Our kids are 15, 13, 12, and 10. That means at one point in our lives, they were 5, 3, 2, and barely out of the womb. When Mary Claire was born, Gus was not yet walking. When George (the baby) was born, Sam (the oldest) was still in preschool.
People ask how we did it. How did we manage with 4 kids under the age of 5? And my answer? We just did. It was what we knew, what we created, what our lives were all about. Parents of quads do it. We know a family who just had their 9th kid. NINE! Makes us look like lightweights in comparison. And that mother of nine? She’s always smiling. Always.
I was not always smiling.
Many have asked how hard it was to go from one to two, from two to three, from three to four. And here’s my experience… zero to one was the hardest. Zero to one rocked my world. When Sam was born, I was a lunatic. I was afraid of every germ, of every disease, of every nuclear holocaust that had ever been threatened. I was entirely sure he’d choke on his food, fall out of his crib and directly on his soft spot, be eaten by wolves. And meningitis? It haunted me. I don’t know why. But every time he ran a fever, I was SURE. I was ill-prepared to be a mother. I’d always hated babysitting (ask Chandra, she has first-hand experience with all my failures as a sitter), had always been more of a tomboy than a nurturer. I played with basketballs more than I ever played with dolls. I didn’t know what to do with a baby, I only knew that I loved him with a ferocity that scared the shit out of me.
Then came Gus. People asked, “How do you love the second baby as much as the first?” And that always seemed a bit silly to me. Because you do. You love them with the same fierceness, with the same all-encompassing power. Your heart expands with each baby. It has a limitless capacity to love. And, of course, Gus made sure we noticed his arrival. He and Glenn Close? They would not be ignored.
Next came sweet Mary Claire. That finger-sucking, pink-wearing, smiling-all-the-time baby. We had her pretty quickly after Gus. I was afraid I’d chicken out if we didn’t keep going, and I knew I wanted six kids. (My uterus made me stop at four, but that’s a story for another day…) At this point, we went from man-to-man to zone defense. It’s a bit of an adjustment to be outnumbered by those who can’t wipe their own tushes, but like everything else in life, you learn. You adapt. You keep the other team from scoring too often.
And George. Georgeous. Baby George. I was as big as a barn when he made his debut. Waddling up and down the preschool stairs, carrying Gus in one arm and Mary Claire in the other so they wouldn’t go plummeting down into the dark basement abyss. Because “my uterus was tired,” we knew George would be our last.
Those early days, quite honestly, are a blur. Gus was our baby who didn’t sleep. We tried everything with that one — we swaddled him into his carseat and put his carseat into his crib so he’d get used to being in his room. I cried a lot back then. (Not really all that different from today.) I remember pleading with him as I sat on the wooden floor beside his crib, trying desperately not to curl up and go to sleep under his Paddington mobile. “Please go to sleep,” I’d beg. “Please. Please. Please. Just for an hour. Just one hour.”
In the beginning, we were all about survival. While Chris was at work or at IU (let’s all remember that these are the years during which he got his master’s degree, then his doctorate…) or supervising a school activity, the kids and I were on our own. I’d strap Gus and Mary Claire into the double jogging stroller, load George up in the Baby Bjorn, give Sam a piggy-back ride, and we’d be on our way… to the grocery store, to the mall, to a restaurant. Those were the two-cart days: when shopping at Marsh, I’d push a cart for the groceries and pull a cart that contained all the kids. We weren’t fast, but we were a sight to behold.
The nighttime routine was akin to a marathon. One in the bath tub, one out. Another one in, another one out. Lotion, powder, diapers, PJs, books, songs, bed. Chris and I would tag-team it all. Unless, of course, he was at IU. Then it would just be me.
I remember crying at my beloved uncle/doctor’s office because Sam stopped drinking milk at one point. “Is he going to die?” I asked. “Are all of his bones going to break? Will he be crippled with osteoporosis by the time he’s ten?” And my sweet, straight-talking doctor/uncle said this to me, “Honey Baby, there are children in this world who eat nothing but rice and fish eyeballs. Shit survives.” It may seem a bit crass to you, but if you knew my uncle/doctor, you’d know that it wasn’t. It came straight from his tough-love heart, and it became my mantra… when they boycotted vegetables, when we ate too many McDonald’s cheeseburgers… when breakfast consisted of Pop-Tarts and donuts… when they skinned their knees and bruised their hearts. Shit survives. It is the beauty of this crazy life.
Those early years were the physical ones. Everything we did involved a high degree of manpower. We’d carry our gear around like pasty, overweight Sherpas. High chairs, carseats, diaper bags, Pack and Plays. By the end of the day, we’d fall into bed, exhausted. My muscles ached, my legs were tired, my arms were sore. Every single moment, I was spent.
We set lots of kid parameters back then. It was a necessity, not a luxury. By age five, you were in charge of your own wiping, seat-buckling, milk pouring, and buttons. Those might not have been our most hygienic days, but little by little, they became more manageable. Some mornings we even made it to school on time.
The physical days have since morphed into the mental ones. Now that our kids are teens, tweens, and pre-teens, they take care of their own physical needs. They wipe themselves (I don’t actually check that, but I’m definitely banking on it), wash their own hair, make their own lunches, load their own backpacks. But they also come to us with middle school drama and full-blown teenage grunting. There’s either too much communication (Mary Claire… talking… nonstop… All. Day. Long.) or none at all. Parenting teenagers requires less physical stamina, but the mental prowess of a seasoned Zen Master.
When doors are slammed and texts go unanswered and eyes are rolled, I want to yell, “Don’t you remember that I offered you MY BOOBS at all hours of the day and night ON DEMAND??” But actually voicing that statement would probably do more harm than good. And with all the parenting missteps we’ve taken thus far, we’d just have to add additional money to the therapy fund. And there’s never enough money to go around, anyway. Have I mentioned how expensive these babies are? Don’t think you’re getting a raise when you no longer have to pay for daycare. Because soon thereafter come book rentals and sports fees and lacrosse equipment and hollow-legged teenager snack rations and car insurance and college tuition and weddings with open bars. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
There are two things, I believe, that have sustained us — Chris and me — in this parenting journey…
1. Love and respect for each other.
2. Unconditional love for our kids.
That doesn’t mean as a family that we always like each other. Sometimes, in fact, I want to jump on a plane and fly far, far away to a private beach that contains nothing more than sunshine, a library, a full-service bar, a cabana boy, and no cell signal.
But we always love each other. Ice cream before dinner is negotiable. Love is not.
There are so many mountains we can die on — the key is choosing which ones truly matter. You want to cut your long, beautiful hair off? It’s just hair. You want to wear plaid shorts with a striped shirt? It will make for a great graduation day picture later. You want to go on a date when you’re 13? Umm. No.
We haven’t always gotten it right. I’m not even sure we’re 50/50. But my best advice to new parents in the throes of the physical years is to breathe.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat.
Remember every possible detail. Write it down.
Take time to nurture your marriage/partnership — it was you and your spouse first and foremost, it will be you and your spouse after the kids have grown and left home.
Trust yourselves. Your own instincts are better than any advice you can read in a book.
Find a mentor who has been there before. Watch, learn, grow. Thank God for my sister and my cousins who blazed the Mama trail before me.
Never say never. I was the perfect parent before I had kids. Just ask Carrie.
You’re not the only one who can “do it the right way.” Let your partner take over. Let the grandparents spoil them. Hire babysitters. It takes a village. Sometimes it takes an entire country.
It will get easier. And then it will get harder again. Life is like that. There will not be a day when you’ll wake up and say, “We’ve arrived!” (Although the moment your youngest straps himself successfully into his own carseat will feel that way.) Little victories become big wins. Celebrate them. And know that new challenges will come. They are, in fact, peeking around the corner right now. Teenagers are a breed of their own. They stink, they’re sullen, they’re messy, they’re secretive, they’re moody. And they’re also fun and witty and smart and full of life and wonder and promise.
Those babies? The ones whose noses you’re wiping and whose shoes you’re tying? They blissfully, magically, wondrously came from you. But they’re not you. Remember that. They’re individuals. They’re human beings with their own little brains and their own little quirks and their own little wants and needs and dreams. Nurture the shit out of that. They may not be who you expected them to be, but they’re perfectly themselves.
Give them a safe place to land, always. The babies, the toddlers, the teens. They all need love and kindness and reassurance at home. And when you’re done yelling because you’ve — once again — lost your shit, make sure they know that despite your craziness, you still love them. You have always loved them. You will always love them.
Let them know that you will make mistakes, but that you will always have their best interests at heart.
Expect the best from them. Not your best, but their best. Vast difference.
Love them. Love them. Love them. Kiss them while they’ll still let you. Hug them. Sing to them. Read to them. Laugh with them. Let them see you cry. Then they’ll know that all those emotions are okay, are normal, are expected, are perfect parts of our human imperfection.
You may not think you’re doing it right, Mamas and Daddies, but you are. Oh, you are. Just look at those precious faces. There’s nothing wrong about that.
Get dirty. Get clean. Get grateful.
Fall down. Stand back up.
Do the work. Embrace the reward.
Hang in there. Sleep when you can. Drink when you must. Hide a secret stash of Oreos. Pull up your britches and get on with it. Hang on tight. Let go when it’s safe.
Enjoy the ride.