My story begins with this: I have been a mother for almost half my life.
(The above photo is from the cover of a photo book they made for my birthday…they managed to find pictures with me in them!)
Let me rewind first.
When I was young, I didn’t see myself having children. I thought about them in the abstract, as a small possibility.
Yes, you heard me correctly, I didn’t envision myself as ever becoming a mother. (I know, crazy.)
I didn’t even think I’d get married. I thought I would be so driven with ambition in my endeavours that I wouldn’t have time for a family. Little did I know that my drive and my ambition would include just that – creating and raising a large family.
I like to tell my stories through pictures and words. Mostly words. But in a previous life, I scrapbooked quite a bit. Sprinkled throughout this post will be past pages from our family scrapbooks that help me remember my story because frankly, there are years that remain a blur – nursing, carrying, diaper-changing – where my five children blend into the face of one child for those early years.
I was pregnant at 19 and had my first daughter a few months before my 20th birthday. While most people spent their twenties going to school, starting their careers, traveling, dating, and generally, “finding themselves,” I spent my twenties having babies and raising them.
Here’s a rough timeline to give you an idea of what the last 17 years looked like…
1997 – Pregnant with #1.
1998 – #1 was born.
2000 – Married her father.
2002 – Pregnant with #2.
2003 – #2 was born.
2004 – Pregnant with #3.
2005 – #3 was born.
2006 – Pregnant with #4.
2007- My fourth child was born.
2009 – Pregnant with #5 and #5 was born later that year.
2003-2012 – Breastfed children except for a few months here and there when one would wean right before the birth of another.
1998-2002 – Co-slept with #1.
2003-2005 – Co-slept with #2.
2005-2006 – Co-slept with #3.
2007-2010 – Co-slept with #4.
2009-April 2014 – Co-slept with #4 and #5 and then just #5…until very recently.
1998-2000 – 1 in diapers.
2003-2005 – 2 in diapers.
2005-2007 – 2 in diapers.
2007-2009 – 3 in diapers…1 child needed to wear some at night.
2009-2012 – 1 in diapers.
When I see my twenties defined by years of non-stop nursing, diaper-changing, and co-sleeping, I marvel at the fact that I even remember each child as an individual with specific memories. Though my journals, my blog, and my scrapbooks really help with jogging the memory.
With the birth of my first child, I wrote this in my journal:
Nobody tells you the real deal of pregnancy, labour, and new motherhood….why is it that no one ever tells you about the absolute horror when you first breastfeed? Nobody tells you how you no longer live for yourself…or even imagine doing so ever. Or how isolated you feel? Or how frustrated you get when you can’t take a shit on your own?…
I’m sure that people had mentioned how it would be tough, how I’d be tired. Well, I wasn’t tired. I was 19 for goodness sakes. All-nighters were a breeze. I had so much energy at that time that I had no problem studying while she slept or worked on essays at the computer while she nursed. It was all the emotional stuff. It was the body image stuff. It was the wrapping my head around the enormity of the situation. I am in charge of this little person. I was her mother. Forever. FOREVER.
Luckily, I was so busy with part-time jobs, school, and planning for our future that I had little spare time to be overwhelmed by this huge fact. There were times when the thought did stop me in my tracks and when an insidious creature would infest everything I did. We all know the name of this malicious beast: DOUBT. I had a second-hand car seat and stroller because I had no choice. I ended up carrying my baby everywhere because the stroller was so ancient that it took about 10 minutes to open and 10 minutes to close every time. I had no time for that. But I was told I shouldn’t carry her all the time. I was told I shouldn’t respond to her every cry. After my second bout of mastitis and a hospital stay to go along with it, everyone urged me to bottle feed. She wasn’t supposed to sleep with me.
You should…You shouldn’t…You’re supposed to…You’re not supposed to…
Every nurse, every doctor, every family member, and every stranger felt like they needed to advise me. My young age gave them permission to fill my head with doubts and to make me feel insecure about every decision I made. Call it the chip on my shoulder or call it stubbornness or call it youth rebellion and self-centredness – I never listened. I still doubted but my hatred for people telling me what to do overpowered the doubt and my instincts told me to keep doing what I felt was right for us.
Being at home with a newborn, I found Oprah. So of course, I started keeping a gratitude journal. I found it this past weekend. I hadn’t read it until now…16 years later. Reading it now put a lot of things in perspective and made me proud of that new mother. I was grateful for kind people. Back then, I was judged daily. I looked even younger than my actual age. Every time I went out with my baby, there were ignorant comments and looks of disdain thrown my way. An act of kindness like a smile or the patience of a cashier as she looked at me gently while my baby cried and I counted small change. I was grateful for my mommy moments – watching my baby nurse half-asleep while she scratched her head and when I had my hand on her tummy feeling her breathe in and out as she slept. I was grateful for receiving a grant for school so I didn’t have to worry about taking out a loan. I was grateful that she slept in the carrier as I waited in an enormous line to register for my courses at the university. I was grateful for all the times someone – Ever-Patient, my aunt, my dad, my cousin – held her so I could shower.
All these years of having babies and creating a life for myself, it’s easy to forget those early years as mother – all the uncertainty, all the hard work, all the support I received especially from those I didn’t expect support from.
Everything else came a little easier after that.
I made this scrapbook layout just after my third child describing how I wanted to be something more than a mom…having an identity apart from “mother”:
…because there were times when it was all mommy all the time, when the days all looked the same and there was always someone who needed me immediately.
Shortly after my fourth was born, I made this layout which countered the one above:
I finally admitted it to myself. I loved the chaos. I loved the noise. I loved the littles all under my arms. I loved sleeping with them. I loved nap time. I loved all the things that came with mothering at that time. Yes, there were days that wiped me out but there were so many more that made me grateful for my choice. It wasn’t for the faint-hearted…as my timeline above illustrates. For someone who is not overly affectionate, there was a lot of physical contact – my skin, my hair, my body was always being squeezed and touched all the time. I remember hitting that point with nursing while pregnant when I just couldn’t do it anymore. The movement inside my body coupled with the aggressive nursing outside my body always put me over the edge.
But then they grew up. And there is less of that close physical proximity, though we still cuddle and are affectionate just not 24/7 like those years. No more nursing. No more co-sleeping. No movement inside my body ever again.
I made this layout and left it blank after we decided not to have any more children:
Pregnant with #5, I knew I was done. That doesn’t mean that it was an easy decision. I had to weigh a lot of things. I had to be honest with myself. Ever-Patient and I had to be honest with each other. The growing gap between my oldest and youngest was a factor. There is 12, 16, and 26 years between my brothers and I. And with my younger brothers, I am more of a second mom than a sister. There is nothing wrong with that. That’s the way it is. But I wasn’t sure if the growing age gap would be what I could mentally handle – jumping from parenting a teenager and a newborn. I know a lot of people that do it and do it beautifully. I’m not sure I would be as graceful. I was selfish: I was ready to sleep again. I was ready to re-claim my body. I was ready to be active with my growing children. I was ready to do things apart from them. I was ready to fall in love with my husband again.
It’s been a slow grieving process – this whole not-having-anymore-babies thing. The nursing ended abruptly with #5 and I grieved over that. I grieved when I gave away my wraps and the baby clothes. I grieved when he was toilet trained and there was no new baby in diapers. I grieved this past month when he went to his big boy bed and now my children sleep with me only when Ever-Patient is away on business to keep me company though they would prefer to be in their own room together chatting the night away.
To those of you with wee babies and toddlers, this may sound like heaven to you. I hear you. I thought about this day a lot when I was up all night nursing and changing diapers all day. I thought about this day when I couldn’t sleep because we had 2 in our bed for years and frequently found myself sleeping on the edge of the bed frame. I thought about this day when the crying wouldn’t end or my back would hurt from carrying a baby all day long while I did laundry and took care of the rest. I thought about this day when loading and unloading the car of littles in car seats took 10 minutes.
Let me tell you the truth. I miss those days. For real. I do. I love where we are now as I move into a phase of independence – for me and the kids individually but those days of littles seemed so short now. Now they are big and move freely on their own. They want my attention in terms of conversation and answering burning questions. They want my advice. They don’t want my advice. More often than not, I am on the outside looking in, waiting to be invited, waiting to referee. In the days of the Little, I was the eye of the hurricane, the centre of their universe. Now I am on the periphery, keeping orbit around them, with my biggest obstacle being when to step in and when to stay out.
There is still chaos but I can’t control it like I used to. I can’t fix things by nursing. A hug and kiss doesn’t make the pain of a hurt heart go away. I can’t give a black-and-white, a right-and-wrong answer for every question everywhere. There’s a lot of: “That depends.” “What do you think?” “What feels right for you?”
I still have a 4 and almost 7 year old that need the simple things still but it’s increasingly difficult to solve things with a song and a story as the older 3 children need me to address questions that I still have yet to find the answer. Mistakes are bigger. Falls are harder to recover from. I value the gift of time and patience over the gift of sleep and routine.
Looking at the scrapbooks and photos, I can only find a handful of pictures with me in them. There aren’t many candid. Most are posing for formal pictures during Christmas and birthdays. But in that “We love you Mom” book they gave me, they managed to include pictures of me with each child…no small feat:
As I look at each picture, what strikes me is the unique relationship that I have with each. I am not a one-size-fits-all mother. I somehow manage to love them in ways that accept who they are and who they are becoming. It’s not easy when they are their own people. There are personality traits that I am learning to understand (and to be patient with) because I myself don’t have them, and there are personality traits that I understand too well. These ones are tough as they act as a mirror more often than not.
I’m still learning. As time passes, I am relying more on the wisdom and experience of older mothers. Mothers who know that there is so much more to come and that remind me to be grateful for each and every moment. They tell me that things pick up speed now. I don’t want to miss a thing and preoccupy my time with lamenting over past mistakes or grieving that there will be no more newborns in our house. This moment is all I have.
I wanted to capture this moment on March 24, 2010. An ordinary day full of extraordinary joy. We have a lot of those. What makes an ordinary day changes but the joy is the same. The joy of watching my children and knowing I will always be their mother.
What’s your story? Have you ever reflected on the past day, weeks, years of your journey as a mother? Please share if you like.
(Oh, and check out my post today on my other project – Sense of Story….)