This is a guest post from my friend Jen Pelling. Eileen and I lived in intentional community with Jen and her husband (and a few varying single folks) for two years while I was in seminary. It was during that time that she gave birth to her first daughter and began to experience the transition she describes here.
About the author: Jen, who blogs at www.longdaysandshortyears.wordpress.com, is currently breaking up a fight over who gets to use the green crayon and for how long. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a very cute husband, two preschool girls, four housemates, two cats, five chickens and a dog named Maggie. When the children have finally learned to share without intervention, she will write more and possibly clean the bathroom.
It was one of those ‘open-mouth-insert-foot’ kind of moments.
I was sitting at a table with fifteen other women. A diverse group in just about every sense of the word, we were gathered to study the Bible and share our perspectives on the ancient beloved words. Something about having children came up, and we were careful, aware of the emotional minefields surrounding this topic for some of our members. We were careful, that is, until I blurted out,
“I would say that having children has ruined my life.”
There was a surprised silence and then women began to murmur. I heard someone explain to her neighbor, “Oh, she doesn’t mean ruined, she just means that having children changed her life.”
I disagreed and tried to explain. “No, I mean ruined.” “Ruined,” I emphasized, “but if you gave me the choice to go back to life before children, I wouldn’t do it. Really, I wouldn’t.” I meant the second part, but my original declaration still hung in the air. A dear friend gave me a sharp look. “I hope that you don’t say that to your kids.”
And I thought, ‘I have got to come up with a better way to explain this.’
Okay, ‘ruined’ may be a bit extreme. And no, I’ve never said that to my kids. It’s just that ‘changed’ isn’t nearly strong enough to describe the massive shift that comes with the birth or adoption of young human beings. There is, there really is, a ‘ruining’ of your previous life, but there is also the gift of new life–for you as well as for the child. It’s a strange thing, possibly as strange as these words,
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Yes biblical scholars, I know that Jesus wasn’t specifically talking about having children in this passage, but as I have tried to follow Him through the bends and curves of my own life, I know that nothing–absolutely nothing–has illustrated this paradox of losing-life-in-order-to-find-life better than the daily joys and struggles of caring for children. They are the hardest and best thing to ever happen to me… living paradoxes that demand more than I have to give, and then give more than I possibly demand.
They are, in the words of one of my favorite albums, a beautiful mess. And this is also what they have made of the life formerly known as ‘mine’.
I’m pretty sure that I will never find the right word to describe this process, and so I will turn to metaphor. Here’s one that I’ve been turning over in my head for some time: Having a baby is like moving to another country.
Having a baby is like moving to another country.
First, the preparations. You study the guidebooks. Ask friends who have been there about their experiences. Make lists and then gather all the stuff you’ll need. Prepare and wait, prepare and wait… you try to imagine what it will be like. Of course, if you’re having or adopting a baby, your departure time is an estimate, but you’d better be ready when it comes!
And then you’re in the air, on your way. It may be a long or short flight, it’s hard to anticipate the turbulence, but at some point you touch down. Welcome to a foreign place–the land of your baby. Not generalized ‘babyland’ mind you, but the land of your very specific baby, with his or her very specific mix of traits, proclivities and desires.
And good luck learning the language.
There is a kind of culture shock that takes place for new parents, and it’s no wonder. Everything that you took for granted before–going to the grocery store, sleeping through the night, getting a quick shower–is now complicated by new rules that you have to figure out as you go. Everything changes. It is exciting, exotic, and exhausting. Culture shock is no joke, especially when it’s coupled with some significant jet lag.
And then, day by day, somehow, you adapt. You grow. You learn the language. You become more and more proficient at navigating your new land. People visit you and you are proud to show them around. There are ups and downs, but your adjustment is real. The new place and your new identity within it becomes part of who you are.
Everything is different, and so are you.
And now I have a question for you… did your beautiful and painful adjustment to your new culture ‘ruin’ your old life? Of course it did. You can never go back to where and who you were before. But would you ever want to? Perhaps at some moments. Perhaps when the child wakes up again in the middle of the night, perhaps when the new defiant phase seems to be lasting forever, perhaps when you wish that getting an hour to yourself wasn’t so darn difficult. But overall? Would you ever want to go back?
We are in California as I write, visiting family, and our oldest daughter has been sick for days. She is hypoglycemic (we think) and the combination of messed-up schedule (i.e. we don’t know when to feed her) and the demands of her immune system have been brutal on her poor little body… and the coughing and whining is virtually nonstop. My husband and I are at the end of ourselves, which leads us to pray more.
Last night she was up at 2 a.m. again, and I got her spoonfuls of sticky tylenol syrup again, and sang her to sleep again, and prayed that the coughing would stop… you got it, again. I was almost delirious as I am a person Who Needs Sleep, but my husband is also sick so I was the night parent on call. Miracle of miracles, she fell back asleep.
When she awoke (another miracle… at 8:30) she called for me, and I crawled into bed with her. She snuggled into my chest, right into the place where her almost-5 year old body fits perfectly, and we just laid there together. We laid there for a few minutes, and then we began the day.
And you know what? I’m tired. And she isn’t out of the woods yet. Today there will be whining and tonight there will be a wake-up. I will be grumpy and mean, and then I will pray… over and over again. But then she will snuggle into my chest. She will say Mama. At some point, tomorrow or maybe the next day, she will act silly again. We will laugh together.
And in the ruining of my life I will find joy.