large family,  motherhood,  Parenting,  toddlers

Leaving baby land

I just had a 5 minute conversation with my seven year old where I used words like “extroversion, introversion, resources, and primary vocation. He blinked his understanding to me and I really felt like we were having a moment, a real meeting of the minds.

I asked him if he understood what we’d just covered, and he nodded. Then I asked if he had any questions.

“Yeah. Uh, Mommy” he began, hesitantly. “Can I go put some pants on now?”

I’m in a weird in between place right now with family life. Everyone is still heavily dependent upon Dave and I for almost all their basic needs, but there are also glimpses of a shifting landscape. Just now, the child I was conversing with wandered off to find pants and, finding none, ran a load of damp laundry through the dryer of his own volition.

Folks, that’s what we call a paradigm shift. Also in this category: baby sleeping through the night, school aged kids who are able to empty the dishwasher, a preschooler who no longer needs intensive bathtime supervision, and sufficient energy (or desperation) to rise early from sleep and steal an hour for prayer and exercise before the kids are up.

I’m having these moments I can only describe as existential lurch”- where I have the distinct feeling I should be doing something and I’m not really sure what that something is. I look around and yes, the floor needs to be mopped and I really should finish those school forms and that project isn’t going to write itself, and also, why is it so hard to remember to fill up the gas tank before the empty light goes on? It’s weird to come out of survival mode and to look around and wonder “do I still know how to be a functional adult?” after so many concurrent years of night wakings and mopping up barf.

We are by no means out of the baby years, as the current stakeholder baby in thaet positionfamily is only 6 months on the job, but it’s a totally different landscape to have an almost 8-year-old and a 6 -year-old along for the ride. The 2-year-old is mentally unbalanced, and I say that with the utmost charity, truly, but last month I opened the bathroom door and started screaming, finding him perched (naked) on the countertop, drinking water directly from an older brother’s dirty soccer cleat as water from the still-running facet flowed over the basin, spilling onto the floor.

But, you’re probably thinking, this kid is feral and unsupervised and it serves you right, you neglectful social media peruser.

Nay, I say to you, I was standing just outside the doorway at the kitchen counter, chopping vegetables for a healthy dinner, audibly supervising what I had reason to believe was a valiant toileting effort in progress.

You should see some of the stuff he does when he’s actually unsupervised.

But even with crazy Luke, even with little teeny baby Zay, life is still a little… easier? Less physically grueling? than it was a baby or two ago, thanks to the maturity of my older kids.

At the same time, I now lie awake at night pondering the day’s events and agonizing over my mistakes and shortcomings. I feel very much out of my depth to parent a kid with a conscience, and, just like breastfeeding was agonizingly difficult the first time around, so is trying to explain the existence of evil, or what is really happening at Mass and why it’s necessary for us to go every week, and how come the neighbor kid can’t actually move in with us, and where money comes from, and why cemeteries exist, and why you can’t use Siri without mommy and daddy’s supervision, and, and, and…

I’m going to be honest, I’m terrified to leave babyland.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m exhausted. I’m more than ready to drop the 40 lbs I can’t seem to shake after this 5th pregnancy. And boy oh boy, am I ready to sleep (consistently) through the night again, but, control freak that I am, parenting older kids scares the hell out of me.

What if I mess up and they (insert trauma here)? Spoiler alert: I will. I have. I am. And they might, and they could, and they are.

I know this on an intellectual level and I always have, but it’s easy to look down at a trusting little baby or even a mischievous little 4-year-old and think “You’re never going anywhere. I’ll always be able to hold you in my lap and keep you safe.”

I think this may be what all those older moms in the checkout line are getting at when they wistfully or ironically assure me that it all goes by so fast.

It does, and it doesn’t.

I’m crawling along to mile marker 5 of the marathon of parenting and I’m recognizing I have years ahead of me, some of them grueling, but I’m also looking back and seeing the ground we’ve already covered and sort of pining for it, retrospectively. This current season, too, will surely be one I long for in the years to come. Zelie could be our last baby, for all I know.

The frontier we’re crossing into is uncharted territory for us. These are years my kids will remember. These are experiences and lessons that will shape their personalities and mold their characters.

I am not up for the task.

I am inadequate.

And no amount of reading or research or application of guaranteed magical techniques can ensure a good outcome.

Then again, neither did any of the one million baby books I consumed like manna from heaven. If only oh crap 3 day potty training had delivered as promised. If only having the happiest baby on our block had more to do with my mothering prowess and less to do with dumb luck and genetics.

I want an instruction manual. I want the promise of perfection and a guarantee of success. I don’t want to parent kids to adulthood in this scary, crazy world full of suffering and violence and chaos. I want heaven now. I want the resurrection without the cross. I want victory without death. I want God to speak directly to me and to be able to hear Him, crystal clear, and to be able to follow His suggestions effortlessly and without hesitation.

I don’t know that I’m up for this next level of motherhood. And I have five kids who won’t stop eating and outgrowing their shoes and so level up I must, somehow.

This is the part where I tie it all together with an uplifting or inspirational realization. Except, I don’t have anything to offer. That is what it feels like at the end of another long, hot day of summer parenting. They all wore sunscreen and they ate a couple vegetables, but in the grand scheme of things, I tend to feel like I’m failing them a little bit every day, one day at a time.

I guess that’s the lesson? I guess parenting, like life, is the sort of gig that humbles you as you go along, and instead of progressing in acumen and technique you become ever more convinced of your inadequacy and suspect that it might one day become apparent to everyone around you that you are, in fact, making it up as you go along.

Younger moms, you are in the most grueling and physically intense thick of it right now. I always tell people who express wonder at being able to handle more than two that however many kids you have, you are maxed out. Full stop. There is nothing harder than having as many kids as you have right now. And when you’re knee deep in the baby trenches and literally can’t remember taking a shower by yourself, you think this is your life now, forever. And that it will never get any easier.

It will not be easier. But it will be different. That’s the scary part, for me. Stepping out into the unknown and wondering if the gps is offline, and can I really do this part? The baby part you just have to do. They are crying and fussing and depending utterly and you have no choice.

It feels like this part of parenting has more agency, more heft to it, besides the glaring and obvious burden of, you know, keeping a helpless human being alive and fed.

My kids can forage for granola bars and fill their own water bottles now, but they cannot shape their own hearts. And I look around and realize, with a start, that they’re all looking to me. And it feels crazy! Isn’t there a grown up somewhere who is running this show?

Permanently 17 on the inside, I’m telling you! But I fake a smile and put some more hot dogs in the microwave and pray that grace will cover my multitude of sins.


  • Julie

    I am convinced that being a parent is simply God’s way of helping us die to self, to turn to Him, to learn to rely on HIM, not ourselves and to grow in holiness. I just keep entrusting my kids to Our Blessed Mother and ask her to fill in my many missing gaps/mistakes/selfishness, etc. My children’s only hope is my constant prayers for their well-being and for them to know, love and serve God. Lord, help us.

  • Margaret

    I had a bit of a shock when I realized that my husband, the man I have loved since he was a 17 year old, will be almost 40 when our 4th baby starts kindergarten. Excuse me, what now? Weren’t we high school sweethearts *in high school* 5 minutes ago?

  • Lauren

    Ah! Exactly this. These thoughts are exactly what had me feeling scared and unable to fall asleep last night. Baby 5 will be here any day, and our oldest is 7 as well. Knowing I’m not the only one feeling this way and reading Searching for and Maintaining Peace by Fr. Jacques is getting me through the final anxiety-ridden week-thanks Jenny!

  • Lisa

    This morning I was sipping my coffee, thinking Cora was quietly looking at books in the corner and blissfully ignorant that she was actually eating from a big can of fish food! Caked All over her hands and mouth…two is such a freaking feral age. (although the label does list that there’s B12 in the food, so there’s that)

  • Kim Jansen

    Wow, you have laid bare my heart. I feel this I am expecting #6 with other kids ranging from ages 2-15.

    Thank you for the reminder that I’m not alone.

    My husband Jim used to be a FOCUS missionary with your hubby. Please tell
    him hello!

  • Kelly

    Yes to all of this. Once my oldest was 8 and then 10, and now 12, I keep looking around and thinking we’re not merely surviving. I wouldn’t call it thriving but I can see how it’s possible to do this big(ish) family thing once you get out of the all tiny children/babies stage.

    And yes to the overwhelm at the responsibility of all of it. It’s a lot of prayer and a lot of ‘your will be done’ practice. oh boy.

  • Bailey

    I have 4 kiddos, ages 11,8,5, and 2 and most of your parenting posts seem to be describing my life. I also have a feral 2 year old! 🙂 The above description was about your child, but seriously, I envisioned mine as I read it.
    I feel like I am in a strange time of life right now because my older two are becoming much more capable of helping out around the house and easing those burdens (SO.MUCH. LAUNDRY.) but I still have the two little ones as well and I just feel like I’ve been parenting littles FOREVER. I know someday when they are all big, I will miss the simplicity of toddlers and babies but right now is not someday!

  • Mary

    Jenny, you have a gift for putting words to what many of us are feeling but can’t quite pin down. My oldest is eight and my youngest 3 weeks, and I *finally* kind of have this newborn thing down, but I am wholly inadequate and full of self-doubt when it comes to what my oldest now needs. Thank you for your thoughtful writing. It’s so good to know I am not alone.

  • Gina

    I am not where you are in life just yet. I have an almost 22-month-old and a little one on the way in just under 4 weeks. That being said, I still flash forward to the future and worry about molding and shaping their consciences, protecting them from the evil influences of this world, and what I can do now to keep them in the Church later. (Someone recommended consecrating children to Mary and/or the Holy Family.) The feelings that you describe instantly brought to my mind the Thomas Merton prayer. The words really resonate with me. “The fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.” The whole prayer is great, but those lines really speak to me. We’re not always going to do it right, but maybe having the earnest desire to do it right is still something that we can find solace in, because God knows we are really trying.

  • Mom of many

    A very wise man once told me that the faith is spread through affection and osmosis. I loved that because I think the most important thing you can do for your kids as you try to raise them into faithful adults is chase the most intimate of relationships with our Lord like a bloodthirsty hound. There is no silver bullet. No consecration or catechetical program or novena or prayer routine is going to form your kids to the point that you don’t have to worry. You could do none of that and they could still turn out faithful. Or all of it and they could leave the Church. The only thing you can really control is yourself. You are doing so great but I think sometimes you can be too hard on yourself! Jesus hand picked 12 disciples and one of them still betrayed him. Life is so beautiful and good Jenny. Yes there is evil but honestly our times are not the worst the world has seen. I think one of the tricks the evil one plays is to focus on the bad, leading to fear and anxiety, which are never of God. Relax, trust, and try to enjoy the good in this life. You must trust that He loves your children infinitely more than you do, or you will never find peace.

  • Cecilia

    I found that the more children I had, the easier it became. Has anyone else experienced this?
    I have 5 and it was most out of control & chaotic right after the birth of my second child, when her older sister was 20 months old. everything steadily improved after that.

  • Annette

    God bless for doing God’s will. I have an older in her 20s and 10 year old I had surprisingly at age 42. God knew we needed him. God trusted me with another chance at mothering. May I not blow it

  • Melissa

    I laughed out loud when I read the “permanently 17” only because I know what mean! 45 and six kids 2-13 years and I know what you mean. AND yes prayer for grace to fill the gaps of my efforts. I enjoy your posts. Thank you and God Bless you and yours!

  • Mary A Patti

    You are a better parent than you think. That is a title of a book written by Dr. Ray Guarendi heard on Sacred Heart Radio. You should read some of his books. Easy reading & practical advice. Wish I had his advice when my kids were young.
    God Bless!

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