To the Mother With Only One Child
Dear Mother of Only One Child,
Don’t say it. Before the words can even pass your lips, let me beg you: don’t say, “Wow, you have nine kids? I thought it was hard with just my one!”
My dear, it is hard. You’re not being a wuss or a whiner when you feel like your life is hard. I know, because I remember having “only one child.” You may not even believe how many times I stop and reflect on how much easier my life is, now that I have nine children.
All right, so there is a lot more laundry. Keeping up with each child’s needs, and making sure they all get enough attention, is a constant worry. And a stomach bug is pretty much the end of the world, when nine digestive tracts are afflicted.
But I remember having only one child, and it was hard—so very hard. Some of the difficulties were just practical: I didn’t know what I was doing, had to learn everything. People pushed me around because I was young and inexperienced. But even worse were the emotional struggles of learning to be a mother.
When I had only one child, I truly suffered during those long, long, long days in our little apartment, no one but the two of us, baby and me, dealing with each other all day long. I invented errands and dawdled and took the long way home, but still had hours and hours to fill before I would hear my husband’s key in the door.
I cared so much what other people thought about her—they had to notice how beautiful she was, they had to be impressed at my natural mothering skills. I obsessed over childhood development charts, tense with fear that my mothering was lacking—that I hadn’t stimulated her enough, or maybe had just passed on the wrong kind of genes. I cringe when I remember how I pushed her—a little baby!—to achieve milestones she wasn’t ready for.
I lived in terror for her physical safety (I once brought her to Urgent Care, where the doctor somewhat irritably diagnosed a case of moderate sniffles) fearing every imaginable disease and injury. In my sleep-deprived state, I would have sudden insane hallucinations that her head had fallen off, her knees had suddenly broken themselves in the night, and so on.
My husband didn’t know how to help me. I didn’t know how to ask for help. My husband had become a father, and I adored him for it. My husband got to leave the house every day, and sleep every night. He got to go to the bathroom alone. I hated him for it.
When I had only one child, I told myself over and over that motherhood was fulfilling and sanctifying and was filling my heart to the brim with peace and satisfaction. And so I felt horribly guilty for being so bored, so resentful, so exhausted. This is a joyful time, dammit! I should enjoy being suddenly transformed into the Doyenne of Anything that Smells Bad.
I loved my baby, I loved pushing her on the swing, watching squirrels at the park together, introducing her to apple sauce, and watching her lips move in joyful dreams of milk. But it was hard, hard, hard. All this work: is this who I am now? I remember!
So now? Yes, the practical parts are a thousand times easier: I’m a virtuoso. I worry, but then I move along. Nobody pushes me around, and I have helpers galore. Someone fetches clean diapers and gets rid of the dirty ones. When the baby wakes up in the middle of the night for the ten thousandth time, I sigh and roll my eyes, maybe even cry a little bit for sheer tiredness—but I know it will pass, it will pass.
It’s becoming easier, and it will be easier still. They are passing me by.
I’m broken in. There’s no collision of worlds. We’re so darn busy that it’s a sheer delight to take some time to wash some small child’s small limbs in a quiet bath, or to read The Story of Ferdinand one more time. Taking care of them is easy. It’s tiring, it’s frustrating, but when I stop and take a breath, I see that it’s almost like a charade of work. All these things, the dishes, the diapers, the spills—they must be taken care of, but they don’t matter. They aren’t who I am.
To become a mother, I had to learn how to care about someone more than I did about myself, and that was terrible. But who I am now is something more terrible: the protector who can’t always protect; the one with arms that are designed to hold, always having to let go.
Dear mother of only one child, don’t blame yourself for thinking that your life is hard. You’re suffering now because you’re turning into a new woman, a woman who is never allowed to be alone. For what? Only so that you can become strong enough to be a woman who will be left.
When I had only one child, she was so heavy. Now I can see that children are as light as air. They float past you, nudging against you like balloons as they ascend.
Dear mother, don’t worry about enjoying your life. Your life is hard; your life will be hard. That doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong—it means you’re doing it right.