I saw a lady struggling at the park. She was bandaging a skinned-up knee on one child while another was fussing for her shoe to be tied.

“Mama, can I help,” I asked, bending down to tie the shoe.

“Thanks,” she murmured. “I’m new here, we’re just trying to get out,” she explained.  

“Fresh air does wonders,” I replied, nodding in the direction of my children who were laughing their way down the slides. “You should have seen these guys before we left,” I added, “my house was straight chaos.”

We made small talk for the next 15 minutes or so. Our boys hadn’t found each other, but they were close enough in age they could have befriended one another had their paths crossed.

“Maybe we could meet back up some time and let them play,” she said sheepishly.

“Of course,” I agreed, offering her my number. “Call anytime,” I said as I was leaving. And I totally meant it. But I didn’t expect to hear from her.

Playground interactions are weird and mom friendships are hard to forge.   

A few days later, though my phone rang. And the mom from the park was on the other line. I could hear she was frazzled. She was talking fast, trying to gloss over a hard situation. “I need to get my kids out of the house,” she explained. “You know the area . . . is there somewhere I can take them? I want it to be fun, so they don’t think anything is wrong,” she continued.

“Here,” I said without a second thought, and I gave her my address.

“Are you sure?” she asked. “I don’t want to intrude.”

“Of course,” I answered. And I meant it.

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Though, it quickly made me realize my house was a mess. I pushed all the laundry down to one end of the couch and scooped up the cups that were in the living room and tossed them in the sink. I’d just plugged in the vacuum to sweep up dog fur when the doorbell rang. It was my 6-year-old neighbor.  

“Can Jack play?”

“Jack isn’t home,” I explained.

“Can I come in anyway?” she asked, and I saw tears in her eyes.

“Of course, of course,” I said. And I called for my 14-year-old to come down. She saw the tears too.

“Let’s get juice and watch a movie,” she coaxed. And they settled in the living room. Turns out we had no juice boxes, but over chocolate milk, the little girl explained there was another baby in her mommy’s tummy and everyone was scared. I didn’t and still don’t know the details, only that she needed a little extra support. And that later that evening she left smiling.

My new friend and her three kids arrived a short time later. “I’m so sorry,” she kept saying. And I hushed her because I’ve been there.

Her kids found the playroom quickly, and we sat down so she could decompress. “Coffee?” I asked. She shook her head no. She wasn’t a coffee drinker. I looked in the fridge but had nothing but chocolate milk or tap water to offer.

“Seems my hostess skills are on par with my housekeeping ones,” I laughed.  

“Water is fine,” she said, gratefully. We talked and talked, until a little voice said, “I’m hungry.”

“They haven’t had dinner yet,” she said apologetically. “Can I order pizza or something?” she asked.

It was already 8. It’d be 9 before anything was delivered. I looked in the freezer. I had about a dozen chicken nuggets, a dozen pizza rolls, and a box of taquitos. I threw them in the air fryer and offered the kids Popsicles and ice cream cups leftover from a birthday party as an appetizer.

“This is the best dinner ever!” one of them exclaimed. 

Everyone ate and the kids settled in the living room for a movie. We kept on talking. We talked until she felt better and was able to go home. I had no profound wisdom to offer, only a listening ear. But it was enough.

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Once she left and my neighbor had gone home, I realized the gravity of what happened. The experience that was shared. Someone reached out, and I was in a place to support them, so I did.

This is how it is supposed to be. This is what community is. And everyone is deserving of one.

My house will never be the cleanest. I’m not a housekeeper, it’s just not in me. And I don’t drink tea or wine, and my kids pound juice boxes the minute I buy them, so those things will never be in supply. But I’ve usually got popsicles, whatever in my fridge can be shared, and I will always be a listening ear. Life is hard. At any stage. And nobody should have to work their way through it alone.

Mamas, be the house with the open door. You don’t need a perfect home or a stocked fridge. Just open arms and ears that can listen without judgment.

Cara Arnold

I’m a mama to 3 whose learning to balance parenthood and chronic illness at the hands of autoimmune encephalitis. Some days I’m a soccer mom, carpooling like a boss; other days I’m a relentless advocate, taking on doctors and insurance companies alike. But, if you’re looking for consistency every day I’m a hot mess. My life is a puzzle that’s still not together. I used to think pieces were missing. But it's all finally fitting together. It’s not what I envisioned, and some days I mourn that; but it’s mine. And knowing how fast that can change I try to appreciate every moment of it.