So here’s part one of my Tips for Bigish Families Series. Read the introduction here.
Tip numbero uno: Grooming is overrated.
I am always eager for spring and the gradual greening and warming that comes along with it. What I am usually not ready for is the greater need for daily baths. Winter means less time spent digging in the dirt and frolicking outdoors, which translates to less baths. Now my well-groomed, daily-shower-loving husband would likely disagree with me here, but a daily bath really is not a necessity especially when kids haven’t been getting dirty all day outdoors. Like many Europeans, we don’t do baths every day. Sometimes I am just too tired to partake in the elaborate bathtime routine. I’d rather squeeze in more storybooks than scrubbing behind the ears. I’ll never forget a story my nana, who died two summers ago just before she hit the 91-mark, told. Her youngest and ninth child was looking quite gray and a peaked to her, so she decided to take him to the pediatrician to make sure his health was not ailing. The diagnosis? A nice layer of dirt! Seriously, my uncle had just been dirtier than usual, and the pediatrician rubbed a bit off and showed my nana, who sheepishly and quickly left the doctor’s office but loved telling the story later on as evidence that dirt really doesn’t bother kids or hurt them. This might horrify our clean-obsessed-frequent-hand-sanitizing-culture, but I find it rather funny and comforting. All of her nine children are healthy, happy, and productive adults now. A little dirt never caused them any harm.
And fancy, smocked clothing, well, it looks pretty, but it’s not necessary either. Which brings me to tip number two: It’s not what they’re wearing that matters; it’s the memories you’re making.
I dressed my first child like a baby doll. No matter that she was constantly ripping the pretty bows from her wispy hair and I was always cursing the tiny buttons that were awfully difficult to work with. I also wanted her clothes to match when we out in public. Not so anymore. When we go to Mass or perhaps a nice restaurant or another “finer” event, then, of course, I expect a certain level of decorum. However, I also give my children far more freedom in choosing their clothing these days and am not bothered so much by mismatched outfits or slightly messy hair.
I was at a birthday party for little girls a few years ago, and many of the girls were impeccably dressed in smocked gowns (smocked clothing is very popular in the South); however, there was one child who showed up in play clothes with ragamuffin hair. I heard another mom whispering about her, saying something about how she couldn’t believe her mother hadn’t brushed her hair. This kind of superficial comment infuriated me. I knew that this child was the oldest of five young children, and all of them were homeschooled. Perfectly coiffed hair probably wasn’t a big priority, and why did it matter? These kids were playing at a birthday party; they weren’t having tea with the Queen. Some girls might love smocked frocks. Some moms might enjoy dressing their girls up as well. There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t feel guilty if you’re not into that or just can’t be as a matter of survival. Likewise, don’t sweat the small stuff, and kids who don’t look like Suri Cruise in public is most definitely small stuff. Honestly, we moms often dress up our children just to impress others.
Another time this lesson was hammered in for me was during a trip to a pumpkin patch this past fall. We attempted to get a group photo of all the kids, and I had to laugh at our motley crew. I have a photo from when I was pregnant with Mary Elizabeth, and Madeline and Rachel were wearing darling fall outfits. I had more time to pay attention to the details back then – time that is more of a luxury these days. Not surprisingly, in last year’s pumpkin patch photo, the kids were wearing all different colorful ensembles. Best of all, Mary Elizabeth was wearing a pink, homemade Valentine’s shirt in October, which makes the memory of that crisp fall day all the more vivid in my mind. Remember Annie’s wisdom: Your kids’ smiles are their best accessory.
Stay tuned for the next installment in the series where I talk about how behind every no there is a yes. New posts won’t arrive until after the Triduum, however.
With only four children, I am not completely comfortable identifying myself as having a big family, especially when I know plenty of families who have enough children to field an entire baseball team. However, my husband frequently reminds me that we have more than average, and we do get comments when we’re out in public with our brood.
We were blessed to be at the beach not too long ago and eating at a noisy, crowded restaurant when my oldest dropped her flip-flop and accidentally bumped into a man when she was trying to retrieve it. His entire table turned to look at us, and I said, “Sorry!” thinking they were annoyed by my daughter’s wayward elbow or perhaps my 2-year-old’s happy but loud giggles as I magically pulled a broken piece of red crayon from his ear. But to my surprise, they all smiled and said, “Oh no. We’re just amazed.”
They didn’t elaborate, so I’m not sure if they were amazed by the sheer size of our family or the fact that the kids were staying put in their chairs and not scaling any tables, hurling food, or partaking in any other form of rowdiness. Give my kids food, and they will eat. When their mouths are full, they are pretty quiet. I am lucky to have four kids with voracious appetites.
On the way home from dinner another group of older adults marveled at our family as well. This time the kids were walking in a straight line like obedient, little ducklings. They were docile on account of all the ice cream cone licking. My husband and I chatted with the adults and they joked about how we’d better start saving for all those weddings.
“We are already encouraging eloping or barbeque-style receptions,” my husband joked.
I’ve often said that I felt like it was having the fourth baby that escalated me into the big family category or in some eyes’, the freak club or the we-hate-Planet-Earth-and-are-going-to-use-up-obscene-amounts-of-resources groups (as if our carbon footprint comes even close to the green Hollywood stars who take weekend trips to Cabo). It’s also taken having four kids fairly close together to teach me some valuable lessons that might be helpful to other parents of bigish families. (Although, honestly, most of these tips would be helpful to parents of any size family. )
For instance, what we think really matters when we welcome our first child into our arms, doesn’t really matter all that much – or at all. Like a nursery. Fortunately, we couldn’t afford to decorate a fancy nursery with our first. We didn’t have the room for it either. My husband was still in school and I was a freelance journalist when Madeline arrived. We squeezed a crib (the Consumer Report’s best buy that cost us 99 bucks) into a nook of a room that also had a coat closet and our computer in it. I remember being kind of disappointed that we couldn’t do more for our little love, especially when I’d see some of my friend’s Pottery Barn-inspired nurseries but four kids later, I know a grand nursery would have been an epic waste*, especially for our crew since our kids tend to make use of the family bed. I also know that like so many things in parenting a lovely nursery is not really for the baby. All she needs is love and her basic needs met. That nursery is more for the parents. Aside from a nursery is purely optional, I am going to share some other lessons I’ve gleaned as my family as grown in a series of upcoming posts, so stay tuned!
*Please know I am not judging any parent who does design a beautiful nursery. To be fair, I am also not too good at the whole house design kind of things or DIY projects. It tends to feel more like a chore than fun, but I know some people really enjoy the process. But if you don’t enjoy it and/or don’t have the financial resources and just feel pressured to have a nice nursery because you feel like it’s a sign of your love for your baby, know your little wonder could care less about whether her room is painted in Benjamin Moore’s “Sounds of Nature” green and outfitted with chevron curtains and a Serena & Lily crib and bedding. Your nursery’s style is NOT correlated to your love for your child. Got it? Good.
I had a conversation with a fellow mom not too long ago that began with us joking about how it never fails that our sweet children mutate into screaming, clingy, little beasties the moment we pick up the phone. At first, this mom was laughing as she shared a recent anecdote about a child throwing an interminable, titanic tantrum just outside her home office door while she was on a business call. She then talked about the bigger picture challenges of being a mother who also has to work professionally from her home. She was in no way wallowing or griping, but she paused after she’d expressed her frustrations and quickly said something about how she knew it wasn’t a big deal or a big problem. Then she apologized for her “whining” through teary eyes. I didn’t know her all that well, but I wanted to give her a big hug and tell her she wasn’t being whiny and she could cry on my shoulder all she wanted because Lord knows, I’ve been there. I was there just this morning, in fact, when I felt invisible, absolutely invisible because no one was listening to me or paying any attention to me whatsoever. I tried to rally the troops with positive directives, but when madness ensued and my blood pressure shot up I sadly ended up barking drill sergeant orders. Interestingly, last week another mom friend of mine who has several little ones texted me and asked if I ever felt invisible and like no one listens to me or even knows I am there. Affirmative.
I’ve recently found myself venting (incessantly whining) about some of the challenges my family has faced in recent months from bats in our bedrooms to lice (yup, that was one thing I definitely never worried about as a homeschooler). But I always feel guilty bemoaning these everyday stresses when we have a roof over our heads and are in good health. So like the fellow mom I talked with, I quickly undermine the challenges. “It’s not that big of deal.” “I’m fine.” “I am so blessed,” I might say. Or, “These are just first-world problems.”
And I am very blessed, but that doesn’t mean life isn’t sometimes tough. I don’t live in abject poverty. My kids are clothed, and we don’t have to worry about getting food on the table, although I do sometimes approach meal planning with trepidation knowing I have to somehow come up with meals week after week that the whole family will actually eat, poke and prod like it’s a science experiment, not eye-roll at, or surreptitiously feed to the dog. Of course, there’s always someone worse off than I am. I’ve thought about this a lot as I’ve limped along with my running injury. I could not be able to use my legs. Or I could not have any legs at all.
Yet, as a dear friend who also happens to do medical mission work in the poorest of the poor places of the world reminded me this summer after the bats, broken bones, kaput refrigerator, flooded basement, and general chaos of raising a largish family told me, “I’d say you’re dealing with some pretty tough things. A real first-world problem is being upset about losing followers in Pinterest.”
I have no idea who’s following me on Pinterest. I pretty much stopped going on that first-world, happy haven because I frequently clicked away feeling dejected rather than inspired. But my good friend’s wisdom as well as the recent exchange with the hurting mother reminded me of something very important. If we encounter someone who is suffering, then our primary job is to dole out compassion, not to compare their suffering to others’.
Similarly, if something is hard for us, then it is hard for us. It doesn’t matter if someone else doesn’t think it would be a big deal. My dad joked with me that an injury like I’m dealing with that rendered him immobile would be a good excuse to watch more TV, although I did remind him it really hurt to sit. When I was on pregnancy bedrest, my mother-in-law laughed and said that bed rest is only a challenge for Type Aers like me. For her it sounded like nirvana – a big extended nap and an awesome excuse to be idle.
Think about our children. How many crocodile tears do we encounter in a given week or if you – like me – live in a house full of dramatic daughters, how many emotional outbursts do you encounter every single day? Toddlers cry because you cut their sandwiches into triangles instead of rectangles. (How dare you, you dolt!) Preschoolers throw a fit because you forgot to wash their polka dot pants they want to wear every third Tuesday of the month. (You always forget!) Gradeschoolers bawl because you are cruel parent who won’t let them see the PG movie every single other child their age has watched half a dozen times. (You are so mean!) Teenagers get angry just when you tell them you love them. (Just leave me alone!)
Our kids’ behavior may appear irrational and may very well be a little absurd. It may drive us crazy, hurt us, or make us angry, but we all know what a tantrum-throwing toddler or insolent teenager really needs more than our judgment, rational advice, or anger is empathy and compassion. I know you wanted a three-sided PBJ sandwich, and Mommy is sorry she cut it the wrong way, but it’s still yummy. I know you’re angry with me, but try to understand that I make these tough decisions out of my love for you. Yada. Yada. Yada.
The same is true for all of our fellow human beings. Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you have an Internet connection and a warm house and mostly deal with what we might call “first-world problems,” but those tiny, toothpick like crosses can add up and feel awfully heavy, and we need to be careful about discounting them.
Not only do I need to not undercut my own personal struggles and instead open myself to the love, support, and understanding from others, but I need to be there for others and to crucify any possible judgment of their level of suffering. We cannot compare our burdens – or our blessings for that matter. We shouldn’t start weighing others’ crosses; we should offer to help carry them. We need to offer compassion for whatever a person may feel is hard. If something is hard for someone, then they are suffering. Period.
Consider the exhausted new mom who is constantly told to enjoy those precious first few months and just wait until that baby is a mobile toddler or a back-talking tween. How do we make her feel by suggesting it’s not as bad as she thinks or that she ought to be basking in baby bliss? She is in a dark, scary, and new place. She has this squirmy vessel of hopes and dreams who wakes her up every hour that she loves with all of her heart but sometimes fears, too. She’s afraid to trim those paper-thin fingernails ascending from those impossibly tiny fingers. She knows she’s supposed to feel happy all of the time with this precious bundle in her midst, but sometimes she just wants to crawl out of her saggy, postpartum skin and have her old life back so she decides to open up and tell you her fears, guilt, and struggles. Don’t you dare undermine her, tell her it’s not so bad, or remind her she should be thankful to have a healthy baby. She is thankful. But she’s suffering, too.
Whomever we are dealing with – whether it’s a new mother, a rebel teenager, a frazzled friend, or an irrational teenager – we need to love first. If we snark, reprimand, undermine, or even remind someone of their blessings when they’re mired in sadness or overwhelmed, all we’re doing is making that person feel weaker, lonelier, and more uncertain and hopeless. And this perhaps will make her more likely to be burdened by every little “first world” problem.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta once said the greatest poverty of the Western world was loneliness. Here we are hyper-connected with our smartphones and able to stuff ourselves with plates full of food. We are afraid to admit life can be hard when we have so much. But we are still suffering – just in different ways than people do in different parts of the world. Maybe what we all need is to simply be there for others no matter what is bearing down on them, and all we must ask in return is for someone to be there for us, too, when we’re faced with our own big and small trials.