I remember when I was pregnant with our twins, now 8, several years before our third child was even a possibility, and a friend told me that the extreme nausea and vomiting I had been suffering as a result of hormonal shifts—that the extended period of physical exhaustion and strain that we would experience when we finally brought two babies home from the hospital—would one day seem easy compared to the emotional demands of raising older children.
When we did eventually begin to care for our infants, who took turns squalling, feeding, pooping and sleeping, just to begin the cycle all over again two hours later but unfortunately not on a synchronized schedule, I quickly realized that nothing in my previous 36 years had prepared me for this brave new world of child rearing. I wondered how my friend, herself the parent of two older kids, could be accurate—how this foreign territory that my husband and I had just stepped into could possibly become more hazardous than it already seemed at that moment.
Despite our anxiety and ineptitude, our twins miraculously survived their early years and have been striding forward into the world, their younger sister, arriving three years later, dog-paddling in their wakes in her frantic attempts to keep up. Of course with Jane, now nearly 5, Jeff and I were much less worried about every bottle and belch. Seasoned sleepwalkers by day, we registered her nighttime feedings more as blips on a radar screen than as seismic shifts in our lives.
But right away after Jane arrived, I began to sense just how prescient my friend had been. Amidst our surging love for our children, my husband and I often experienced an even greater sense of disequilibrium than we had when our twins were born. Griffin and Georgia were understandably jealous, the competition for attention suddenly exponentially increased with the introduction of an infant to suck up their parents’ energy.
“Jane won’t always be so little,” we consoled them. “Someday you will be able to play with her and enjoy having a younger sister.”
This has proven somewhat true. But our family unit also frequently feels off-kilter and the conflicts more intense.
Jane and her older sister now often engage in games, making “little people” houses for their Polly Pockets out of the Styrofoam casing our new microwave came in or playing school, using wet tissues to wipe their easel. I find the papers dried out, stringy with ink, days later on the floor of the basement, next to the discarded tennis balls our son diverted himself with while his sisters were absorbed with each other.
“They won’t let me play with them,” Griffin sometimes complains.
I console him, and if I’m free at that moment, I offer to share a hand of Crazy Eights or to examine together his baseball card collection. My son usually turns me down, a parental companion seeming second best to the company of his preoccupied siblings.
I often feel like a cloud of impenetrable injustice is hovering over our house—and in our children’s minds.
“Griffin and Jane never get in trouble,” Georgia cries.
“You never let me do anything I want to do,” Griffin says.
“Why do I have to wear a sweatshirt if Georgia and Griffin don’t?” Jane demands.
She will be able to make these decisions for herself when she is her brother and sister’s age, I answer.
“I’ll never be their age,” Jane retorts, which is true—just as it’s true that our children’s feelings, though sometimes inaccurate in reality, are always valid in the way they interpret their surroundings.
And despite our best efforts to make our home a safe, loving and stable one—my husband and I decided long ago that that goal would trump all other priorities—ever more complex issues keep arising. At each turn, we face new problems that we feel we will never be able to solve.
Recently, I was chatting with a neighbor about the challenges of re-wiring our 110-year-old house, which required breaking into most of our ancient plaster walls. She commiserated, describing how trying to fix a leak years ago revealed that the joists supporting their second floor were rotten.
“It’s like when you find out you have cancer or your kids are on drugs, you can’t ignore it,” she said. “You have to deal with it.”
Her words felt particularly poignant to me that morning, standing in the dewy grass with our dogs, since my husband and I had just learned that one of our children had been silently suffering. Even though we were attentive parents, we had misjudged the volume of the pain until it overflowed, and our hearts cracked open.
But through the aching we have been carrying on, like most people find themselves doing in the face of life’s challenges. We have been discovering new depths to our love for our children and seeking the help we will all need to heal.
And as I have continued to move through the daily drop-offs and pick-ups and meet-ups with friends, I have been reminded, as I often am during times of pain, that my own vulnerability opens me up wider to others, expanding my capacity for empathy.
A friend whose life appeared from the outside to be perfect—as the lives of others often do—recently shared that she and her husband had entered counseling. I felt a rush of tenderness for this woman and for the other mothers who have confided to me of late about their own struggles with their children. And I am developing an even greater appreciation for this formidable journey of parenting that we have embarked upon from which there is no turning back but only moving forward into more complex and fertile lands.
I am finding that our recent heartache has been deepening my sense of compassion for my husband, my children and all those I encounter—and that I am still able to laugh—like when my childhood friend recently texted me that she had ordered a load of guinea pig hay on Amazon and almost shipped it to our address, which, for whatever reason, always appears on her screen as a default.
“I could actually use some guinea pig hay,” I responded, laughing out loud and imagining spreading it over the gashes in our old plaster walls and on the wounds in our hearts.
And I felt suddenly lighter.
I knew that we would survive these fresh challenges and all of those that confront us until the end of our days, recalling "All's Well That Ends Well" and Shakespeare's observation that "the web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together"—knowing that this tangle-up is what makes parenting so heart-cracking and rich and worth it all in the end.