motherhood,  Parenting,  toddlers

Middle ages and middle children

I’ve been sloooowly slogging my way through Kristin Lavransdatter these past few weeks…okay for the past month, much longer than I anticipated taking to plumb the depths of this literary gem, so shame on me for not bowing in the face of an intellectual superior like Sigrid Undset. But more than than anything, it’s the fantastical scandanavian pronunciations that have me reading at a 6th grade level trying to sound out the Erlands and Bjorngulfs and Torgrids Ulfssons and the like. That and the raw, gripping power with which the author delivers. Oh my gosh, if I had a dollar for every time while reading this book that I’ve set it down and choked back a silent sob while looking longingly down the hall at my sleeping babies’ rooms…well I wouldn’t be sticking to a grocery budget, that’s for sure.

The tragic heroine of this epic has 8 sons. 8 sons. And her musings on motherhood and raising little men has me squeezing my little men extra tight. Especially my John Paul, my sweet little chunk-of-an-almost-2-year-old, alternately a baby and then a little boy, seemingly minute by minute.

After reading one particularly poignant passage last night where Kristin merged the memories of her grown sons toddlerhoods with the imagined progression of a dead baby’s development into a crawler and then wobbling walker, giggly and enthusiastic over everything the world – and particularly the outdoors – had to offer, it took every bit of restraint not to leap out of bed and scoop my chubby man out of his crib to squeeze him. Hard.

Her reflections on chubby baby cheeks and fat toddler thighs and dirty little hands patting mama’s face…oh, it almost brought me to tears. Even now, typing it, I’m struck with the strangest longing to go and whisk him away from his nest on the couch where he’s snuggled up beside his big brother watching Daniel Tiger ad nasuem, sucking down a sippy cup full of Emergen-C (rough week on the homestead). But I sit and write instead, hoping to capture for posterity a picture of the intensity of my love for this middle child. This sweet little person who is caught between babyhood and preschool, who is by hours a fierce backyard warrior and then a crying puddle of needs and wants. He is so sweet and so young, and yet sometimes I can see a glimpse of the little boy he is becoming before my eyes, and it is so bittersweet.

Maybe it’s the lot of all middle children, to remind their parents of where their oldest was, and to point them toward where the baby is headed. He’s such a funny little creature, caught between wanting his paci and blanket and trying to bust through the door at preschool, following his big brother to the ends of the earth.

In some ways he ceased to be a baby the moment the pink lines appeared on that stick, announcing his sister’s imminent arrival. In other ways though, he’s remained longer in sweet babyhood, vacillating between the poles of independence and neediness he sees in the sibling sandwich he fills.

I hope I never forget his fat, pink, round cheeks…his huge blue eyes blinking in confusion when he does something wrong, and dark lashes dripping tears of contrition when he gets busted. Oh John Paul, you know you’re not supposed to fish in the toilet. Don’t look so mournful.

I’ll probably finish this infernal (and quite excellent, don’t get me wrong) book sometime this week. And I’ll sigh with relief and pleasure, having conquered this medieval period of Scandinavian history. But I’ll probably look at my little men differently from here on out, watching with a mixture of impatience and painful regret as they transition from needy little lap dwellers to bold, wandering warriors seeking their fortunes in the world. One day my lap will be empty. My hands will be idle, no sippy cups to fill and no noses to wipe. No waistbands to hoist up and no tantrums to referee. I do look forward to those days. But I also see the present moments slipping through my fingers and I mourn their passing, as strange as it sounds. Even on the hardest days, and even when the hours till bedtime stretch out in the most impossible manner.

Kristin has given me a glimpse of one possible future, of an empty nest and a broken, thankful heart, and for that I’m grateful, fictional character or no.

Little boys are tiny men, after all, growing not only up but also away from their mamas.



  • Beth (A Mom's Life)

    Beautiful! Just beautiful, Jenny.

    Every now and then, I catch my breath as I glance at a picture of my babies when they were babies and it takes me to the same bittersweet place. Happy that they are growing up and healthy and so alive. And sad that they are growing out and away from me and our little family.

    (And her hair! I’m so glad she still has it all!)

  • October Rose

    Oh my gosh. I have this book sitting on the side table waiting to be read and now I’m excited and nervous to pick it up. Little boys do so break your heart in the most beautiful ways.

  • Ellen Johnson

    This is such a beautiful reflection, Jenny. I read that book way too long ago (as in, way before I was mature enough to read it) and I’ve been wanting to revisit it for a while. Now that I have a little boy on the way, maybe now’s a good time!


    Sniff, sniff. Well said. There have been so many occasions lately for me to look at my boys in mournful wonder of how precious they are and how fast they’re growing. I guess I’ll have to check out that book for a few more.

  • Sara

    I am reading it for the 2nd time now. This is my first year as an empty nest parent…1st Grandchild due in Sept….yeah! Years ago another woman told me she read it every 5 years as our perspective as a mother changes. So true…it is like reading a new book the 2nd time.

  • Mary

    Beautiful, Jenny. Reading KL is its own reward. Sara’s words above about reading every 5 years are probably a pretty good idea. If House of Brede (another book about women, I hear) weren’t next in my queue, I’d read it again now, since I first read it the year I married. I’m with you on the little boy caught between babyhood and boy land… every day during his tantrums I say how much I hate this phase, and every night with his cuddles and lingering hugs, I say how much I don’t want this phase to end.

  • Kris

    I’m going to have to get that book, with my oldest son getting ready to graduate from high school and fly the nest. A bittersweet moment for sure. We were talking about his baby days just the other night and it made me choke up a little to see a man sitting before me and remember my sweet baby who wouldn’t leave my side.

  • assortedjoys

    Kristin… she is like a long, lost friend. That book has stuck with me and was sort of a life changer (just in terms of giving me a new lens on the things I was already doing – family, Catholicism, living liturgically, being a wannabe homesteader…). I cannot say enough good things about it. I think maybe it is time for a reread this summer!

  • Eliese

    Lovely. Just did a night time check of my soon-to-be-middle little guy (boy #3 in August). I picked up KL once and got scared off in a page or two by the laborious names but my mom’s been pestering me to read it for forever so maybe I will. I am actually just in the middle of – and very much enjoying – Ida Elisabeth, also by Undset. Based on your observations and my own experience with this book, I suspect Undset has a talent for making mothers a bit weepy. Anyhow, I recommend Ida Elisabeth too – still lots of crazy Norwegian names but not quite as wild since it’s set in the modern era!

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