The day school let out for Christmas, I walked seven kids, ages 5 to 11, about a mile from school to the mall, across nine lanes of traffic on one of the busiest roads in town, so we could ring the Salvation Army bell at JCPenney.
And I wasn’t nervous about it.
I knew it already, but I realized anew, as we made that trek, that I’ve passed a milestone. I am officially an experienced mom.
I cried when Christian went back to work after Alex was born. The idea of being solely responsible for this tiny baby all day long had me overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by love for this beautiful child, but also panicked—how in the world would I structure these ten-hour days?
I was spared all that when Julianna was born because we were instantly launched into crisis mode: coming to terms with a less glamorous vision of parenthood, figuring out all the extra paperwork required to get a child with a disability the services she needed, and trying to keep it together so I wouldn’t flip out and traumatize my toddler.
And then, of course, she almost died at six weeks old, so….yeah. Crisis mode. (One of my most profound memories of that time is leaving to grocery shop while Julianna was in the PICU, and Alex, not quite two years old, thinking I’d forgotten her, and pointing at the empty car seat saying, “Beebee! Beebee!”)
But I do remember that going anywhere in those early years was a huge production, and I always planned a recovery day afterward.
Practicing natural family planning during that time involved a lot of calling my NFP guru, saying, “I know I’m an NFP teacher myself but I’m still freaking out!”
I remember crying to my OB about my anxieties about marriage, parenting, NFP and cycles, and the soft, gentle wisdom he offered.
I guess it was two years ago now that I went to that same doctor for my yearly appointment and said, “Yeah, I can see my cycles changing, and I know which months my body’s ovulating for real and when it’s just playing pretend.” I remember him smiling and saying something about experienced mothers.
That was the first time anyone said that to me.
Experienced moms tend to say to new(ish) moms, “Just you wait! It’s all going to get SOOOOO much harder!” Or: “Enjoy this! You’re gonna miss this!”
I always hated that. I mean, someone’s struggling, and they need support, not being told their struggles don’t count.
New(ish) moms, if I ever say such a thing to you, please do me a favor and punch me in the face.
The challenges I’m facing now have much more far-reaching implications. I’m not growing small children anymore, I’m growing adults who need to have the moral judgment and the self-mastery to be, yanno, good human beings. All those things were true in small childhood, too, but the more advanced lessons require proportionally larger brainpower, plus it’s always clear how little control you have—you’re trying to outsmart your kid into making the right decisions, rather than just being able to say, “It shall be as I say it shall be.” You hurt for your kids in a new way; boo boo kisses don’t cut it anymore, and you really can’t prevent or ease the inevitable heartbreaks and screwups.
So it’s tempting to look back at early childhood and only see the simplicity of the tasks–feeding, clothing and napping–and filter out just how intense that simplicity is, how much it demands of you physically. Between pregnancy, breastfeeding, and comforting night wakers, my body didn’t belong to me for eight years. I functioned on 5-6 (interrupted) hours of sleep and sometimes a catnap. For eight years.
I haven’t had a real meltdown in a very long time–because now I get to send my kids to bed before I go to bed and they stay there until after I get up the next morning. Because my hormones are on a normal cycle now. Three of my kids can read to themselves. A different three can build their own LEGO creations. They can play outside together without me having to have eyes on them every moment. I don’t have to type one-handed or hold a child on one hip while I’m cooking. They can help with the house cleaning and the dinner chores. (They’re bad at it, but in a pinch—and we’re always in a pinch—it’ll do.)
So my message for younger mothers is this: the days are coming. It will get better, it will get easier, and richer. The investments you’re making now, in trust between you and your children, are going to pay off. You’ll feel better—physically, emotionally. It’s coming, I promise. And yes, there’s a tradeoff: the challenges aren’t going to disappear, they’re just going to shift. But the things that make you feel stretched to the limit right now are going to pass away.