My oldest child turned six the same month that my youngest was born, giving us four kids under the age of barely six. If you do the math, that means I was pregnant for thirty-six months out of seventy-two, or nearly seventy-five percent of the time in the first six years of being a mom. I had two babies and a toddler at any given time, then a preschooler and two toddlers and a baby. People gawked openly when we walked down the street, asked if they were “all mine” in the grocery store and constantly told me I “had my hands full,” as if I needed clarification from passers-by. Twice that I remember, strangers--both older women--told me in a conspiratorial whisper, “You know, there’s a way to fix that, it’s called birth control...” Both times I was too stunned to do more than smile politely, as though they’d shared a cooking tip or complimented my hair.
It was a choice, of course; we actually had heard of birth control. But we wanted those babies (in my case, this was partly because of a steady diet of The Waltons reruns in childhood), and we felt lucky with the birth of each of them. We had friends who had trouble conceiving, and I felt blessed to the point of embarrassment with each pregnancy, humbled only by the months of puking and the hard, hard work of caring for several small people.
We were something of a spectacle when the kids were little; an entourage. Even our family thought we were crazy. They loved each baby but thought we’d had too many too soon, that my hair would turn gray in my early thirties and I would “lose my sense of self” while raising them. Family members would casually point out the high cost of living and raising a child, the increasingly absurd cost of college, and the dark circles under my eyes during the nursing-in-the-night months.
People believe what you tell them to believe about themselves; if you constantly tell a child she is beautiful and smart, she will believe she is beautiful and smart. Tell a person he is lazy and rude and he becomes lazy and rude. In the same way, if you tell a new mom or a young mother she is exhausted, that it is so hard to have a newborn, that she “has her hands full” and is overwhelmed, she will believe it. My family and friends, the culture at large and total strangers may have meant well, but they messed with my mind. There were toys and diapers and 2AM feedings and, in the case of my third baby, no husband around to help, as he was in Iraq for the first nine months of the baby’s life. Everyone felt sorry for me, even when he returned and especially when we had a fourth, so I believed--temporarily--that those were difficult times.
Then I had an epiphany while watching Curious George. It was the one where the toy store has a contest to see who can guess how many gumballs are in the jar, and George has to learn a little math to put in a good entry. I was in sweats, holding the baby and watching the show with the other kids, all of us wondering would he win? Was two hundred and thirty five a good guess, and would he be able to buy the toy boat? When it hit me: I am happy. Look at these little faces, so interested in the show, so innocent. They adore me, and after this we are going to go to the park, and during nap time I’m going to read one of my favorite books to the older ones and then let them play with play-dough while I read one to myself. I’m happy. I’m not getting paid for this, but I’m not having to pay someone else to do it either, and I am totally in charge. They make me smile and laugh, there is no angry boss or millions of dollars of someone else’s money at stake, no deadlines that matter to anyone but us, and no commute. Yes, this is kind of hard sometimes, but I’m so freaking happy.
I felt a little guilty or embarrassed about that; I had been told I wasn’t supposed to be happy. I had a Master’s Degree, and I was picking Cheerios out of the carpet! Shouldn’t I be sad about that, or even ashamed? No. I wish someone had just said “No. Be happy.” Because--and this is a cliché, I know--those years are so fleeting, and so great. Now the oldest is about to drive and the youngest is a spunky third-grader, and it’s still great, but different. Those tiny hands get bigger and don’t curl around your finger. Those soft, round cheeks get rougher, and then they get acne or stubble. That innocent little face that wanted George the monkey to win the contest so badly will come home and tell you, laughing, that they are reading Siddhartha in English and the dude spent twenty years with a prostitute, and the book was pretty graphic. Having older kids means your heart gets a good workout every day, like a tough spin class where you think you can’t do it and then you do and when it’s over, you’re like man, I feel great, but that was not easy, and you’re a little afraid of the next one. It’s great and it’s different and it’s a whole other kind of adventure, but not the peaceful one where you get to watch cartoons in sweats and play funny-face-freeze-tag and read books about purple plastic purses while your audience giggles. You have to pick Cheerios out of the carpet and get up in the night and, okay, yes, I’ve been thrown up on a few times, but I have also never felt so loved and powerful, so important and funny and adored, so sure of my place and that it was truly making a difference in the world.
I did not lose my sense of self when I had babies, I found it. My capacity for love grew exponentially, which feels a little like a love-steroid, and lasts forever. I felt almost badly about it then, because I wasn’t “using my brains” or out making money, the house was not decorated in a Pintrest-worthy way, and the kids did not have tiny matching outfits. Strangers apparently saw me as a reproduction machine. I wish somebody had said on the very first day (no, better yet, the fifth month or so) of my first child’s life what I finally realized, a few years later, on my own: screw them. This is awesome. This is happiness. Hold on tight and enjoy the ride.