Monday, February 13, 2012

From the archives: Life with your hands full

Last May, I guest-posted on another blog about life in a large family. Here's the interview for you to read and enjoy while I head off to the hospital tomorrow to welcome our newest miracle.

What is hard about having a large family? But even more, what do you *love* about it?

I think the three most challenging difficulties for me are:

1. Coming to peace with “good enough.” With eight kids, a busy husband, a large house, a fairly-large piece of property, hobbies and interests to develop, plus Church responsibilities and friends and neighbors to love, it seems that there is always more to do than can be done with my finite capabilities and my limited time. Choosing one area of my life to improve always means that another corner gets neglected. Sometimes things fall through the cracks on accident, and often, I have to let things slide on purpose, reminding myself that I am focusing on what’s most important to do at this time in my life. Sometimes when I make the tough choices to cut out things of lesser worth, it feels like I’m cutting off one of my own limbs and I wonder why it is that I always have to put things aside that I love so dearly. I really don’t want it all, but I do always want more!

But at the same time, when I am truly in tune with what the Lord wants for me and my life, I can see the amazing gifts I have been given. When I count my blessings, I never get to the end. The choices I’ve made to welcome and accept children into my home, even at the sacrifice of other things I love, have refined me and are helping me to become more than I could be otherwise.
2. Fighting exhaustion. As I’ve gotten older, there are more and more commitments that I can’t put aside when I’m tired. There are times in my life – especially the first few months of pregnancy and the first six to eight months with a new baby – when I wish the world would go away for a few hours (or even a few minutes!) so I could just get some sleep. This is a challenge fresh in my mind because my eighth child was my worst sleeper. I didn’t sleep for more than four hours at a time until she was about seven months old, and then she didn’t sleep through the night consistently until eleven months old. I often felt like a drowning woman trying desperately to come up for air, during those long, excruciating months. But much as I wished to give up and take a break from my other responsibilities, I couldn’t do it – there were nine people depending on me! No matter how many times Katie kept me up at night, I got up at 6:45 for scriptures with my family and to help get the kids off to school. I still had three preschoolers to care for and when the kids came home from school, I had to help first-graders with reading and math and the other kids with their chores and responsibilities plus shuttle kids to events and activities. I had shopping to do, meals to make, and a house to keep in order. I cut everything out that I could cut out – including staying home from our family vacation and still felt the waves of responsibility might engulf me and drag me down.

But while life at times like that has been exhausting, there are so many blessings that have come from it. For one thing, I don’t take for granted the times when I do feel rested. For another, when you pay a price for something, you appreciate it more. Katie is an incredible treasure and the Spirit has whispered to me hints of the special soul she is, and those spiritual experiences have come in the midst of my hardest times. I’ve also seen the Lord helping me and lifting my burdens and allowing me strength and patience beyond my own. He has truly carried me and made me equal – though sometimes just barely – to my tasks. My testimony has been strengthened and I feel myself developing greater charity and compassion. I’ve also found that life for everyone has its times of trouble, the dark nights when we feel lost and alone, but that if we hang on with faith, we find ourselves in the light of the morning again, thrilled with the possibilities of a new day.

3. Finding contentment in the hustle-bustle here and now. I think this is a struggle felt universally by all mothers. I believe that Satan’s strongest attack on mothers is two-fold: first, he tells us that what we’re doing isn’t important – that being “just a mother” is a waste of a life. And second, he tells us that we’re not doing it well enough. The irony of those two attacks on motherhood is striking: “You’re not doing good enough at a job that doesn’t even matter!”

I think we all have to fight to hear our Father’s voice in the midst of the loud voices degrading motherhood. We fight to remember and know that this is important work, that the worth of the little souls who enter our lives is great, and that devoting our efforts to the small and simple acts daily that have the potential to nurture these children into amazing individuals is the best work in the world.

And then, once we have come to recognize the importance of motherhood and to feel its divinity, then we have to fight to feel content with our efforts.

In this world of blogs, Facebook, and constant connectedness, I think the second fight is becoming more difficult. We are bombarded with pictures of other people’s perfect lives – the trips they take, the cute things they make, their clean and orderly homes, their adoring husbands, and their perfectly adorable children whose accomplishments must mean they never misbehave like our own kids do. Most people don’t blog or scrapbook (for good reason!) their short-comings and failures, so we mostly get to hear the best of everyone else’s life. My sister-in-law calls it “the never-ending Christmas letter,” and on challenging days, it’s easy to feel as if our own lives are falling short. While it is good to be connected and cheer each other on, too many times women are left wondering why they can’t have what everyone else seems to enjoy.

I believe that one reason the commandment not to covet is one of the ten basic commandments is that coveting destroys your own contentment. I think a modern-day version of it for women could read, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, nor thy neighbor’s well-tended flowerbeds, nor thy neighbor’s perfect husband, nor thy neighbor’s sticky-sweet perfectly-polite children, nor thy neighbor’s trip to Hawaii, nor thy neighbor’s Etsy shop, nor thy neighbor’s leisure time, nor thy neighbor’s talents, wealth, or abilities.”

I personally have to be really careful not to compare myself with others. My choices and my life are very different from most of those around me. Many of my friends who started having children when I did are now done with that stage in life. While I’m still having babies, getting up at night, and potty-training, some of them are sending their last kid off to school, finding more time for hobbies and volunteer work, and meeting their husbands for lunch. I have to remind myself that this is the life I chose. My time for more rest and leisure pursuits will come, and in the meantime, I get to be the most important person to eight amazing little people. When I am prayerful and in tune with the Spirit, it’s easier to find that contentment.

It’s important to find the joy in the journey. If I wait until my house is clean, my children always do the right thing, and my life is running smoothly to find contentment, then I would miss those wonderful moments every day that bring me joy.

As for what I love about having a large family, here are the eight best things about being a mother to a large family:
  1. Lillian
  2. Joseph
  3. Michael
  4. Allison
  5. Sarah
  6. Eliza
  7. Harmony
  8. Katie
These aren’t just names to me – they are unique and precious individuals. Having kids is not like collecting dolls or books. It’s creating an eternal relationship with a unique, amazing, precious individual. I feel so privileged to know and nurture each of these souls, to come to know them and watch them develop their talents and grow. One of my greatest joys is when my children love and serve each other. I love watching the relationships between my children develop. The moments when they serve each other and really care about each other are my happiest.

We’re a little unbalanced in gender in our family.

Yep, just a little, but it’s delightful to have life filled with such great people. My oldest daughter is a talented violinist, scholar, and a creative cook. My two boys are 18 months apart and just a year apart in school. They are often the best of friends, creating elaborate Lego creations together, fighting pirate battles, and supporting one another whole-heartedly. My youngest five girls were born in the span of six years. It is a delight to watch these little ones grow up together and to consider on the wonderful friendships they will enjoy for the rest of their lives and beyond. I’m part of something much larger than myself and I love it.

Are you able to make time for just the two of you? How does a large family affect your marriage?

I’ll admit it – we’re stretched very thin sometimes. We feel stress and we bicker and get annoyed with each other more than we should. But it’s hard to know how much stress on our marriage is because we have lots of kids and how much would be there anyway because we’re two different people with different priorities, ideas, and – shall we say – “management styles.”

We are both Type-A, ambitious individuals and if we didn’t have lots of children, it’s very likely we’d fill our time with other pursuits that would keep us just as stretched, just in different ways. My husband works in a very stressful and demanding profession and that would be a challenge no matter how many kids we had. Last fall, when I stayed home from a family trip with just three of my children, I found myself thinking, “Wow, my life would be so easy with just three kids to take care of!” But almost immediately, I realized it wouldn’t be true. If I didn’t have eight kids, I’d likely be on the PTO, volunteering in the community, probably have a more time-consuming church calling, and would definitely be doing more writing and photography work.

But while the demands of our large family put stress on our marriage, in many ways our marriage is stronger because of it. We are both committed to doing hard things together. We work really well as a team and we depend on each other greatly. And I fall in love with my husband all over again when I see his love and dedication to his children. He loves them each and makes time for them, including my favorite time of year: Daddy Trip Time! Each summer when he takes all the kids ages three and up on a ten-day-long camping, hiking, and exploring trip. The gratitude I feel for the chance to collect my thoughts, reflect on our lives (I work on our family scrapbooks while he’s gone), and enjoy some rest from my regular responsibilities, make up for a multitude of bickering. And really, when you have a husband whose greatest joys are his kids, it’s hard not to adore him.

We have had to be very organized with our time together because of all the other demands on us. There was a time when we weren’t able to do regular dates. We lived in an area for several years that had no young women who could babysit. Since we had no family around, we were simply unable to leave our kids much. But there’s this amazing thing about kids – they grow up. My oldest two are both responsible enough now to be left with their younger siblings, and we have taken full advantage of that. Seriously, you young moms, it changes your life when you have a child old enough to babysit! Friday night for the last few years is date night. We usually go out to dinner and talk at length. Other times, we enjoy the theater or other community events together.

Another tradition we have is that Sunday evening we enjoy a “Master Planning Meeting” with just the two of us. I created an agenda so that we don’t miss anything. We meet, discuss our calendar, plan our family home evenings, discuss our children individually and coordinate our parenting. We are the CEO’s of this crazy family, and this executive meeting has been essential for us to be able to coordinate and work together.

How do you fit in your own pursuits?

I think sometimes that I’m a jack of all trades and a master of none. I love reading, photography, art, Photoshop design, scrapbooking, and writing and I wish I had time to develop each one of those talents to its fullest potential – but I guess that’s what eternity is for, right?
There are several things I do to balance my own needs and to find my time for renewal. The first is that I have created space in my routines for my own pursuits. I love what Julie B. Beck said once about shifts:
In order to prioritize time wisely, I learned something from my father-in-law years ago. He was a steel-worker and spent his life working three different shifts. He either worked the day shift, the afternoon shift, or the night shift. As a young mother I realized one time that I was working all three shifts, and that’s why I was so tired. We can’t do all things all at once, and we have to be careful and safeguard our shifts.”
She goes on to suggest that we need to plan effectively so that we are fresh and ready for the most important shifts.
I have learned that a good woman with the help of the Lord can usually work two to two and a half shifts. However, no one can work all three shifts. You have to prioritize where you are going to spend your energy.
One way I prepare for my most important shift – the afternoon and evening “swing shift” is that I almost never schedule anything during the afternoons. My younger kids take naps and my older preschoolers have a “quiet time.” If I’m pregnant or up at night, that is my time to try to sleep. If I can’t sleep or in those seasons when I don’t need to, then I can use that time for other things that are important to me. I almost never do housework during that time and I don’t run errands. I like to write for my blog or read a book, work on my photography, or catch up on reading other people’s blogs. The time to focus during those quiet hours helps me be ready for the chaos of the afternoon and evening.

I’ve also learned that I can really only focus on one hobby at a time. I can do a tiny bit of lots of things (reading, blogging, photography, etc), but I if I try to intensely work on more than one thing at a time, I’m left feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. So I’ve learned to make goals for the different seasons of my life and I’ve learned to be patient with small and simple efforts that add up over time. Last year, for example, I had this new fancy camera but no idea of how to use it. So I set aside an hour each week to do a photo shoot, I began to read tons of books on the subject and after a year, I got quite good at it. I really enjoy it, and though I have lots more to learn, it’s satisfying to know enough to capture great family memories in my own family and the lives of my friends. In the process of focusing more on photography, many of my other hobbies were mostly put aside.

I often have to evaluate and make changes in the different seasons of my life. Last fall was my season to simplify and cut out almost everything extra. But with my eighth child finally sleeping through the night, I’m at a period right now of more abundant energy and time. My kids are doing more outside activities, including track and horseback riding, and I’ve mostly put aside photography and other things to give all I’ve got to getting my fitness and health back in order. I’m training for two half-marathons this summer (Because if you run 2 halfs, it equals a full, right?) and I’m constantly amazed at what my body is learning to do. I’ve lost a third of the weight I need to, and I’m thrilled at the progress I’m making. Up until two years ago, I hadn’t ever run a mile in my life, so this is new and challenging. I feel a great sense of urgency to improve my fitness so I can be strong and available for all my children as they get older, as well as be strong for the children yet to join our family.

What advice would you give to another mom who feels overwhelmed by her responsibilities, whether with a large or small family?

I think the key to finding joy and contentment in life is developing a strong relationship with the Father of us all. Coming to know him and understanding His will for us helps us deal with the pressures that come from every side. For me, that relationship is developed through daily scripture study, regular prayers, and quiet moments to ponder. With God’s help, we can receive the help and strength we need to do whatever is necessary (though not everything we often think is needed) to fulfill our responsibilities. With His help, we can understand our children and better meet their needs. He loves us and wants us to succeed.


Maryanne said...

Are you being induced? I'll be thinking of you, your new little one, and the rest of your family. Thanks for posting this-- it's chock-full of great insights and good reminders. And I really enjoyed the link to that blog post about mormons' connection to the "real world."

Handsfullmom said...

Yep -- induction is set for tomorrow, Valentines Day. Should be exciting.

Mama Rachel said...

I'm so excited for you! I wish you a WONDERFUL birth for your new little one. Mazel tov!


Kelly said...

I loved that post. It was inspiring, I still don't know how you do it!! Good luck tomorrow! Can't wait to see pics and here all about it!

Kirsten said...

Oh I've been checking everyday to see when your little one was arriving! My little nephew arrived yesterday (V day) too! How exciting. I can't wait to see pictures. You've been such an inspiration lately and I'm so glad to have connected with you again!! Good luck in the next couple of days....

Corine said...

Hey, you must have the latest addition now! Congratulations! :D I hope all went well.
PS. Thanks for your awesome blog! :)

mommyx12 said...

We're a wee bit unbalanced too in the gender area! Nine girls and three boys!

Rachelle said...

LOVE, love, love these thoughts - THANK YOU!!


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