photo by Geoffrey Gilmour-Taylor, through flickr.com
Having four kids – especially four boys – gives me a fair bit of street cred with other parents on the playground.
I can see people scanning my little group. Noting. Counting. And then they make eye contact with me:
“Wow – they’re all yours?”
“So wait – you’ve got FOUR BOYS?”
“What’s the age gap?”
… and so forth.
And then comes the inevitable,
“You must be BUSY!”
“Wow – that must be so hard!”
Usually followed by,
“I can barely manage one/two/three!” [as applicable]
Sure, it’s nice getting respect for having bred. I mean, I’ll take some kudos for actually having popped them out the old-fashioned way and working hard to nurse them. But mainly people are just impressed because we have so many kids. Around here, one or two is the norm; three is a large family, and four is (judging by the looks and comments) right up there with 19 Kids and Counting.
A little honesty is in order here – there’s a subtle self-deprecation in these comments other parents make to me, and I can’t just let them go on appearances (classic over-sharer, right here).
And so I answer them, with complete honesty.
I could barely manage when I had one. One was busy. One was hard.
Two under three? Been there, done that – got the spit-up stained T-shirt… Two was busy. Two was HARD.
Three? Yeah. Sing it, sista/brotha. Hard. Busy. I could barely manage.
And four? Yep, same story. Having kids is, by nature, busy. It is, if you are doing it right, hard. It requires things of you that have never been required of you before. SO often (especially in those exhausting, amazing early years), you’re just barely managing.
I find it’s especially the harried, depleted mothers of two little ones who look on me with something bordering on reverence. There I stand before them, freshly showered (they can tell, ‘cause my hair’s still wet…) and wearing matching shoes. To them I appear to be a veritable paragon of togetherness; while their preschooler is pinching another kid in the sandbox and their toddler is feeding himself handfuls of bark mulch, at this particular moment, all of my boys are being good and safe. My older two are walking on either side of my baby and my kindergartener is entertaining himself on the slide… This stage I’m in looks so idyllic, and so unattainable to a Mamma like this, who regards the scene with bloodshot eyes (which have to keep darting from one child to another to make sure she’s still got them both close at hand) and an undisguised tinge of envy. She wonders at how it could ever get so easy, for her.
So I tell these Mammas, too, the truth of it:
It gets easier. And in the ways that it doesn’t get easier, it gets different.
And I also tell them, as often as I can, that they’re doing so well. They are. I look at them, and I wonder at how they seem to have it all together. There they are, with their two little ones whom they could just as easily have kept at home, and they’re out there providing them with fresh air and wide spaces. As they sit there and nurse their babies while they keep an eye on a toddler by the swings, they really look like they’re rocking this motherhood thing. I wish I could have managed so well when I was at that stage – I was always struggling, and everything always seemed like such.hard.work…
When I was at their stage, I used to look up to Mammas like me, too – Mammas who had been in the trenches a while longer than I had – and I used to imagine that they knew all the answers. I figured that they were experts, at least compared to me.
Of course, it’s not always a like a meeting of the Mutual-Admiration Society when I’m out in public with my boys. There are also sometimes negative comments:
“Oh, you POOR THING! All boys!”
“You must wish you had at least one girl!”
“Did you cry when the last one turned out to be another boy?”
Weirdly, cruelly, so often said within earshot of my beloved sons.
But foolish people provide an excellent opportunity to practice grace. In fact, my Dad gave me a great reply once when I was fretting over having to give a presentation in a tutorial; I’d told him about the superior and challenging manner in which some of my classmates seemed to interrogate presenters. He said, “You should tell them, ‘Well, I always say there’s no such thing as a stupid question – so let me try to address that for you…’” I didn’t end up having to use it, but it gave me something to smile about as I faced my peers later that day.
So when people say these silly things, I tamp down my anger and frustration and force a smile as I reply (again, truthfully),
“You know, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s busy, it’s noisy, and there are a lot of them. But I am SO BLESSED. These guys are great boys.”
Sometimes I add more, too, about what great friends they are and how well they care for the little guy; how they help me with things and how they’re learning how to behave like gentlemen. I don’t say this defensively, but conversationally – because I really want these people to hear what I’m saying. And I always hope that my boys hear what I’m saying, too.
But mostly I get positive comments and generous feedback – because people cut you a whole LOT of slack when you’ve got more kids than hands.
I especially love it how other parents will watch me racing around after a disobedient child (while also shouting behind me at another one to “Getbackintotimeout!” and reminding another not to step in the puddles with his regular shoes and breathlessly reassuring the littlest, “Berightback!”) and then just nod knowingly to each other – She’s got four boys.
I can be wading frantically through mud to talk a kid down from a too-high perch (while simultaneously berating him for not listening in the first place), abandoning my post with the (saner) mothers to leap across the playground and admonish the son brandishing a stick, scrambling to get to the baby when he has decided to practice his ladder-climbing with nobody around to spot him; it pretty much doesn’t matter how I humiliate myself – those parents just chuckle and agree, “She’s just doing what it takes. *I* could never manage four boys. I take my hat off to her.”
Somehow, it would appear, I am now seen as something of an expert; and as such, I am granted some respect. I am forgiven for having a messy house, for not planning Pinterest-worthy craft sessions, for yelling too much, and for plenty of other failings – simply because I have a bunch of kids. I need no further excuse for my shortcomings and I am generously deemed a ‘good’ mother in spite of great evidence to the contrary.
But what is an expert, really?
My hubby has always joked that the true definition of an expert is this:
x = the unknown quantity & spurt = ‘a drip under pressure’
And that’s all I am – a drip under pressure.
Yes, I have the benefit of time; it has been a few years since I was mothering two-under-three as a newbie parent – and so I have been able to improve in some areas with my second two.
Yes, I have the benefit of some experience; I’ve now been parenting for nine years. Whew!
Yes, I have the benefit of four kids to better understand sibling rivalry, the dynamics of differing personalities in a family, and how to enhance our bond with one another.
But I’m also still working things out. I’m still adjusting, and growing, and failing.
It’s hard. It’s busy. Sometimes I can barely manage.
We all need a place to face our fears and our failings as mothers, and yet walk away encouraged in the knowledge that what we are doing is good and necessary. Why can’t the playground be that place? Why can’t church? Why can’t the coffee shop?
Why don’t we just get real with each other. I would hope that all those parents who give me admiring glances would extend the same grace to themselves; chances are, if they were to look honestly in the mirror, they’d see that they were doing a far better job than they think. In fact, if we all just looked at the things we are doing right (without succumbing to complacency), we’d probably have a much more accurate perspective on how we’re doing as parents overall.
So let’s all just agree on this, shall we? Nobody’s an expert at this parenting gig. You may know better, but not do better. I may have made a mistake in the past and then repeat it in the future. You will do well at one thing and I’ll do well at another. But never, ever, undervalue what it is that you do in the face of what someone else appears to be doing. If you feel that pang of wanting to parent better, to be more patient and more loving and more creative and more fun, then the chances are that you’re already doing pretty well. And there’s always room for improvement – always.
I know that a lot of you who read my blog know me in real life – so you are under no delusions about me being a perfect parent. You’ve seen me mortified when my kids have said something inappropriate. You’ve seen me sweat it out trying to keep them under control in a pew – or even trying to get them into the pew on time (just once would be nice!)… You’ve heard me share my heart about all the mistakes I make on a daily basis, and how I fear that these failures of mine will haunt me when my boys grow up to be thugs.
I know that you know me to be a truly imperfect parent and – when all is said and done – just a novice, like everyone else.
So if you see someone shooting an admiring glance at me as I troop past with my brood, do me a favour, will you? Just give them a gentle nudge and remind them:
She’s an expert, you think? Well, you know what they say:
An expert is just a drip under pressure!