Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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How Having Children Ruined my Life

It was one of those ‘open-mouth-insert-foot’ kind of moments.

I was sitting at a table with fifteen other women.  A diverse group in just about every sense of the word, we were gathered to study the Bible and share our perspectives on the ancient beloved words.  Something about having children came up, and we were careful, aware of the emotional minefields surrounding this topic for some of our members.  We were careful, that is, until I blurted out,

“I would say that having children has ruined my life.”

There was a surprised silence and then women began to murmur.  I heard someone explain to her neighbor, “Oh, she doesn’t mean ruined, she just means that having children changed her life.”

I disagreed and tried to explain.  ”No, I mean ruined.”  ”Ruined,” I emphasized, “but if you gave me the choice to go back to life before children, I wouldn’t do it.  Really, I wouldn’t.”  I meant the second part, but my original declaration still hung in the air.  A dear friend gave me a sharp look.  ”I hope that you don’t say that to your kids.”

And I thought, ‘I have got to come up with a better way to explain this.’

****

Okay, ‘ruined’ may be a bit extreme.  And no, I’ve never said that to my kids.  It’s just that ‘changed’  isn’t nearly strong enough to describe the massive shift that comes with the birth or adoption of young human beings.  There is, there really is, a ‘ruining’ of your previous life, but there is also the gift of new life–for you as well as for the child.  It’s a strange thing, possibly as strange as these words,

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Yes biblical scholars, I know that Jesus wasn’t specifically talking about having children in this passage, but as I have tried to follow Him through the bends and curves of my own life, I know that nothing–absolutely nothing–has illustrated this paradox of losing-life-in-order-to-find-life better than the daily joys and struggles of caring for children.  They are the hardest and best thing to ever happen to me… living paradoxes that demand more than I have to give, and then give more than I possibly demand.

They are, in the words of one of my favorite albums, a beautiful mess.  And this is also what they have made of the life formerly known as ‘mine’.

****

I’m pretty sure that I will never find the right word to describe this process, and so I will turn to metaphor.  Here’s one that I’ve been turning over in my head for some time:  Having a baby is like moving to another country.

Having a baby is like moving to another country.

First, the preparations.  You study the guidebooks.  Ask friends who have been there about their experiences.  Make lists and then gather all the stuff you’ll need.  Prepare and wait, prepare and wait… you try to imagine what it will be like.  Of course, if you’re having or adopting a baby, your departure time is an estimate, but you’d better be ready when it comes!

And then you’re in the air, on your way.  It may be a long or short flight, it’s hard to anticipate the turbulence, but at some point you touch down.  Welcome to a foreign place–the land of your baby.  Not generalized ‘babyland’ mind you, but the land of your very specific baby, with his or her very specific mix of traits, proclivities and desires.

And good luck learning the language.

There is a kind of culture shock that takes place for new parents, and it’s no wonder.  Everything that you took for granted before–going to the grocery store, sleeping through the night, getting a quick shower–is now complicated by new rules that you have to figure out as you go.  Everything changes.  It is exciting, exotic, and exhausting.  Culture shock is no joke, especially when it’s coupled with some significant jet lag.

And then, day by day, somehow, you adapt.  You grow.  You learn the language.  You become more and more proficient at navigating your new land.  People visit you and you are proud to show them around.  There are ups and downs, but your adjustment is real.  The new place and your new identity within it becomes part of who you are.

Everything is different, and so are you.

And now I have a question for you… did your beautiful and painful adjustment to your new culture ‘ruin’ your old life?  Of course it did.  You can never go back to where and who you were before.  But would you ever want to?  Perhaps at some moments.  Perhaps when the child wakes up again in the middle of the night, perhaps when the new defiant phase seems to be lasting forever, perhaps when you wish that getting an hour to yourself wasn’t so darn difficult.  But overall?  Would you ever want to go back?

****

We are in California as I write, visiting family, and our oldest daughter has been sick for days.  She is hypoglycemic (we think) and the combination of messed-up schedule (i.e. we don’t know when to feed her) and the demands of her immune system have been brutal on her poor little body… and the coughing and whining is virtually nonstop.  My husband and I are at the end of ourselves, which leads us to pray more.

Last night she was up at 2 a.m. again, and I got her spoonfuls of sticky tylenol syrup again, and sang her to sleep again, and prayed that the coughing would stop… you got it, again.  I was almost delirious as I am a person Who Needs Sleep, but my husband is also sick so I was the night parent on call.  Miracle of miracles, she fell back asleep.

When she awoke (another miracle… at 8:30) she called for me, and I crawled into bed with her.  She snuggled into my chest, right into the place where her almost-5 year old body fits perfectly, and we just laid there together.  We laid there for a few minutes, and then we began the day.

And you know what?  I’m tired.  And she isn’t out of the woods yet.  Today there will be whining and tonight there will be a wake-up.  I will be grumpy and mean, and then I will pray… over and over again.  But then she will snuggle into my chest.  She will say Mama.  At some point, tomorrow or maybe the next day, she will act silly again.  We will laugh together.

And in the ruining of my life I will find joy.


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On your new arrival

Hidden somewhere in one of the cluttered corners of our house is a ziploc bag filled with baby cards.  They are cute, almost uniformly pink (except for, of course, the rainbows), and express bouncy messages of congratulations for the birth of our now four-year-old daughter.

We received them in the early winter months of 2008, but it took me years to open them all.  The reason?  They made me cry.

They said things like, “Celebrating with you the arrival of your baby daughter” and “A little girl is such a joy”, but my experience at that time was not so straightforward.  Our bundle of joy screamed, my celebrating body ached, and the nights and the days ran together…on and on and on…  We loved her–oh yes, we adored her–but it was so very hard to stop crying.

It wasn’t until the summer that we realized how bad my postpartum depression was and found some help.  Internal and external life improved slowly, and by the time we had our second daughter (just 20 months later), I had some appreciation for the bouncy rainbow cards.  I even went back and opened some of the older ones.  Now I could see–albeit through a haze of sleep-deprivation and baby spit-up–that our girls were indeed blessings, bundles of joy, etc. (though perhaps not “little angels.”  Really, have the people who write these ever met any real children?).

I share all of this in order to share a question.  Now with two preschoolers, I am further and further removed from the intensity of diaper days.  At the same time, I am surrounded by birth announcements.  Thus my dilemma.

What do I write in the card?

I realize that this is a very minor issue in the grand scheme of people’s problems.  As I write this post I keep thinking about friends who have lost babies by miscarriage or stillbirth, and also about those who struggle to conceive.  There is a weightiness here, and I know instinctively to choose my words slowly, lovingly, and prayerfully.  Or to not speak at all.

But my question remains.

How do I give a similar amount of attention and thoughtfulness to those who hold their infants in their arms?  Because I remember one of the painful things people said after I endured a traumatic, multiple-day labor–“Well, as long as Mama and baby are healthy, everything is okay.”  Sometimes, that is simply not true.

And sometimes it is true.  I am aware of the temptation to project my experience onto other people’s situations.   Maybe a new mother is simply overjoyed.  Maybe a couple has been trying to conceive for a long time and experience their baby as a miracle.  Maybe some people like infants more than they like sleep.

And maybe sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it’s not, and sometimes your baby seems like the most blessed thing that ever happened to you and sometimes seems like a little dictator determined to take over everything you ever knew.  Maybe sometimes you forget what it was like to sleep for more than two hours at a time, and maybe sometimes you watch them sleep and actually think, “oh, what a little angel.”

sigh.

Maybe it’s just a lot to write in a card.