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 {Now a Series}

Once upon a time (okay, it was 10 months ago) I wrote a post called How Having Children Ruined my Life.  What I didn’t know then is that a lot of people were thinking this very thing.

The blog-hosting site I use has a ‘stats’ page that shows how many visitors land in my particular corner of the internet and what they read while they are here.  I mostly avoid this information like the plague, as it brings out every junior high insecurity that I thought I shed (ahem) two decades ago.

But there are two stats that I check regularly.  The first is a map of the world showing the number of readers per country.  It is (you may hear my junior high voice here if you like) just so freakin cool to have readers from Australia, Tanzania and Qatar.  The reach of the internet astounds me sometimes.

Number two helpful stat has to do with search engine terms.  Simply put, I can see how people got to my blog, and if they came via a search engine, I can see what it was they googled.  It’s fascinating, though, in the case of my blog, a little depressing.  The vast majority of the search terms say something like “having kids ruined my life”, “my baby ruined my body”, or “my children ruined my marriage.”

You get the theme.  Something very precious to me (life, marriage, body) is now ruined, and I think it began about the time that baby showed up.

Oh, how I get this.

****

For me, the lowest point came early.  She was only five months old, and it was Mother’s Day.  We were staying with friends on the other side of the state.  She was sick, and all she wanted to do was nurse, nurse, nurse.  I was also sick, and wanted sleep more than anything I have ever wanted in my life.  But no.  In five months, she had never slept for more than three hours at a time.

She wasn’t about to start now.

And I felt trapped.  Cornered.  The feeling had been building for months.  Raw memories of her traumatic birth, my failure at birthing,  still gnawed on me.  I couldn’t walk across a room without searing pain.  Every night came with dread and panic.  I was drowning, and the waves went on forever.

Sometimes I fantasized about being so sick that I would be sent to the hospital, just so I could sleep for one night.  But no.  Here I was, sick as a dog, and she was still demanding.  Still screaming.  There was no way out.  It would never end.

The dam burst.

“I HATE being a Mother,” I sobbed, “I hate it, hate it, hate it.  I just want out.  I just want this all to be over.  I’m done, I’m ruined.  Everything is ruined.”

And oh, how I meant it.

****

Ruin: to spoil or destroy something.  

Ruins: the remains of a building, city, etc., that has been destroyed or that is in disrepair or a state of decay; a fallen, wrecked, or decayed condition: The building fell to ruin.

And this image grows in my mind–a row of dilapidated houses, broken windows, crumbling walls.  Lives destroyed.  Marriages in a state of decay.  Long city streets full of vacant houses, waiting to be demolished.

Ruined is a very strong word.  Ruined implies that any good is now past tense.  After all, once the floorboards have rotted and the roof shows sky, can it provide shelter again?  Once a house has been neglected and deserted, can it ever house a family again?

Once a life has been ruined, can it live again?

And the answer, my friends, is a definite maybe.

****

Renovate:  

1.  to restore to good condition; make new or as if new again; repair.

2.  to reinvigorate; refresh; revive.

I live in the midst of both ruin and renovation.  Pittsburgh is a rust belt city, which basically means that the end of our industrial ‘glory days’ left a lot of vacant houses and factories in its wake.  Most of these buildings were built more than a century ago.  Some neighborhoods have recovered more quickly that others; but, as a city, we still have a long way to go.

Each house is a painstaking process.  A century of wear plus decades of neglect cannot be easily overcome.  It would be much easier to just tear them all down and begin again.  Demolition. Sometimes it is the only reasonable way forward.

But sometimes there is another way.  Renovation.  Sometimes if you scrape and paint, and pull up the cracked linoleum, an old house will begin to reveal its treasures.  Sometimes if you strip away the layers, something begins to emerge that we call character, as in ‘Those houses in the city have so much character.’  There is something rich here, something deep, that cannot be recreated without a century of wear and many long weekends of work.

There is something to this concept of renovation that makes ‘ruined’, in hindsight, an important chapter in a meaningful story.  But renovation is not automatic.  The path of least resistance is always decay; renovation is a purposeful, continual choice.

Eight years ago I married both my husband and his century-old house.  Since then, I have learned more than I knew there was to learn about sill boards, leaking chimneys, and copper plumbing.  Then we had two babies in two years, and the wear and tear on our house (literally and figuratively) increased a hundredfold.

Sometimes I think that it may just fall down.

But there are tools of renovation, and when I use them (or submit to them), there is hope for this weary mother who no longer hates her life.  I will list three tools I know well.  They shape me even as I sit here and type.

One)  Find people who are for you.  As in, not against you, but for you.  On your team.  Cheering you along.  Helping you back up when you fall down.  And here’s the real trick…  some of them must be physically present in your everyday life.  Not on facebook, not across town.  If you can get them to move in up the street, do that.  Because the isolated nuclear family model is absolutely toxic.  You cannot do this on your own.  You need a cheering squad, a pit crew, and someone who owns a pickup truck.  As a minimum.  Call them now and set up coffee.  I’ll wait here.

Two)  Make time and space to do the things you love to do.  Grow in the things that give you life.  You.  Not your kids, not your spouse, not your mother.  You.  The person who is not just a parent but is also an artist, a musician, an athlete, a _________________ .

You’ll have to fight for this one, and perhaps you will find that the biggest battle comes from the inside.  As a good friend of mine used to say, “We love the misery we know more than the mystery we don’t know.”  It’s scary and constant, but do it anyway.  If you don’t find a way to be poured into, you will be a dry well, fulfilling your obligations and enduring each day.  Please don’t do this to yourself and the people around you.  You have things, unique to you, that give you life.  Pursue them, and overflow.

Three)  Pray, and if you don’t know how, ask someone to do it for you.  I am aware that I may lose some of you at this point, but as I reflected on what I had to share, I just couldn’t ignore this.  Praying, real praying, is not pious or polite or carefully constructed.  It’s more like finally getting it out, getting it all out with snot and stuttering to that friend who is listening as you cry.  It’s like screaming at your ceiling, “Are you even listening to me?!?  I can’t take this much longer!” or grinning at the sky, “You really think you’re funny, don’t you?”  It’s like whispering “thank you” or “help, please, help” when you can’t think of anything else to say.

When I was in the middle of that horrible first year, I had a hard time praying.  Simply put, I was mad at God and didn’t want to talk to him or her.   So I fell apart at church, and someone prayed for me.  I told people that I was struggling, and they put their hands on my back.  Healing, peace, love, joy… they just kept asking, for me, when I couldn’t get the words out.  And slowly, softly, things began to change inside and outside of me.

Slowly, softly, I was being renovated, and it goes on today.  

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Love in an Age of Cat Litter

Our first three encounters were as follows: an anti-Valentine’s Day party, a Habitat for Humanity roof, and a church vestibule–closely followed by an apple tree in the Pizza Hut parking lot.  It was 2004.

I had gone to the party in February looking for him, a friend having baited me, “You’ve got to meet this guy.”  I wasn’t impressed, neither was he (he doesn’t even remember meeting me), and we went on with our Valentine’s Day disdain.  This might have been the end of the story, except…

That summer, Habitat was building three houses in a nearby neighborhood, and I was volunteering.  I wasn’t thrilled about heights, but it was time to put on the shingles.  Nail gun please.  He walked by on the sidewalk below.  “Who is that?” he asked, head foggy from a summer cold.  I waved and tried not to fall to my death.  “I need to meet her,” he resolved, and he would–but not until October.

October 15th, 2004.  An organization named Sojourners had organized a bus tour about faith, poverty and politics in the lead-up to that year’s presidential election.  There was an evening church service and I didn’t want to go.  “I’m too tired,” I whined to my friend, “I’ve had a long day.”

She wasn’t deterred.  “C’mon, I don’t want to go by myself.  We can leave early.  C’mon… please?”

It’s a good thing that I said yes.

I saw him as soon as we entered the church.  He was sitting in the vestibule, waiting for someone.  He smiled (I caught my breath) and we walked up to him.  When his friend came, we all went in together.  I don’t remember much about that service, but I do remember what his hands looked like holding the bulletin.

Afterwards I offered to drive everyone home, and he suggested a stop in the Pizza Hut parking lot.  “There’s this really great apple tree” he said.  He climbed it, ripping his coat in the process, and handed us apples that were indeed amazing.  Now my friend (bless her) was the one who was “tired” and insisted that we drop her off first.   I drove him up the hill to the house he had been renovating for three years, and his black cat came out to meet us.  There was a long pause.  “Would you like to come in and meet my roommates?”

Yes.

****

That was then, and this is now.

And now, the cat litter stinks.

Admittedly, it is my fault that the litterbox is in our bedroom.  Our most recent housemates came with a lovely dog who charmed everyone except for the cats.  Our third-floor bedroom was the one place in the house off-limits to the dog, and so this is where the cats took up residence.  In the summer, we left the window open and they used the tree for access, the world for their litterbox.  But winter was coming.

I began to imagine piles and stains in every corner of our room.  My mom had this problem with her cats, and I worried that it was some kind of family curse.  What to do?

I brought the litterbox upstairs.  The felines were grateful, but my husband (he would be the apple-picking guy from the first paragraph) was concerned.  What if we forgot to change the litter?  This was our bedroom after all.  Wasn’t there another way?

Oh no, honey.  This is the only solution.  It will be fine.  I will change it regularly.

(You can see what I’m doing instead.  Cat litter or blog post… cat litter or blog post?  Where is that laptop?)

After eight years of marriage, there is a lot of cat litter in our lives.  School loans to pay, uncapped markers all over the floor, and piles of faintly mildewed laundry that will need to be washed again.  We finally finished the porch, and now the two-by-fours that support the structure of our house are rotting off.  The dishwasher broke again (that was the best warranty we ever bought), and the lawn needs to be mowed before we lose one of our children in it.  Somebody needs to call the internet company and figure out why the auto-billpay stopped.  Somebody needs to put the girls to bed and figure out how to get them to stay there.    

Once upon a time, Cinderella married her prince, and then they were very, very tired for a decade.

****

It is true that I love my husband more now than I did eight years ago.  There are things-beautiful things-that I couldn’t have known about him during the giddy season of our relationship.

I couldn’t have known how he would support me during the lowest points of postpartum depression when I alternated between vacant stares and out-of-control sobbing for months.

I couldn’t have known what he would be like with our daughters–silly and patient, enthusiastic and firm– or how he would teach them to soak dried beans, make blueberry pancakes from scratch, and identify every edible plant in the urban landscape.

I couldn’t have known that he could design and build a tool shed, wood shed, porch and chicken coop on the weekends; or how proud I would be of his weekday work with neighborhood groups and vacant property.

I may have suspected all this eight years ago, but now I know it.  As I know him better, I love him more.

However.

This love, while wider and deeper, is no longer the felt experience of our daily lives, at least not in the way it was in 2004.  There is a lot of cat litter to contend with, and cat litter (bills, chores, screaming children, etc.) isn’t a great medium for romance.  We spend a lot less time staring into one another’s eyes, and a lot more time scheduling the family car.  And while I know that it would be impossible, perhaps even undesirable, to feel giddy for a decade; I mourn the loss of our fascination with one another.  I regret that I often take him for granted.

I forget that this all might not have been.

More than anything, this is what we have lost in eight years, and this is what I want to reclaim.  In 2004, I knew that our relationship was a miracle, that the amazing convergence of two people willing to say, “yes, as long as I live” to one another is not something that everyone gets to experience.  I might have skipped the anti-Valentine’s Day party, refused to go out on the Habitat roof, told my friend, “no, I’m sorry, I just can’t make it tonight.”  Would we have met anyway?  I don’t know, but if we had, it still would have taken a succession of blessed encounters to bring us together.

My husband is not a given, he is a gift; and I want to tattoo it on my hand:  This all might not have been.  But the past tense serves the present because the miracle has not yet ceased, indeed today together is also a gift.  Even if today is hard, even if we feel like we’re just surviving, even if we forget to say “wow” and “thank you.”  It is all a gift, not a given.  Every Single Day.

And so, to my husband, on this anniversary, I say:  I just changed the litterbox.  For you, babe.  For you.