People ask me all the time, after five babies, for the best advice I have to give those planning to start a family. I think they want to know what kind of stuff to buy. Onesies? Car seats? Cribs? Nose sucker-outer hootie-doos. Those things are important, sure. You need them. Register for them. People will buy them for you, but they aren’t the answer to the big questions. Not even close. Are you ready? This is it. After 18 years of parenting this is the pinnacle of my experience. This is my holy grail of wisdom for you:
You do not need to be sure about whether or not you will love because you will, I promise. Love is a given. What you must decide, what you must be absolutely 100% sure of, is whether or not you are ready to have your heart broken. These people you want to create will shatter you into a million pieces, over and over, relentlessly, and in so many different ways. You will break under the pressure of intense joy. You will not be able to bear the bittersweet sadness at the knowledge that they seem to grow up in the time it takes to breathe in and out. (Oh, don’t worry, you’ll be infinitely proud of the adults they’ll become. That will bring a whole new kind of sweet heartbreak.) You will suffer every illness they endure in fear and anguish and you’ll be crushed at the pain they’ll feel when they make the inevitable mistakes that are part of growing up. Through nearly every minute of it you’ll worry, “Am I doing this right?” Be sure that you can handle constant devastation in both good and bad ways. This parenting thing is hard! Be sure!
My mother often said, as many moms do, “You just wait until you have your own kids. Then, you’ll know.” When I was a kid it seemed like an ominous threat. Know what?! As I got older I understood and it wasn’t that I didn’t believe my mom; she was right about a lot of things. I just wasn’t prepared for how right she was. When my oldest child was born I was completely shocked that my heart could live outside my body. The doctor took it, in the form of my newborn daughter, wrapped it up, and handed it to me. I was never in control of it again. It beat to the tune of her heart. When she was happy so was I and when she was sad, I was devastated. When she screamed all through the night for seven days straight, well that’s another story, bless her little heart. The first time she looked at me, my heart broke and it was the greatest experience I’ve ever had. She changed me in so many amazing ways. She made me better than I was and she made me want to be better than I ever thought I could be. On that day I thought I knew. My daughter showed me the bittersweet heartbreak of pure joy. I had no clue the ride was just getting started.
She, and the next four boys, would teach me lessons about love and the disaster a mother’s heart can endure that I didn’t even know existed. I’m sitting here smiling through tears, even now, as I remember the smells of the hospital on the day each one of my five children were born. It hurts my heart how fast that time went by. I loved cradling that perfect little baby face next to mine and I cried broken hearted tears of love and happiness over each of them. I have wept for my children’s pain in emergency rooms while we waited for x-rays and I’ve prayed for a baby I couldn’t save. I’ve screamed with joy at their triumphs and I’ve sobbed myself to sleep at night knowing I could not kiss away their own broken hearts. Sometimes I just watch them sleep and try not to miss It. Their childhood is so fleeting.
I worked hard at not blinking, but still… oh, my friend. Please, be sure.
As they’ve grown into teens I’ve questioned everything I did or didn’t do and wondered why parenting has to be so hard. Those are the nights I cried gut wrenching tears because my beautiful angels broke my heart. I know, I have hoped anyway, that they don’t mean what they say. I stick to my guns in order to raise them up right. To give them a good foundation to go out in the world and be the awesome people I knew they would be the very first day they looked into my eyes and first broke my heart.
The journey of parenthood is the greatest and most rewarding I’ve ever taken. I would do it again and again and again. Last night, after I wrote most of these words I sat and held my child while she cried over a hurt I couldn’t fix and I cried with her. It all came flooding back to me. Every moment of her life from start to right now. I remembered the very moment the doctor handed her, my heart, to me and it shattered in my hands.