|just a few minutes old and really unhappy about being "out"|
|one day old, in a hat I bought for baby Joseph in New Zealand four years ago.....|
|two days old|
|one week old and fresh from our first bath|
One thing that changed for me over the course of this pregnancy was my immediate gut-level reaction to the decidedly negative or awkward comments that strangers make about the size of my family. In the past, those comments offended me. At some point in my life with four children, I realized that since having four kids is sort of counter-cultural, I simply had to expect and accept that the culture would indeed counter it.... I finally connected "Accept your share of hardship for the sake of the Gospel" to these often uncomfortable experiences. It occurred to me that it was rather naive and whiny to be surprised or riled by those comments at all. Immediately they stopped bothering me. Sometimes they even began to amuse me.
So, while pregnant with this fifth child, it did not ruffle me when a male neighbor - shocked by my newly evident pregnancy - burst forth with, "Wow.....you're really going to have a whole passel of....um...uh....tax breaks." (I laughed in my head while I waited for him to grope for a somewhat appropriate noun with which to finish his impulsive outburst.)
Nor did I get upset a few months later when a tradesman working in the neighborhood asked me if I was running a daycare in my front yard. When he learned that the kids were all my own - with another sibling clearly on the way - he responded, "Well.....Just so long as you know when to stop...." (in a tone of voice that clearly implied that HE thought THAT time had been three children ago.)
And it did not bother me this evening when I took my eldest daughter (and the baby) to an art class and the instructor, who had presumed through previous classes, I suppose, that I was pregnant with my second child, congratulated me warmly on the birth of the baby and asked my daughter if she was enjoying life as a big sister. Maria was so intent on her artwork that she did not hear or answer him, so I smiled at him and told him it was our fifth baby and that Maria was already very used to being a big sister. His face changed from warmth to utter confusion and he blurted out sincerely, "Are you some kind of glutton for punishment?" Although I wasn't offended, I admit that I didn't really know how to answer that question. He really seemed to want a direct answer. Sadly, my response was a flustered non sequitur. As we continued talking, he kept returning to the "five kids" thing and each time, in a slightly different way, he reiterated that he had three young boys who were already "too much" for him and he simply could not imagine having or wanting FIVE children. I still didn't know what to say and just kept trying to redirect the conversation to easier topics.
Driving home I realized something. Most of the people who say these awkward things are not trying to be rude. These comments are not really about ME and my kids at all - these comments are revelations about what is going on in the heart and the home of the speaker. People who blurt these things out are basically confessing that they are struggling with parenthood so much that they can't imagine it being any harder than it already is. These are people who are not enjoying family life the way they hoped they would. If their experience of parenting was mostly sunshine and butterflies, they would hardly be surprised that anyone would pursue more sunshine or additional butterflies. These are people who need encouragement. Badly. As do I (often!!) I know some parents of large families like to coin ruder responses to these unintentionally "rude" comments, but really this is a huge opportunity to give to someone else and to encourage. It's hypocritical to do anything else. Why pretend to be shocked by the implication that parenting is incredibly burdensome? It is! I've got plenty of friends with lots of kids and we regularly exchange frazzled texts when we are at our wits' ends with our kids. And these aren't texts like:
"Oh, golly - today sure is a challenging day with my dozen little blessings :) :)"
I've sent abundant texts along the lines of:
"Today I would sell any one of them to the lowest bidder."
But we encourage each other. We empathize, encourage and pray for each other. We recommend good parenting and marriage books. We share the graces we're being given and help each other to grow. We brainstorm together about our most frustrating challenges. We keep each other committed to growing into patient, kind, gentle, joyful, wise mothers instead of just settling into resentful mediocrity. We laugh (sometimes through tears) about our colossal screw-ups - but we also hold each other accountable for trying better next time. Some parents maybe don't have that kind of support. Some parents reach that inevitable point in parenting where you realize that you stink at being a parent and they just give up. They lose the joy of it all - the sense of gift. The bulk of their parenting consists of feeling frustrated, angry, exhausted or overwhelmed. They lose hope that they can grow as a parent and change the dynamic in the home. Instead, they decide that kids are overrated or that they've got uniquely difficult kids or too many kids or they decide that they just don't personally enjoy parenting - or that they had their kids too close together - or they were too young when they started having kids - or too old - or that family life is not what they imagined it would be........... and they decide it's too late to change themselves and it's too late to change their kids and to just hope instead that "childhood" passes as quickly as possible and that the kids grow up fast - meanwhile they will look for fulfillment and pleasure in career or hobbies or anywhere other than the little terrors who they simultaneously love and endure. The art man must have said three different times tonight that he just can't wait for his kids to get older so that he can be done with these challenging years. That always makes me sad to hear. I cling to these years. But I'd feel quite differently if I didn't have the support and encouragement that I do have.
So - I wish I had just heard this guy's heart tonight. I was so busy in my head thinking about what I should SAY (other people were listening! I felt like a freak!) - and mostly what I said was just a bunch of meaningless cliches and bland pleasantries and pathetic attempts to "normalize" the conversation. Instead, I wish I'd just heard him out about what was so hard with his three boys. I have no idea why I didn't just ask him about his life instead of trying to force the conversation into vaguer and more superficial waters. I wish I hadn't fled from the topic. I wish I'd asked good questions and really listened to his answers. I probably would have had no words of wisdom, nor perhaps would it have been appropriate to have offered any, but I definitely could have empathized sincerely with how hard parenting can be. He clearly wanted to talk about it - he was the one who kept steering the conversation back to the inconceivability of five children and the overwhelming and draining experience of life with three sons. If nothing else, I could have prayed for him. Well, I still can do that. But next time, I hope I do the other things too. I think now that I understand it better, I just may be able to do so. And..... perhaps.....perhaps it would be best to start planning ahead NOW for even bigger and wilder reactions to a hypothetical sixth child......
(sound of Richard fainting)