About Me,  Family Life,  large family,  motherhood,  Parenting

What my 5 kids taught me in 2018 (I should have taken better notes)

Another retrospective New Year’s post, just what the internet needs! For your enjoyment I think I’ll break it into two installments since said internet has destroyed our collective attention span. You’re welcome.

I sighed this morning, as I leaned over the kitchen counter this morning waiting for my espresso to drizzle out another shot of “sorry you’re not sleeping these days,” and scrolled through my blogfeed reader – remember those? I still use one! (And sometimes I read paper books. Subversive, I know!)

I was reading through another “goals I nailed in 2018” post, mentally congratulating the author but also wondering if maybe I’m doing something wrong.

Gone – for now, at least – are my days of setting lofty S.M.A.R.T. goals in January and having a list of successes to look back over at the year’s end. I can point to a few small things that I’m doing better, to patterns of healing and growth in the emotional and spiritual realm that are no small matter, but not really to things that I’ve accomplished, per se.

Any growth this year has happened to me rather than through me. It has consisted more of accepting and embracing circumstances as they come to pass, and less of setting out to conquer x and actually, well, conquering x.

And it’s not linear. It’s a hot, embarrassing mess. Cut to scene one of me angrily scrubbing kitchen counters with a diaper wipe on one of the interminable days between Christmas and New Year’s Day this year, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand and feeling such irrational anger at the hand we’d been dealt for what felt like the umpteenth year in a row: barfing, fevers, night wakings and not a single family event attended.

Crumpled in the wake of sickness was the calendar of holiday festivities I’d eagerly consulted in my mind’s eye as November melted into December, the anticipation buoying me along through one more school lunch packed, one more pickup, one more last minute costume assembled, one more late night of work.

Soon, the cursor was all but hovering over January 1 and we’d accomplished seemingly nothing over our Christmas “break,” instead trading night shifts and shampooing vomit out of carpets and picking up yes another prescription. (We’re not re-selling these online, we promise.)

I was feeling sorry for myself as I scrubbed that counter, despite having just read a stirring essay by a father of 9 with cancer, whose piece contained a hyperlink to the blog of a mother of 7 with cancer who had died of said cancer. “We can all take a lesson in contentment from the pages of her book; what she would have given for one more day, week, month of ‘ordinary time,’” he wrote.

I paraphrase. All that to say, I’m a sh*t and I know it.

Thank God He is training me via a thousand paper cuts and not a severe and mortal blow. At least not yet.

1. Flexibility

I cheerily responded to an email from my spiritual director in late December (but pre-Christmas, notably) that Advent had been “surprisingly joyful, actually! We’d had some illnesses and some difficulties but it was going to be smooth sailing from here on out and we were so looking forward to Christmas.”

You can probably see where this is going.

The lesson here for me was one I’m always exasperatedly trying to impart to my children. Guys, be flexible! That’s just life in a big family.

“Flexibility!” I apologized to my crew, dipping a washcloth in cool water and laying it on the 3-year-old’s inferno of a forehead and texting our regrets to a long-awaited Christmas party with my other hand.

“Flexibility,” I shrugged, sending Dave solo to 4 pm Mass on Christmas Eve while I sat couch duty with 3 fevers burning and what sounded like an entire infirmary of coughing. The newly Tamiflu’d preschooler lay across my legs like an electric blanket, eyes dull and pitiful.

“Flexibility,” I reminded myself with jaw clenching, running another load of laundry on Christmas Day. And another. And then another.

By the time December 31st rolled around, I was stiff and aching from the effort. Both parents were. My own flexibility exhausted, I emotionally assumed the fetal position, snapping at simple requests and drinking more coffee than was wise or helpful.

I had learned the lesson, or so I thought. I could be flexible. Fun, even! Okay, plan B, we’ll stay home and light all the candles and order pizza!

But flexibility on my terms, that’s what I wanted.

God wanted to equip me, I think, with the superpower of inconvenient flexibility.

That was not on my Amazon wishlist.

And as readily as I can admit that, gosh, that kind of adaptability would sure come in handy leading this big ‘ol family as the mom, my human nature shies away in horror from the work required to acquire it. And so He keeps assigning the reading, sending home the assignments, so to speak. Not because He is an awful taskmaster who wants me to suffer, but because learning this thing will be a profound help to my long term happiness and holiness, not to mention my family’s.

2. Be open to unexpected gifts

Having as many babies as I’ve had has demonstrated to me that every baby is ground zero, every person a new starting line. I’ve gleaned some some time-tested lessons from baby to baby, but each new person who joins the family has necessitated a sort of amnesia of expectations. I have loosely affixed goal posts in my mind, but the new addition is welcome to blow past them in his or her own way. Number one needed a paci attached almost surgically to his person at all times and slept on a tight schedule I could set a watch by; number two was almost physically attached to my person at all times and slept almost never, as far as I can remember.

By the time number five started babbling mama and baba and taking mincing steps all over the house and dropping her second nap all before the age of one, I trimmed my sails of expectation and resigned myself to a child who was determinedly mobile months before any of her siblings were. It wasn’t remarkable in any sense other than this: it was her.

This was simply who she was, and she was revealing herself to me in a way that none of the books or blogs I’d read or even her own siblings could have. I’d mentally steeled myself for the horrifying spectacle that is newborn sleep with four other children in the house. She showed up and slept through the night by week 6. Right now she is contentedly eating mini marshmallows at her high chair beside me and I’m congratulating myself because I did the responsible thing and pre-shredded them for her.

I’m a much better mom for her than I was for her older siblings, simply because I’ve studied more. Learned what hills to die on (sleep, always) and what hills to forfeit to the battering winds of what actually works (this time, bottles). I begged God to make breastfeeding easy for me this time around, and in the reality of Zelie’s circumstances He answered me big time by simply removing it from the picture altogether.

Never rule out the possibility that God wants to answer a prayer, perhaps did answer a prayer in a way you never expected.

(to be continued in part 2)

Just imagine I lysol wiped the entire cart first and there’s an invisible brightly patterned stretchy cart cover lovingly positioned beneath her. And that she’s not barefoot. Voila, firstborn status achieved!


  • jeanette

    You wrote: “I can point to a few small things that I’m doing better, to patterns of healing and growth in the emotional and spiritual realm that are no small matter, but not really to things that I’ve accomplished, per se. Any growth this year has happened to me rather than through me.”

    Think of this: If you had a dozen accomplishments that you had earmarked at the beginning of 2018 as important, but as a person you stayed exactly the same, then how would you view your year? So, allowing oneself to grow (actively or passively) is itself an accomplishment, whether on your part of God’s part.

    You wrote, “I was feeling sorry for myself as I scrubbed that counter, despite having just read a stirring essay by a father of 9 with cancer, whose piece contained a hyperlink to the blog of a mother of 7 with cancer who had died of said cancer. ”

    I think it is important to make a distinction between feeling compassion for or solidarity with the sufferings of others and comparing one’s own sufferings. We can always find someone who is suffering worse than we are, that’s not hard. But to acknowledge our own sufferings for what they are, and not feel guilty because other people suffer “more” is much harder. In examining your own sufferings, you can discern which ones are caused by your own weaknesses or choices and which ones are totally beyond your control. Then you can make a decision about what to do to minimize the sufferings you have control over, and to rely upon God’s help for the ones you do not. That is probably more helpful than just guilting oneself for having comparatively smaller problems than someone else. Because the ones you have control over will be the ones that you use to learn to be a better person through better choices, and the ones you do not have control over will teach you to have greater trust in God. Comparing one’s life to others doesn’t really do either of those things, but it might inspire you to have gratitude in life.

    As for missing Christmas, of course you are going to feel disappointed about “missing” Christmas, but you know it really is more than just one day long…and it sounds like you missed many days of it already, but we are meant to celebrate it. So, when you all reach a state of health again, make a point of doing just that. Even if it is past Candlemas on Feb 2. Have a Christmas season celebration at your home and invite those family members who can make it to join you, and for those who cannot make it, take a group photo at the party and send it to them, or make a group phone call and sing a carol to someone. There are lots of things to do to keep from “missing” Christmas. Be creative. The Church has not yet stopped celebrating the birth of Jesus, you just missed some of your favorite highlights this year!

    Happy, healthy New Year to you and your family! May sicknesses be behind you as the first accomplishment for 2019. ; )

    • jeanette

      I wanted to add one more thought on goal setting. As Catholics, we can grow best through the sacrament of confession: it is an ongoing “self-improvement” plan built into our spiritual life, not motivated by a personal goal, but the pursuit of holiness perpetuated until our death. A really good examination of conscience gives you the material for the work you need to do, and keep doing. It has the added bonus of God’s very real help through grace. And the big motivator for accomplishing these “self-improvements” is that of love. We aren’t doing it only for ourselves, but for love of God, and that will do more to help us “accomplish our goal” than anything else.

  • Karyn

    Is she asleep in a shopping cart? How did you pull that off, lol? Your writing is always just what I need to read on any given day; I look forward to part 2. May the Lord bless you with health and happiness in the new year.

  • Amanda M Teixeira

    Thank you for sharing part 1, looking forward to part 2. I laughed way too much as our Christmas to New Years stretches were so similar…laughing with you in solidarity 🙂 But that truth of being flexible on our terms instead of his? So good and exactly what I too felt called out on by God this last week.

  • Meg Turner

    Love your blog! As a Catholic convert mom with kids in early 20’s, I am so looking forward to your take on teenage years.
    A challenging one for me!
    God bless!

  • Leigh-Anne

    Jenny, thank you for your honest and approachable writing. You are all of us mommas on most days and it’s so refreshing to have those moments shared in a way that is truthful but also always pointing our attention to the higher calling of motherhood. I’m with you in the depths of it all 👊🏻

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