From a young age I helped care for younger siblings. When I had my first baby I joked that the only thing that I had never done was breast feed. But it was true.
I had cooked, cleaned and done laundry. I had changed babies, bathed babies, fed babies, rocked babies to sleep. I had homeschooled siblings, disciplined siblings, gotten up early to make them breakfast every day and searched for pacifiers in the middle of the night.
I was very adept at caring for the physical needs of the family, and there were countless times that christian women told me how lucky I was to have so much experience with children and housekeeping before I got married.
I did have a lot of experience. I was often exhausted from all the upkeep of the family that I did as a teen. Actually, it took until I had 3 children under 3 years of age to feel that I had the same level of housework and baby care that I had been doing for years back home.
I was not ready to be a mom when I was 12. But in many ways I was expected to be one. No, I had not given birth, and I never had exclusive care of any one child, but at times it came close. Throughout my teens I made breakfast and dinner each day, I was in charge of deep cleaning all 3 bathrooms each week, maintaining the cleanliness of several rooms, and did several loads of laundry each day. I dressed, fed, bathed, and taught siblings. I remember asking my mom if I could have an hour to myself each afternoon where I could do whatever I wanted to and not be interrupted. She replied that it was fine for me to have free time, as long as I finished all of my responsibilities first and I understood that she would still call me if she needed my help. My responsibilities were never fully met, there were just to many of them. Sometimes I would sneak out of the house and read my book on the roof, so it would take her a little longer to find me, it was the only “free time” I had. I hardly ever went anywhere, so I was always able to be on hand to help out. As the oldest, when my mom was too sick or too tired to get up, I was in charge of the entire household. Children, meals, housecleaning and laundry included. Sometimes mom was laid up for weeks or months.
So yes, I was an “expert” on caring for children and keeping house. But that didn’t mean that I was ready to do all those things. I remember countless times when I was short, sarcastic or just plain mean to the many younger siblings who were adding to the work load or making my life more difficult. I was responsible for many things, I was supposed to direct the kids and keep everything under control, and if I failed to get everything done or keep the kids on track, I was punished. So I was motivated to make them perform to sufficient levels and that meant being bossy and pushy and even punishing them if I had too. I felt like a sell-out for perpetuating a broken system in the interest of avoiding more pain for myself.
I tried so hard. I prayed. I resolved over and over again to be patient and loving and understanding. So many nights I wrote on tear-stained pages of my journal that I had failed again to be the loving servant I wanted to be so badly. Some of those years are blank in my mind, fuzzy, as if they barely existed. Looking back it sounds crazy, but it was my reality for many years.
When I gave birth to my first child I was very confidant in my abilities to care for my baby. Actually it was easy. I loved Ms Action. I nursed her, I bathed her, I played with her, and I rocked her to sleep.
But always in the back of my mind, I knew that she was the first of many children to come. I got only gender-neutral clothing so that I could use it for the babies to come. I trained her to sleep on her own because she had to get used to getting along without me. I decided against doing photo albums, because I would never have the time to do that type of thing for all the other children that were going to come. I remember letting her cry if she fell down and hurt herself, reasoning that if she was hurt badly enough she would come and get me, and I couldn’t train her to be a needy whiny child, I was going to have too many children to tolerate that sort of behavior.
Taking care of one baby took so much less time than running a whole household did, but I didn’t know how to enjoy that. I had a hard time figuring out what to do with myself. I would dress and change and feed the baby, put her in her bouncer, and be bored. Old habits died hard, I would clean and do laundry, and feel guilty if I “fell behind”. If the baby got in the way of what I was doing, I had a hard time being patient and loving, she was preventing me from completing my task! I had no interests or hobbies, I was a stay-at-home mom, that was my calling and dream, all I needed was a few more kids and I would be busy.
The pattern continued as more children arrived. I would take care of their physical needs and then sit around and wonder what else to do. I was bored with cleaning the house, and with no one to get on my case for letting things slip, I often let it all go. I was tired, I felt emotionally distant from everyone.
My life changed when I decided to stop spanking my kids. Now that I was actively involved in gentle discipline, that meant learning about the different ages and development levels. Slowly, I stopped seeing my children as little selfish sinful beings that were pitted against me. And I discovered something startling.
My children had personalities of their own. They had things they loved to do, and things they enjoyed talking about. As I started to listen to them and talk with them, I began to do more with them. Now instead of reading them a book to distract them and then leaving them to their own devices, I found myself reading story after story. I started playing with them on the floor, building blanket forts and wrestling and tickling. When I needed to do chores, I found that more and more they wanted to do them with me, My kids wanted to be near me. My kids got more snugly, and started saying things like “I love you mommy” and “you’re my favorite mommy!”
As these last 18 months have flown by, I’ve started to learn how to take care of myself, how to engage with my kids, and how to dream again. It’s as if my children have set me free from the stereotype of womanhood that I was trapped in.
I have new hobbies, I have new ideas and interests. And I struggle with feeling guilty over that. Here I have an opportunity to continue to develop as a mom, and I have dreams of going to college? I always understood motherhood and college as incompatible. I feel ashamed at times for being tired of keeping house and wanting to develop other aspects of my person. I have beautiful babies to raise, isn’t that enough for me? I vacillate between telling myself that I can be content doing what I have always done, and wondering what else there is to me as a person. Yes, I find a large sense of purpose and fulfillment in being the mother of my children, but what else is a part of me? Who am I? What makes me who I am?