: You raised a new fund. You sold your business. You bought your first apartment. You’re pregnant (again).
I noticed that last night was a mixture of the big stuff and the little stuff for lots of people. There were the heavy rocks — what’s happened in that in-between time — and also the little stuff, the stuff too small to start a text thread about, too weird to type into a tiny box in Slack. “I was afraid to tell my colleagues that I’m about to move on.” “I’m a little worried about what this might mean for me next year.” “I’ve got a lot of energy, but I don’t know how to direct it.”
Articulating our stories helps cement them into reality. And without people to tell our stories to, reality has felt just a little bit shakier than usual. I imagine part of what makes events like last night so great, and part of why it’s important to reconnect in person with “your people” at all is to just get that feeling back a little bit more. It’s a feeling that can’t translate on Zoom. It’s a vibe and a buzz and an energy that’s electric in the air around us. The pulse and the heartbeat of a city. The reason most of us moved to New York City at all.
I’m not suggesting that we live our entire lives around the identities that others assign to us. But I do think, particularly in times of transition, surrounding ourselves with the people who knew us when we were at our best can be a very helpful thing.
This is why community is so important. Your people help keep you on track.
Also published on Medium.