I recently read a beautiful blog post written by a mother of 6 and was inspired to write a similar manifesto of my own large family. I doubt that I can write as well as she does, I love how she includes the beauty of the ordinary in her hopes for her children, not only the great things they could accomplish directly but how simple lives well-lived could also change the world. To read the original before my poor imitation, please follow this link. (Do it!)
This is my oldest daughter. I was 21 and unmarried when I got pregnant, right out of my first year of Law School. The doctor who confirmed the pregnancy told me that mothers in my situation usually ended-up poor, uneducated and single. My peers told me: “You’re not going going to keep it right?” I told my parents I was pregnant and they still loved me. I told my boyfriend I was pregnant and he still loved me. She was born with the sunrise on a Wednesday morning. I didn’t believe in God back then but when they placed her on my chest, I knew I had touched eternity. She was more than a birth control flub, more than an “it”, she was a person who had been meant from all times to be placed in my arms. A unique and timely mix of the right chromosomes, meeting at the right time, never made before, never to be made again. Clara opened my heart to a love that defied every other kind of love: a love devoid of self-interest, a love of the other for the other’s sake. She gave me a new heart and new eyes. And so I was made a mother and never looked back.
Our second child was conceived when our first was still a baby. Few people plan their children to be that close in age but we did. If we had started young, we would finish young and so he was born, 14 months after his sister, my little breechling. I don’t remember much about his first year beyond the shock of having a normal baby. My first one had prepared me for babies who slept through the night at 3 weeks and napped for 6 hours during the day. I fought him a lot in his early years, trying to make him sleep longer, nurse better, learn some darned independence already! Sleep training, schedules, methods, I read all the books, tried all the tricks. Thankfully this was before the Internet, blogs and social media. Until it hit me like a ton of brick when he was a toddler: he is not a mountain, standing tall and alone; he is a gregarious, engaging, people person. He taught me that “needy” babies are just people babies; and that loyalty, first expressed as a need to be in contact with his tribe, was an adult quality worth nurturing. Colin taught me to look beyond the challenges of early babyhood and use my imagination. And so he made me a better mother and I never looked back.
I was taking a prenatal yoga class when I realized that my third child was raising eyebrows. We were in the changing room when I mentioned my two oldest children and a fellow mother asked me if I had two boys or two girls. “One of each” I replied to which she asked, genuinely puzzled: “You have a boy and a girl and you still wanted a third?” And thus I boldly entered the world of nosy strangers and weird personal questions. “Was it planned?” asked me a stranger at the pharmacy. “After that you’re done, right?” told me countless well-meaning acquaintances. I tried to answer with confidence but deep down I was terrified and full of doubts. It would have been easier had those doubts not been unknowingly confirmed at every turn. She was born at home with the sunrise on a crisp winter morning, an easy and smiling baby who still needed more than I could give. Éloïse taught me that nothing is as easy as it looks and that the picture of perfection can hide deep fears and insecurities. And so she made me a better mother and I never looked back.
Our fourth child came at a time of great personal turmoil. I was struggling badly with 3 children, how could I ever handle a fourth I asked myself in tears one day. I thought I was done after the third. I had tried different kinds of hormonal birth control methods but they had left me suffering unbearable side-effects. After having my IUD removed for cause of blood bath, I had reluctantly embraced Natural Family Planning (NFP). Within a year of trying to learn the sympto-thermal method on my own, I was confused and pregnant. And so snarky comments about NFP joined indiscreet questions about our reproductive life and our intentions. “There’s a name for those who use NFP you know…” She was born quietly and peacefully in the middle of the night on the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God. Her name, Marie, had been chosen years before but she chose her birthday. She was a beautiful, sensitive baby. Easily overstimulated, she needed peace and quiet to be content and so I became known to myself as the “nap witch” and wondered if my irrational accesses of anger at every noise my children made would be remembered as the dominant theme of their childhood. I sunk into post-partum depression and self-destruction, turned away from my faith and dove straight for the bottom. Marie taught me that you can love your children fiercely while motherhood chews you up and spits you out. And so she opened my eyes and my heart to the pain of others, made me a better mother, and I never looked back.
My fifth child wasn’t supposed to be. I had proven my inability to climb past the highest mountain. I had run headlong into the wall of parenting and smashed myself to smithereens. As a girl, I had dreamed of having five children but four would be all I could take. And yet, that fifth child was haunting me. One day we were walking on a snow covered sidewalk, my four children walking ahead of me in a single file, when the hole left by the missing fifth child engulfed me. I could never shake that image and the following summer, we conceived. There is a four year gap between our fourth and our fifth. That pregnancy worried those who knew me. It was too fast, not the right time, was I back on my feet, could my marriage take it? Most people doubted it. But in my own insecurities and fears, I was happy and serene. He was born between lunch and dinner on a beautiful spring afternoon. From my bedroom window I could see the sun shining and I could hear the birds sing and the snow melting off the roof. David thought me that you can stand taller than your fears, that you don’t have to listen to the little demon on your shoulder telling you that you can’t. He taught me that the first step, taken in vulnerability, is the most heroic but that the journey is healing. And so he made me a better mother and I never looked back.
I call my sixth child the undoing of all my pride. She ushered us in the realm of “real” big families, the crazies, those who reproduce to please a demanding God. “Are you doing this for spiritual reasons?” the lady behind the counter at the license bureau asked with unveiled curiosity, as if I could give a short answer as I held up the line with my fidgety children. “Are you Catholics?” strangers would ask with the tone reserved to heaping scorn. “My cousin is Catholic and she had her tubes tied” they would invariably add, as if I needed to be reminded that living the Church’s teachings on the theology of the body was a radical decision even amongst Catholics. She was born with the sunrise but I never saw it, the curtains of the hospital room were shut tight as a crowd of medical personnel attended her difficult birth. From infancy, she was “more” than everyone else. She stretched me in every direction, made me a thinner, more flexible version of myself. We tried everything to make her sleep better, longer nights. Read all the books. Tried all the sleep training methods, including every cry-it-out method. And she cried but she never gave-up. And we cried. And we broke down. Sarah taught me that some children are just “more” of everything. We stopped trying to train her and started simply loving her as best we could. Nothing will ever be easy with Sarah but accepting her is half the battle. And so she taught me humility and acceptance and made me a better mother and I never looked back.
Our seventh and eighth children arrived as a combo. An earth-shattering twin tornado. One of my dear friends who has 10 children, including a pair of twins, has a knack for telling me things I don’t understand until later. Upon learning that we were expecting twins she exclaimed enthusiastically: “This is awesome! This will really make you put family first!” I was mildly offended: was she suggesting that as a mother of 6 I wasn’t putting family first already? Her words came back to me with their weight of wisdom after the twins were born. If we thought we were placing family first before, nothing had prepared us for the life-changing momentum the twins brought with them. As high functioning individuals, my husband and I are not often placed in front of our limits but suddenly, at 24 weeks when I was placed on bed rest, we were. We had to ask for help. We had to limit our commitments. We had to start saying no and knowing when to stop. Suddenly the futility and the long term risks of our affluent, debt-fueled lifestyle hit us like a ton of brick. We sold our house, paid-off our suffocating mortgage and our significant consumer debt-load and moved into a rental house to live according to our means. We eventually moved to the country and started homeschooling, two decisions made in their own right to slow down the pace, to focus on the essential. Lucas and Ève taught me that I only have one kick at the can in this lifetime and I have to make it worthwhile.
By the time I had given birth to the twins, the friends I had made when my oldest children were little had long stopped having children. When we made arrangements to meet for coffee, they would glance at my double stroller, my toddler and my preschooler and say: “Oh, you brought everyone…” like they had forgotten what life with little children was. “Better you than me” some would add with relief tinted with an appreciable amount of what-were-you-thinking. I found a new community of mommy-friends, young and old mothers, mothers who had children the age of my little ones, mothers of twins. I found a new village of contemporary parents who introduced me to peaceful, gentle parenting. Lucas and Ève taught me to always remember and honour where I came from but to be open to change. And so they made me a better mother and I never looked back.
Our baby number 9 existed as an idea long before we heard the first murmurs of his tiny life. He was “the baby after the twins”. “Imagine,” I told my husband, “having a baby just to laugh at how easy it is. Because we didn’t know how easy a singleton was until we had twins!” My friend, the mother of 10 who has a knack for telling me things I only understand in hindsight told me, just before I told her I was indeed pregnant: “Consider having another one. It will shift the focus off of the twins as this big life-changing event. It will make your life normal again.” And she was right. My family was worried about my health and my age but with the help of a naturopathic doctor and the attentive care of my midwife, my healthiest pregnancy welcomed me into my forties. Our ninth child was born at home after lunch on Easter’s eve, peacefully, in the caul, after a short and easy labour. My midwife tucked me in and left me in the care of my family before going home to share an Easter meal with her family. Beauty and joy seeped all around us and joyfulness became our baby’s banner. He was the glue that held our family together through a difficult year of transition. Damien has brought me to a place of pure joy and delight in the beauty of my family. Seeing him put a smile on everyone’s face is the highlight of my days. He has taught me to see the beauty in the chaos, the calm in the eye of the storm. And so he made me a better mother and I never looked back.
Who was this little person, only as big as a grain of rice? When I started writing this post, it was meant to be an announcement for our Baby Number 10, due with the spring of 2016. Shortly before posting, I started to bleed and lost our baby at 12 weeks of gestation. The ultrasound showed only the remains of a 5-week embryo, the size of a grain of rice. Here’s what I had written:
“Even among large families, we’re getting larger than average. If you have a large family and you are tired of nosy questions and inappropriate comments, just get to 10: the news leaves people sufficiently aghast to allow for a quick escape. Still… “Exactly how many children do you want?” is a question I already heard several times, as if a family was a number you committed to . Exactly how much love is enough? I want to reply. Because now that I know how much I will love this new person, how can I say no? How can I close the door on someone who will stretch my horizon even wider? How much delight is too much? How much humility and hard work do I still need to become the best possible version of myself? Now that I am approaching my 42nd birthday and that my cycles are slowing down, my reproductive years are counted. I look forward to find out how this little person will weave itself into the fabric of our family, seamlessly yet uniquely. A new journey of self-discovery awaits and so he or she will make me a better mother and I won’t look back.”
Today, as I lay recovering from a very scary miscarriage and hemorrhage, I am reflecting on the journey of self-discovery that I thought awaited me and the real journey that lies ahead. Baby number 10 has ushered me into the community of mothers who have lost a little one to miscarriage, an unfortunately large community. It is a journey that I enter at my weakest. Empty-handed, empty-wombed, receiving someone else’s blood to keep me going. Stripped of my new identity as a mother of ten and half of my blood supply. I am battling conflicting emotions, exhaustion and trying to keep grief at bay. I know that I will need to let it wash over me at some point but not now, not when I am so weak. How will this tiny life I held for such a little time change me? I can’t even begin to imagine, but I know it will.
Published on the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows.
“When the hand of death is laid upon those whom you love and your heart seems torn in two, climb to the Hill of Calvary to be consoled by the Mother of Sorrows who is also the Cause of Our Joy.” Archbishop Fulton Sheen (Man for All Media)