We were discussing our family tree at dinnertime and as I concluded a little genealogy lesson for the kids I finished dramatically, “And the next chapter of the story is for you to write someday when you have children…” Middle piped up, “Do you know how many kids I am going to have? Ten!” “Well”, Older began, “You will have to talk to the guy you are going to marry and… “I’m gay!” Middle shouted in exasperation to her big brother. “Gay, gay, gay. I am going to marry a girl”, she said as if stating the obvious. This isn’t news to me, Middle has told me as much several times before, but I couldn’t help but smile at how comfortable she was with herself. Husband and I explained that we could use the gender neutral terms “spouse” or “partner” for the person that each child might marry in the future and that satisfied everyone. I am not at all worried about her finding a nice girl to settle down with someday. Finding a partner who wants ten kids, however, that might be a big challenge.
Baby is in a rapid-fire phase of language development. She counts everything now and is ever so pleased when things match: when, for example, we both wear our red patent shoes, or when she and her siblings are all enjoying an identical snack, or when she sees two daffodils blooming in the garden. Last night in the car I heard her little voice signing “We can hardly stand the wait, please Christmas don’t be late.” I haven’t played that song since last Christmas and back then she couldn’t sing those words, but now, unexpectedly and delightedly she remembers the words and belts them out. Baby also picked up on one of my phrases and now whenever something minor goes wrong (I drop a cookie on the floor), Baby will give me a sympathetic pat and tell me, “That happens.” I was wearing a new pair of earrings this week and she touched them to admire them and complimented me “Mama look cute!”. And the absolute best thing in the world is taht she now gives me spontaneous “I love yous”. ”I love you Mama” she says seriously as we settle down to nurse. ”Mama Baby friends” she tells me as we snuggle and read a story together. “Mama loves Baby, Baby loves Mama” she says with certainly and satisfaction.
Today marks an anniversary of sorts for me: eight continuous years of pregnancy and or nursing. There hasn’t been a day that has gone by in the past eight years that I haven’t physically nourished a child (or children). I’ve always mentally celebrated this anniversary. This phase of my life, as a mother of young children, has been deeply, viscerally satisfying. Baby is now two years and three months old. Her siblings nursed until three years, one month and two years, three months old, respectively. While Baby still nurses to sleep for every nap, at every bedtime, every morning when she wakes, and for scrapes both mental and physical, it is clear that the sun is setting on our nursing relationship. I would bet that if you offered her a cookie or a Wiggles DVD when she asked to nurse, she would often choose the snack or the movie at this point. There is every likelihood that this will be my last of these anniversaries.
I’ve been pregnant or mothering a newborn for so much of the past eight years that sometimes I am surprised when I look in my full-length mirror to see my non-pregnant frame. None of my pre-motherhood clothes fit me; although I am roughly the same size, my hips are considerably wider than they were before. This doesn’t bother me in the slightest; those hips have safely birthed three babies and then carried them for countless hours so that they could be close to me and yet still look out upon the world. The stretch marks will never entirely disappear, but they rather faint now, a ghost of babies. I’m ten pounds heavier now than I was before children, but it’s nicely distributed and doesn’t look so much like “baby weight” anymore. I am going to have to buy new bras soon. My spectacular nursing boobs are gradually morphing into a more demure state. I look in the mirror and see a woman who looks like neither her childless self or like the young mother she had grown so fond of. I am turning into someone new and while she is pretty enough, I am not quite used to her physical form yet.
My mind has changed form as well. So many descriptions of motherhood talk about losing oneself in one’s children. In mothering young children I have found myself. The work being pregnant and nursing is much more physical than mental and all those long days of taking my babies for walks and all those long nights of countless nursing sessions left me a lot of time to think. I no longer care nearly as much about what I “should” do or what people think of me. I have given my children every opportunity to be themselves and in giving them that freedom, I found that I gave it to myself as well. My passions in life have resurfaced. I read more now than I have since high school. I write. I run like no one is watching. I feel joy. I get angry. I have a spark of spontaneity. I feel self-confident again. I only wish I had the energy or the time or the money of my pre-motherhood self.
I think about a fourth child every day and I suspect that if I had a fourth I would think about a fifth and so on. Each of my children was wanted and desired with a fever that could only be quenched by their arrival. Less than an hour after Older was born I turned to Husband, absolutely high on post-birth endorphins, and exclaimed “I am doing that again!” Through colic and food allergies and all of our money going to the baby I never wavered in my desire for a second child. After Middle was born I didn’t give away a single baby item; I was absolutely sure I wanted a third child to be a part of our future. I no longer feel a burning desire for another child. Our dinner table doesn’t seem to be missing anyone, yet I can’t quite convince myself that it is full either. I’ve heard it said that “you just know when you are done”. But I don’t know. I don’t think this longing for another pregnancy, another nursling, another amazing person to know and love will ever disappear. I imagine I will be an eighty year old woman who dreams of my thirty year old pregnant self or of sleeping curled up with a warm baby with the sweet irreplicable smell of breastmilk on their breath, or of a baby taking his first wobbly steps into my arms and when I wake I will be sad that time in my life is so far gone.
There is every reason not to have more children. The most fundamental among them, that while I would love another baby, most of the time, I really don’t long for another child. I have other ambitions now, both as a practitioner and as a policy maker; of helping other parents and children succeed. But meaningful and satisfying as that work is, I don’t really believe that fulfillment of those dreams will ever eclipse this phase of my life.
It’s a tired old cliche that “High school (or college) is the best time of your life!” That was so far from my experience that it is laughable. Before having children I wondered when the “time of my life” would be. I know now; these past eight years have been it.
Middle has been at the same preschool since she was sixteen months old. Everyone there knew her as a boy, saw her as a boy dressed as a girl, and now knows her as a girl. At school, the only bathroom option is co-ed, without any stalls. There is no hiding the fact that Middle is a girl with a penis. Initially, I worried about that this exposure would make it hard for Middle’s classmates to accept her as a girl or that Middle herself might feel embarrassed about the parts that she was born with. Much to my surprise this hasn’t been the case and the kids in Middle’s class are getting a firsthand education in accepting multiple variations of gender identity. What we, and the teachers, struggle with with, however, is how to quickly explain the situation to the kids. A friend sent me a link to this article, “Mama, Ella has a Penis!“, and the author’s short explanation of gender identity for kids is so simple that I wanted to share it far and wide. From the article:
How to Talk to Your Kids About Gender Identity
Most people have either a penis or a vagina. Some people have both, but that’s pretty rare.
Most people with penises feel like boys.
Most people with vaginas feel like girls.
Some people feel like boys but they really like “girl stuff.”
Some people feel like girls but they really like “boy stuff.”
Some people with penises feel like girls. They are girls with penises. (My child falls squarely into this category.)
Some people with vaginas feel like boys. They are boys with vaginas.
Some people are sort of “in between” and don’t feel like a boy or a girl.
All these people are normal. All these people need to be loved and treated well, and we should respect what they tell us they are.
The “parts” that are covered up by our underpants are private. It’s no one’s business to ask about them or talk about them. (That goes for the parents, too!) If someone tells you she is a girl, she’s a girl. If he tells you he’s a boy, he’s a boy. If they say they’re both, they’re both!
I would argue that this is perfect explanation for adults as well. It is the adults who are the ones who ask us about our child’s genitalia. Rarely do other children care. We should trust that people, including children, know themselves well enough to be honest about who they are. A person who says they are a girl, is a girl…period. A person who says they are a boy, is a boy, period. And unless you are going to have a sexual relationship with the person or are their physician, then what’s in their pants (or skirt) is their business only.
I am failing spectacularly at my New Year’s resolution to write every day. I haven’t written here in over a month. I’ve written in my personal journal only a handful of times. Life has been difficult lately and although I know that “it’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to”; I don’t really want to write only to complain. I know from past experience that I tend to turn deeply inward when time are tough. I retreat into a cocoon that centers on my home and family. While isolation can be damaging for some people, I mostly find the quiet time to be healing. I have actually figured out a lot of things over the past couple of months; rather important things, among them:
- I am not my best self as a stay-at-home mother. I enjoy the lack of schedules and mostly enjoy the huge blocks of time I am spending with the kids. But….I am crushed by the feeling of complete and utter dependence on Husband. I hate having zero income and zero time to myself unless Husband is with the kids. I also constantly feel a lingering sense of failing myself for not having meaningful career at my age. While I think that being a stay at home mother is a completely valid and important ambition for many women, I never dreamed it for my future and I just can’t get past wanting more.
- I need exercise like some people need medication. I can’t skip a few days of exercise without negative consequences for my mental health. I just need to put on my running shoes and go. Period.
- I don’t need big, expensive things (or a big, fancy house) to be happy, however, I do need what I have to look nice. I cook, well, constantly and I have always wanted a larger, remolded kitchen. It turns out I don’t want such a thing as much as I thought. We’ve owned our house for eleven years and never had baseboards in the kitchen. What we did have was ugly damaged plaster (from where linoleum used to be coved up the wall). Over the holidays we had our stained, warped kitchen floor replaced with beautiful linoleum (the real stuff – made with linseed oil, not vinyl) and then coved up the wall. It looks stunning. We also had chipping, yellowing paint and I have, single handedly painted all of the kitchen and pantry walls a lovely fresh shade of blue. I am surprised how much more I like my kitchen now that it looks fantastic. I am applying this same idea to the rest of our house, my car (turns out my eight year old car is much more pleasant to be in when it is regularly vacuumed and washed), and my clothes and it has made a huge difference in my satisfaction with what I have!
- I do not want to be a nurse. I had thought that nursing might be a good option for me. Lactation consultants who are also RNs have many more job opportunities. A certified nurse midwife is a very attractive career to me but I do not want to go to nursing school. I simply don’t think like a nurse. This option is no longer on the table.
- I am too old not to be happy. I am willing to work hard. I am willing to start at the bottom and work my way up (painful as it is for me). I am willing to do what I need to do, take the classes I need to take (no matter how inane), in order for me to have a meaningful career. But I am not willing to spend large chunks of my life unhappy. I came upon this realization while considering nurse-midwifery as a career. Many nurse midwifery programs require working as a labor and delivery nurse (in a hospital) prior to entering midwifery school. And I just can’t do it. I so fundamentally disagree with so many hospital birth practices that I could never, in good conscience, carry them out. But this realization is much larger than my career. Fundamentally, I don’t want to live for a “happier future”; I did that for over a decade. I want a “happy today”.
There is certainly some truth in the the tired old cliches of “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “Adversity builds character”, but I am pretty tired of all this forced enlightenment. The universe doesn’t seem to be letting up on me though. I am going to try my best to write here, to write about my problems in a way that maybe will help me and perhaps others because those problems aren’t going away. I needed some quiet time, but now it’s time to talk.
The pendulum of my moods oscillates so rapidly these days I feel a bit like I am thirteen years old again.
One moment I am getting ready to go for a run with the girls at 10:00 am. I haven’t needed to shower yet; I’ve been wearing my workout clothes all day. I squeezed us fresh orange juice to go with our breakfast. We made muffins earlier in the morning. It is fun to bake with the girls; sneakily teaching Middle math and reading as we follow the recipe. We run and it feels so good to be outside moving my body; getting stronger and running longer than I ever have before. After the run we might go to the park, or come home and make muffins, or go to the store, or plant dozens more bulbs in the yard. I’m free! I have to take care of the kids, of course, but most of the decisions are mine to make. No one is telling me where to be or when (at least until it is time to pick up Older from school). I revel in my luck at life turing out so well.
A couple of hours later it is nap time for Baby (in our room) and “quiet” time for Middle (in the kids’ room). I am trying to get hands and faces washed and tiny bladders emptied before the appointed hour and the girls are having none of it. Middle is wailing about the injustice of “always” making her wash her hands while Baby is steadfastly maintaining that she has no need to pee; four hours since her last trip to the toilet. Baby naps in my bed and I am not about to let her flood it so we reach a standoff in the bathroom; me with a diaper in one hand and Baby refusing to have a diaper put on her, or to pee, on the other. Crying and a wrestling match ensue. Finally Middle is ensconced in her room with cars and books and Barbies and I am trying to nurse Baby. I don’t know what Middle is doing in her room but it is the opposite of quiet . Baby finds all the noise highly amusing. She won’t be sleeping any time soon. Middle creeps into our room to tell me matter-of-factly that she has an ear infection. I don’t doubt it; she’s had a lingering cold for a month – it was inevitable that it would settle in either her lungs or her ears. I used to take international business trips, but I guess a visit to urgent care is now on our agenda. Baby, seeing Middle, is now gleeful that nap time must be over. I give Middle a Motrin and guide her back to her room. My gentle voice from this morning now has a stern edge to it. It takes another 45 minutes to get Baby to sleep. I put her down on our bed. I stagger out of the room hungry and cranky; I had fed the girls lunch but had not fed myself. I heat up last night’s leftovers and sit down at the computer to tackle my ever growing inbox when Middle appears. She is bored and after an hour in her room I can’t blame her. Quiet time is over. She wants to talk about planning her birthday party (three months away) and to put toy cars in a line with her. I despair of ever getting anything besides parenting done. I’m bored too. I wanted to read an article on increasing breastfeeding in socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. Instead I will be discussing the merits of Hello Kitty. I fear that my brain is atrophying away.
Later that day we pick up Older from school. The kids want an afternoon snack. I prefer to eat my dessert in the afternoon (rather than after dinner) and so because I really want one I suggest making milkshakes for snack. Older and Middle declare me “best mom ever” and Baby claps her hands together in joy as I get out the blender. I sit outside in the warm winter sunshine and watch my kids frolic happily in our big backyard while I sip a chocolate milkshake. I remember that if I was still working in my windowless basement office I wouldn’t have seen the sun since the morning and that I would just now, at this time of day, be starting to wrap things up and mentally steel myself for the hour and half (or more) commute home. Life is good.
An hour later I am going through the graded homework that Older brought home and I am telling him for the one millionth time that he needs to remember to put his name on his paper. I am simultaneously trying to shepard Older through his homework, make dinner, and keep Middle from squishing Baby all the while listing to the three of them whine about how hungry they are. I see the cereal bowl that Husband left on the counter this morning and the markers that Baby has strewn about the den and the little bits of paper that Middle has made into “confetti” and Older’s backpack lying like roadkill on the living room floor. I feel as if I am nothing but a maid cleaning up after other people all day long. I would like to think that I am productive; cooking, cleaning, doing laundry. But is it productive when what I do never, ends, never changes? I used to do research, produce reports that other people actually read – good ones. Now it feels as though I am shoveling snow in an endless blizzard.
It’s nearing bedtime and it’s time for stories. I think that Middle has been a bit bored with our books lately and in a flash I ask her if she wants to start a chapter book; that I will read to her from every night. She’s intrigued as I pull Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House in the Big Woods” off the shelf. Older is excited; he’s heard this story before and remembers if fondly. Older and Middle curl up with me on the couch and with my words we are transported away to a forest filled with wolves and an attic full of pumpkins. All is calm and content in our own little house. We talk about how luxurious our house is compared to Larua’s, how amazing it is that we can basically eat any food we want at any time, and how many toys and books we have to enjoy. I feel incredibly lucky. What a wonderful life I have: free from want, from hunger.
Life as a stay at home mother by day/student by night still feels surreal. I truly do alternate, every day, between elated freedom and resentful boredom. I’ve even coined a term for my new emotional state: “breedom”. The breedom certainly beats my emotional state last year at this time; just plain miserable. I don’t miss my soul sucking job, per se, but I do miss working. I crave that imperfect
balance between motherhood and a professional life. This school year is already half done. Next year at this time Older and Middle will go to school five days a week while Baby will likely go to daycare three days a week. I will be in a lactation consultant program; thinking about and writing about breastfeeding all the time as well as doing clinical rotations in a hospital twice a week. I don’t think I’ll be bored anymore. But I won’t be so free either.
Older has been dropping some not so subtle hints about his desire for a bigger house. We were talking, in passing, about moving someday and I said “there will come a day when we’re going to want more space” and he commented without missing a beat “we could use some more space now”. This conversation took place just after Christmas when horizontal surfaces in our house were still scattered with Christmas presents that had not yet found a place. Or more accurately, had not yet evicted some other item from its home to take its spot. Older is right, our house is full; very full. My mother gave the girls new winter coats for Christmas and they were promptly returned, the girls already have winter coats and we simply don’t have enough room for two (not to mention the fact that we live somewhere where they only need coats at all about a dozen times a year). I am fond of saying “A place for everything, and everything in it’s place” which Husband likes to follow with “And every place has a thing.” At night, Older likes it when his sisters fall asleep before him and I, none too gracefully, climb up into his bunk bed and we talk. Lately he has been heaving a sigh as we talk and telling me “I would love to have my own room.” The apple does not fall far from the tree and ever the future planner he is already planning out what his hypothetical solitary room would look like. When I told him that it’s going to be awhile – like years – he replied that he didn’t need a big room, only big enough for a bed.
I am not going to lie. I would love for each child to be able to have their own bedroom and for us to all sit at the kitchen table at once (it holds three). The worst moments of little house living are in the middle of the night when one of the big kids gets up to refill their water bottle or ask us to tuck them back under the blankets and they inadvertently wake up the baby. Oh how I wish then for a house where Baby could have her own room. All that said, I’ve been feeling unsettled lately about my dreams of a bigger house. I look around our house and I know that by the standards of most of the world we are so incredibly wealthy. We have enough food on our table every night that I complain about how much food the kids (Older) have rejected or dropped on the floor. In our house, at this very moment, are seven devices that can access the internet. We have more books than I can count. We might not have central heating but we have a fireplace, a stack of wood, and warm blankets piled on every bed. I know that our getting a bigger house won’t directly be taking resources away from any one else in any other part of the world who has to make do with less and yet I don’t know how to reconcile my wants with my needs. I also like some of the aspects of living in a little house: little mortgage, little bit to clean, kids who have to learn how to get along and share a little space together.
It’s a totally moot point anyway right now. I don’t have a freaking job! I have at least a couple of years to feel alternating guilt over not providing enough space for my kids or guilt over being an American resource hog.