It’s here, friends. I didn’t really believe people when they told me this would happen, but all of those older mothers were right. They were actually right. This week, my life is transitioning from spending most of my day at home with small children to most of my day on my own. Three of my children started school today. The youngest begins four-day preschool next week.
The year I left work to come home, Barack Obama was a freshman senator from Illinois and the housing market was at the height of the post 9/11 boom. I was a charismatic evangelical living in Alabama who had waited, foot tapping, for years for the baby I felt certain God owed me.
My water broke with my oldest son on the evening of my last scheduled day of work. That moment not only opened the door to motherhood. It also marked the moment I took on mothering as my profession.
I felt compelled to stay home with my baby. I couldn’t bring myself to do anything else. But now I can see the driving force behind that overwhelming emotion was fear. Fear of missing his childhood, fear he would feel isolated and alone. Fear that I would fail somehow if I tried to do both. I approached motherhood with all of the energy of Judy Hopps: I would do twice as much as every other mom, twice as fast and even better. I would conquer mothering with all of the ferocity I’d brought to every other assignment in my life.
We all know how this story goes.
That first year with my baby was one of the happiest and most peaceful of my life. My dream had been realized. A healthy baby boy perched on my hip nearly every minute of the day, and I loved it. All was bliss.
Then I got pregnant again. The next year, I had another baby boy. A baby boy who screamed and would not sleep for the entire first year of his life. All of a sudden, I could not live up to my own ideals anymore. I came nose-to-nose with my own humanity, my inadequacies and limitations. I limped through that year, ashamed. I was certain I was letting everyone down, that failure was seared across my forehead. Even now, after all that has happened, I look back on that year as one of the hardest of my life.
Thankfully, a handful of devoutly Catholic women saved me. They taught me to embrace chaos, to let go of my image of perfection. They believed being open to new life meant welcoming crumbly toddlers and exhausted mothers with both arms into their own toy-strewn lives. They happily held my screaming infant for an hour so that I could sit in Starbucks and stare at the wall. They cheered for the 4th, 5th, 6th pregnancies among them, and invited me to wash dishes as unto the Lord, to thank Him for the sippy cups found behind the couch, because they were reminders of the ability to meet the needs of little hands and mouths. Their generous spirits were water and breath for my parched, diminished soul, and their lives shaped mine.
Without that group, I am certain I would not have had the courage to have more kids. Thanks be to God for them.
Then another baby – a precious little girl who embodied peace from the moment she joined us in my womb – came into our lives. Twenty months later, another son surprised us all. After that, life happened at a pace that is hard to comprehend. In short, our lives fell apart. We moved across the country when my youngest was four months old. Eight weeks later, my husband was in an accident that changed our lives.
There were years of survival, followed by years of realizing we weren’t surviving. Actually – we weren’t making it at all. The only way to find life again was to let old dreams die.
Now, inexplicably, we are here. All of those days – all those hard, exhausting, beautiful, unrelenting days – are over. We are full of new dreams now, all of us. That newbie senator is leaving his tenure as President soon, and the market … well, it’s certainly not what it was back then.
Neither am I. I am leaving this season a completely different person than I was when I began. I have depths of strength I never imagined. I can make plates while feeling desperately ill, I can muster patience and tenderness in the middle of my own blinding exhaustion or fear. I can host a birthday party hours after my mother’s body is discovered, and I can do … everything, really, while nursing a baby.
But I am also much weaker than I would have ever imagined. I have crumpled in desperation at the sight of children’s books on the floor. I have folded – I mean really lost my shit – in the face of a petulant child. When I didn’t drink and eat enough, I’ve gotten so weak I’ve had no choice but to go to bed and rest, or pass out on the floor. I also know now that I am terrible terrible terrible at keeping my emotions in check when my child is in the hospital. I have seen the exact place where my rope ends, the spot beyond which I simply can’t move. I am much more limited than I ever imagined ten years ago.
What I have learned is that, just like Judy Hopps, I will fail. At times I will even do harm – sometimes out of ignorance, other times out of human weakness. It will happen. Because it turns out my children don’t have a perfect mother. Instead they got stuck with a human being. And my kids are not perfect either. They are humans, too. Frail and wrong and beautiful and good and limited and full of depths of strength I never imagined, all at once, just like me.
Unlike the mother I was 10 years ago, we’re no longer performing for one another. We’re a family, and both our strengths and weaknesses are woven into the others’ lives. Those long days at home are over, but our relationships are just beginning. We’re young still, all of us, and just as the last season has shaped us indelibly, the next one will, too. And the next, and the one after that. There is no arriving, no moment where we stop growing and forming around one another. No moment where we stop learning how to be part of a whole.
We’re all in this together, forging ahead.